Halfway up a small hillside on day two of the planned 95 miles of St Drostan’s pilgrimage route, dried gorse savaging my feet, thick bushes of it hemming me in, my hands bleeding and way off-piste, I came to a stop.
This was getting interesting.
On day one of the pilgrimage, between Insch and St Drostan’s Well in Aberdour Bay, paths which were clearly marked on the map, turned out to be impassable.
This was day two and approaching Dufftown, 97 miles into my 95 mile run (!) I had lost confidence in the course I’d plotted and decided, foolishly, to follow a very tempting signpost to Aberlour, ‘4 miles’ away.
Big mistake! It wasn’t far now but even 50 metres of thick gorse on tired legs and blistered feet can feel an impossibly long way.
I was fed up. Fed up with the gap between map and reality, fed up with landowners who don’t honour rights of way, fed up with being sore. I even looked accusingly at my shoes as if they were somehow to blame.
‘So what’s the story: cursing, or blessing?’
I imagined this faint, insistent voice as that of the mysterious Drostan, about whom there are few divergent accounts, but who nevertheless left a remarkable legacy in north-east Scotland.
What was the story of this run?
Well, on the night before I set off we had had a simple, beautiful, Evensong in Insch to celebrate the feast of St Drostan and to pray for Running home.
Then the next morning I set off running with members of Insch Trail Running Club, one of whom - Jeni - ran with me all day.
Day one had ended with a lovely meal at the house of some new friends in Old Deer and Saturday began with a wonderfully well-supported fundraising breakfast Karen had organized in Insch.
Two others joined my running and support crew for day two: my infinitely positive pal Sharon and my lovely wife Karen – quite a feat with our five- and three-year olds in tow.
And I knew I was running to another event in Aberlour where the parish church had organised a quiz and raffle to support Running Home, and where, again, new friends would be providing me with food and a hot shower.
Prickly gorse notwithstanding the landscape felt like an open home to me and my journey through it was wreathed with kindness, encouragement and love, as well as bouts of nausea and metatarsal pain
How unlike my journey was to that of so many displaced refugees: bookended by profound loss and violence to begin and with dreadful uncertainty ahead.
All I had had to put up with was gorse, a few waist high in nettles, some limbo dancing through thick bushes and into a water-filled ditch which had me muttering, ‘No, no, no, more please’ while Jeni’s chirpy voice behind me piped up, ‘This is ace!’
Of course it was ace, if I chose to see it that way. That was the lesson of this pilgrimage.
I took one final, leg-shredding leap through gorse onto the forest track which meandered playfully downhill for two miles to our journey’s end. I smiled and doffed my cap to St Drostan as Aberlour came into view.