Because of you, just after Ultramarathon 5, we passed the £20,000 fundraising mark for Running home! Thank you so much.
You’re helping our Christian partners in Iraq support displaced and refugee Iraqis get job training and support that will enable them to rebuild their lives and communities.
My fifth ultramarathon pilgrimage, the first of two dedicated to St Maelrubha, began in Bettyhill on the far north coast of Scotland, where the River Naver empties into Torrisdale Bay.
The 110 mile southward path began early on Thursday morning, only 33 hours after finishing the St Magnus Way on Orkney.
Video evidence suggests I rather limped my way from the support vehicle, and I didn’t feel quite ready for the day’s 46 miles of varied terrain and a steady climb for the first 30 miles. My right quads were not exactly painful, except when touched, just refusing to perform normally. Beginning any downhill made that leg wobble slightly, not unlike some of the newborn lambs I was passing in the fields of Strathnaver, the fertile lands alongside the river.
Like theirs, my legs began to find a surety of step, although it took me a few miles. At one point a herd of red deer a field away regarded me with bemusement before showing me what running with power and grace looks like. I began to laugh, and as mile gave way to mile, that joy stayed on my face. With clear blue skies and a gentle breeze, quite unlike the relentless barrage of Orkney, or my self-inflicted struggle to Lindisfarne, I finally felt freedom in movement.
As I found an unselfconscious rhythm I could begin to attend to the landscape. Strathnaver was telling me two kinds of story.
The first was a clearly articulated tale of traumatic displacement, recalled in dozens of ruined shielings (mountain huts). The evening before I had visited the Strathnaver Museum to learn about the Highland Clearances in this area. Dozens of small settlements were cleared of crofting tenants to make way for more profitable sheep, with hundreds of refugees making their way to the New World, or to Scottish cities. Some didn’t survive, with one woman burning in her home as the landlord’s men torched it. 1819, precisely two centuries ago, was ‘the year of the burnings’. The poignancy of this, as I ran onwards to raise money for refugees in Iraq, was acute. How the wheel turns.
The second more ancient story was only hinted at, the landscape yielding only fragments upon which my imagination could set to work. Between (physically and temporally) the recent scars of the Clearances and the most ancient, Neolithic remains, I was looking for hints of St Maerubha who died, possibly down at his base in Applecross, in 722. The route I’d chosen followed Strathnaver primarily because of the chance to see the Red Priest’s Stone. It stands a foot high with a Pictish-era cross on it in the midst of an ancient burial ground. It struck me that when Maelrubha was travelling across northern Scotland, the opposition he’d have faced would have been much more significant than in Baghdad at the time… A few decades after he died, the Abbasid court in Baghdad included Christian, Jewish, and Muslim scholars working with and on Greek science for the caliph. Indeed, how the wheel turns.
Maelrubha must have been incredibly courageous and, thinking about the distances over which his traces are found, energetic.
But he is also renowned for healing. The evening before I’d heard of a young friend of a friend who was due to undergo critical surgery as I set off on my run. I had committed in my mind to pray for them at the Red Priest’s Stone. It wasn’t easy to find, despite closely plotting my route, but I located the stone and was able to pray there.
After a steep climb I came to the Crask Inn, a pub gifted a few years ago to the Scottish
Episcopal Church, lying on an exposed, elevated plain with views westward to Ben More Assynt and northwest to Foinaven. Lunch followed a wonderful, simple Maundy Thursday Eucharist service. (Foot washing was, perhaps mercifully bearing in mind my condition, not on the order of service.) Fortified I completed the day’s running in Lairg that evening, at the Parish Church used, appropriately, by the Episcopal St Maelrubha’s Congregation.
It was their priest, James Currall, who prayed me on my way the next morning, Good Friday. I pulled up with calf pain about 500 metres down the road. Once again, I was quite unsure how the day’s 40-odd miles would go, knowing that the terrain would be much more challenging and remote. And once again, a few miles in, the pain subsided and I could run, at least down gentle hills and on the rare flat sections. I thought of healer-saint Maelrubha, and I thought of the immense capacity of the human body to heal itself.
Good Friday became a hot, sunny day. I had to radio my support team to pick up some sun cream, which I’d hardly expected to need in April in the Highlands. The tarmac to Oykel Bridge was a little unforgiving, but rising from there to a sun-soaked Glen Einig all the joy of the previous day returned. I happened across my first bothy, a preserved schoolhouse the size of a shed at Duag Bridge, before climbing to the crystal waters of Loch an Daimh from where I caught my first sight of the dramatic silhouette of An Teallach on the horizon. I ran towards that impressive skyline for the rest of the day. There was one last, steep climb but I arrived at Dundonnell (with a stowaway tick) feeling a sense of deep restoration behind my weariness. After Tuesday’s Passion-week intensity, I felt as if Easter Sunday’s joy had arrived early.
The last day of this ultramarathon, on Holy Saturday, had been the subject of more attention and detailed planning than any other, even though it was intended to be a shorter day.
That was because I’d be unsupported all day due to the remote terrain. The run justified that planning in the sense that, had the conditions been inclement, it could have been impossible to ford the river feeding Loch na Sealga and the boggy conditions would have punished any navigation errors in low visibility. We had a dry morning, and I reached the lochan at the highest point of the Maelrubha route before noon. I phoned my Dad whose 70th birthday it was, thankful for family and for him in particular, not least being the one who introduced me to the hills as a child.
By the time I began the descent, tiredness had caught up with me, perhaps in the knowledge that I was nearly done, but a couple of hours later I was running along the River Maree into Poolewe, my final destination.
I waded in the river on my way, recalling that people used to be dunked in Loch Maree to cure madness, before arriving at the Episcopal church of St Maelrubha where a Catholic service was underway.
The pilgrimage was not finished, however. I still felt very much ‘on pilgrimage’ when rested at the Gairloch Manse, having accepted hospitality from minister Stuart Smith and his wife Elspeth. I felt ‘on pilgrimage’ when I greeted the news of Easter with his church community on the beach the next morning, and when I worshipped at St Maelrubha’s shortly thereafter. I was ‘on pilgrimage’ when I was on the road with my support driver Andrew, and as we shared in an evening service at the beautiful Dornoch Cathedral on Easter evening.
I remember at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostella there’s a Chrismon (‘chi ro’) on the wall in which the customary alpha and omega are inverted because, it asserts, every ending is a beginning. For the first time on Running Home, the joy of the pilgrimage had far outweighed the pain, and as I turned to face the mundane but significant challenges of the next few weeks of everyday life, I realised that normality might be a heavier burden than the first St Maelrubha pilgrimage had been. I hoped that I could draw nourishment from my days on the road. And I recalled a prayer of David McNeish on Orkney where I ran my fourth ultramarathon, which ends:
Speak to us, in stillness and in motion,
The revelation that in every beginning,
God has already begun.**
**Credit: David McNeish, ‘In Every Beginning’.