A few kilometres short of Fort William, 45 miles into day two of this pilgrimage, a runner approached me on the Caledonian Canal towpath, greeting me as he passed. I envied his effortless running form and brisk pace. My feet were barely leaving the ground they felt so heavy. Twenty minutes later he approached me from the other direction: ‘How far have you come?’ he asked.
The day before I had completed a mostly sunny 42 miles from St Moluag’s burial place in Rosemarkie to an elevated spot on the Great Glen Way called Balbeg.
But this was Monday and I had squelched some 45 miles through heavy rain via Invermoriston, Fort Augustus, and the disused railway path along Loch Oich and Loch Lochy.
As thunder echoed in the next valley my mood had begun to slump.
He slowed his pace and we talked for a while about running. ‘Would a cup of tea spur you on?’ I told him I doubted I’d be able to start again if I stopped. Undeterred he ran ahead to his boat and before I knew it I was sipping hot tea on the move and feeling a whole lot better. Thank you Donald.
This was just one of several human encounters - blessings - on this pilgrimage. I was literally blessed at Fortrose and Inverness Cathedrals which left me with a sense that I was running on behalf of all the churches of the north.
A conversation with holidaymakers in Drumnadrochit restored my sense of gratitude at being able, rather than having, to do this.
Gareth my support ‘crew’ running with me for a kilometre around Loch Lundavra was just pure fun and proof that running can be quite contagious!
And the donation of an espresso at the Holly Tree Hotel Kentallen, definitely bought me an extra mile or two"
Becoming more aware of, and reconciled to, my own limitations makes me more relaxed about taking time out to engage with people, rather than ploughing on at all costs. The opportunity to enjoy the patient encouragement of those with literal or metaphorical ‘fresh legs’ for me sits as one with the hope that exercising my freedom to run all over the country may be of some benefit to Iraqis who’ve suffered the violent and cruel loss of freedom even to live in their own home.
This pilgrimage didn’t end at a shrine or a plot of land associated with a saint but with me being greeted on Lismore by the human successor, or Coarb, of St Moluag: a flesh and blood connection to the Sixth Century saint.
Fr. Niall showed me the key sites - St Moluag’s Bay, St Moluag’s Chair, the remains of his Cathedral, as well as the astonishing ‘Bachuil Mòr’, or Great Staff, which may also date back as far as the sixth century. It meant even more when he prayed for my sick father-in-law, invoking his forebear’s reputation for healing. Fr. Niall’s sense of the responsibility that comes with being the saint’s successor was powerful.
I have deliberately chosen to approach Running home as a series of pilgrimages, rather than an endurance challenge.
I want this project to connect the struggles of ancient saints, today’s Iraqi refugees, the countless souls who have trod journeys of pilgrimage and displacement in both lands over centuries and, of course, you and me.
I appreciate the grandeur of the landscape. I value the historical sites and artefacts. I even relish (sometimes!) the struggle against impossible weather conditions.
But really it’s the lives encountered along these trails and roads, sometimes evoked in stories and histories, and sometimes the likes of Donald, literally crossing our path, that drum home to me our interdependence and that each of us has a place in a remarkable and epic shared drama. From Donald’s cup of tea, and Fr. Niall’s hospitality, through St Moluag’s legacy of healing, your donations, and my weary plod, to Iraqis returning home – and from them, to who, to where, to what?
Our shared journey continues to eternity.
I may have not really felt it, as the heavens opened near Gairlochy on Monday, but in retrospect a pilgrim is never entirely alone.