Narrating the 189 miles of my St Columba pilgrimage is to tell three distinct stories.
The first is a story of Scotland’s landscape in its incredible diversity.
It begins at the ‘Iona of the East’, Inchcolm Abbey, in a choppy Firth of Forth, with Edinburgh Castle clearly visible over the water. I ran north through the lowlands of Fife and Kinross, into Perthshire and its crescendo of hills across the Highland Boundary fault, through the dramatic scenery of the West Highlands to Loch Etive, then down through breathtaking Mull, to Iona.
Running, even at my modest (slow!) long-distance pace, I was taken by the sense of this landscape as an organism, the tissue of mud, rock and pasture held together by the sinews of path, disused railways, and road, and nourished by arteries and capillaries of water above and below ground.
The more I ran through it – along its roads and forest trails, through its dark tunnels and sunlit fields, over its hills and beside its lochs – the more I felt it shaping me, as if it was the one doing the moving.
I bore the salt of the sea on my skin, black mud through which I’d squelched hours ago, water from forded rivers, and scratches and bites from smaller lives growing in, and being nourished by, the same landscape.
This was a kind of ‘emplacement’, a clear sense of my dependence upon my environment and of belonging to it. Against this heightened awareness, the horror of displacement became clearer and more vivid to me.
Violent men forcing people from their homes, as in northern Iraq, is the terrible outcome of a process that begins with division and confinement, creating no-go zones, erecting walls and fences, laying minefields, stealing people’s water and other resources, polluting their air and soil, and finally denying them the ability to eke out a minimal existence in the land they call home by making them refugees.
The second story is an embodied one.
It is a story of vulnerability and uncertainty as I set off still sore from my earlier journey, quickly becoming aware of the quite rapid rate at which I begin to tire on the first day. It is a story of erratic emotions induced by tiredness: I saw my family 35 miles into day one, with my three-year old telling me, ‘Come in the car Daddy, come home, have a shower!’ How I wished I could! Instead I just broke a little inside as they drove off.
It is a story of joy with soft rain falling on my face; the misery of wet clothes rubbing skin raw; the energy of warm sun on my back and the inertia of stiffness after even the briefest break; the peace of solitude as I run through Auchenfree. And the sheer loneliness of being stopped dead with shin splints in Glen Kinglass, unsure how I will make it another five miles, let alone another fifty. I couldn’t have done it without the humble stick I found by the roadside, knobbly, crooked and just what I needed.
We are fragile creatures, yet powerful; glorious, yet needy.
In the light of my own near-brokenness, each person I passed doing normal, ‘dwelling’ things, seemed god-like to me: the high-vis jackets building above Loch Etive, the bedraggled walkers near Bridge of Orchy, the toddler walking with his mother in woods near Dunfermline, the bearded cottager at Ardtalnaig, the seafood girl in Fionnphort.
I called to mind their Iraqi brothers and sisters, returning to the hope of this simple ‘at-home-ness’ this year.
To say these Iraqis have ‘human rights’ sounds hollow and inadequate: they have a simple, profound need to live well and without fear which, if met, will make them too shine like stars.
The third story is about dependence on others helping me in all sorts of ways.
Having hit my emotional and physical limit with the Loch Etive shin splints I could not have finished this run without the sustaining involvement of my support crew. I spend very little time with my crew, but they are there - 24/7 - doing their best to keep me well and moving forward: not a simple task.
I run along trails over high ridges while they take the longer low roads. But they are always there, putting aside any vehicle- or logistics-related stresses to manage me. A day after the agony of Loch Etive, when I thought I might have to stop completely, I was only 20km short of the Iona Ferry. This felt more like a gift than an achievement.
Strangers on the road make a big difference too.
One woman saw me hobble past her house in Glen Lochay. She drove after me to check I was ok – ‘You looked a bit wobbly on your feet!’ – and gave me an energy gel and some snacks. I didn’t consume either for some time, but felt immediately energised by her concern and encouragement. ‘We’ll send a donation!’ one couple in Pennyghael shouted after me adding extra zip to my next mile’s running. I took heart from messages of support on social media, conversations on the phone with family, and from knowing that the totaliser was going up. THANK YOU!
On Sunday morning, speaking at Iona Abbey with around 250 worshippers, I had the feeling of being surrounded by a large praying community celebrating the feast of Columba as well as Pentecost. I wondered whether St Columba and his companions could have achieved what they did had they not been so conscious of invisible others with whom they shared communion.
Does this awareness help our Christian partners in Iraq persist in the face of seemingly hopeless odds?
Columba was said to be a quiet, intense, and powerful personality deeply committed to the service of love. 'Be at peace', he encouraged his companions, 'and have genuine love among yourselves. God the comforter of all good will be your helper.'
I coveted his faith. With his eyes I felt little, fragile and very weathered, but useful like my stick, and wholly at home.