It had rained, pretty much non-stop, for two and half days. I was squelching across an elevated marshland on Càrn nan Iomairean south of Loch Carron. Every inch of me was soaked. It felt like I was drawing water through the soles of my feet, as well as from the enveloping cloud.
In theory I was following ‘a path’, downloaded straight from the OS map onto my GPS watch. But there was nothing recognisably path-like to follow.
For kilometres I had hacked through dense forest up a steep hillside, interlinking branches slapping me with contempt as I struggled upwards, while hundreds of vividly-coloured toadstools weathered my intrusion with other-worldly merriment. Once on the exposed top I trod carefully from mossy mound to occasional bare rock to avoid deeper pools and bogs, sticking as close to the blue line on my watch, my only means of navigation. As ghostly forms of misty vapour rose around me, I recalled the famous refrain from Ecclesiastes: ‘Hebel [vapour], hebel, all is hebel.’
Then, after two hours I was out of the mist, and standing in front of a gate. I struggled with the rusty, unyielding catch before noticing that the fence either side of it was collapsed and I just needed to step over! This rather random trace of another’s presence, long past, gave me the boost I needed. Three hours later the sun finally came out just in time for me to climb, with new vigour, the 600-metre Beallach na Ba road pass over to my final destination of Applecross, where St Maelrubha had his ‘Sanctuary’, and may be buried.
With many of the saints’ lives, it is hard to know what to do with the legacy they have bequeathed. Maelrubha’s life is shrouded in mystery. I started running on Berneray at a mound that may have been an ancient church dedicated to Maelrubha, but even the mound was barely discernible in the morning light. The wind-swept, rain-soaked church of St Maelrubha on Loch Eynort, that I visited early on the second morning of my three day 137 mile run, is long-since ruined, with birdsong the only worship rising from its sanctuary. The well at Ashaig bears witness to Maelrubha’s reputation for healing but no one gathers here for restoration any longer. We have little more than the occasional rusty gate in a renatured landscape of faith.
Nevertheless these traces encourage me, as did the gate, reminding me that though I forge my own unique journey, its choices as well as its unbidden circumstances, every unique story is shared with ancient pioneers, as well with living friends, such as the generous people who had accommodated me on Skye and in Berneray, and my lovely crew. The paths we share may sometimes be practically invisible and demand improvisation – and on this run that was certainly the case – that’s the nature of the Way we seek to follow. Honouring the traces of those who went before, visible in the landscape, or invisible in prayer and thought, are crucial to the journey of humbling oneself and keeping despair at bay.
Yes we are vapour, our journey is brief, our works transient. Running home 2019 is a vapour. And yet, somehow, this work of peace and justice is in harmony with that of the ancients, and with that of Iraqi Christians serving their neighbours against the odds today.
Together these vapours become, not just passing mist, but holy incense and a means of encountering Divine presence in the world. To hasty eyes, one lonely, functionless gate is ‘meaningless, meaningless’; to me in the midst of the swamp, it was a reason to hope against hope.
Special thanks to Tiffany Maberley, Hector and FloraAnn Macdonald, and Rev Dr Rory Macleod for accommodating Mark on Skye, and to the Skye Bridge Fish and Chip shop for the donation of supper for him and his crew.