Pilgrimage Routes

One of the most significant catalysts for forcing people from all walks of life to travel the country and beyond in the medieval period was to visit holy shrines and seek divine intervention in some aspect of peoples’ lives. The need to visit shrines to invoke some Holy response resulted in huge portions of the population traversing the countryside and whole industries springing up to support and make money from these people. Most obviously the religious orders managing the shrines milked the traffic themselves selling merchandise branded with the appropriate Saint but all along the road networks were hostels and shelters where pilgrims were able to rest overnight and eat on the way to whichever shrine was most relevant to their particular issue. Pilgrims were penitent, putting themselves through an arduous ordeal in order that a Saint would intervene directly in their life; the more arduous the experience the bigger the intervention and so people often travelled very long distances in order to generate a bigger effect on their lives.

While there were no pilgrim specific routes in Scotland as they simply used the existing road network to get to their destination as quickly as possible, there are many remnants of medieval roads left in Scotland that were certainly used by Pilgrims. Medieval roads were rarely built up unless causeways were needed to cross boggy ground so it can be difficult to trace these roads but proximity to known sites important to pilgrims and medieval bridges that funnelled traffic are useful aids in identifying some of these.

Medieval pilgrimage was a heavily ritualised practice with participants immediately marking themselves out as different from everyone else in society by wearing different clothes – a pilgrimage uniform of heavy cloak, a wide brimmed hat decorated with any pilgrimage badges collected so far, a wooden staff and a small satchel called a scrip. Pilgrims often lived frugally and so adopting a common dress had the practical outcome of signalling to would-be robbers that there was little to steal but it also had the symbolic outcome of marking the pilgrim out from normal society. Going on a pilgrimage was a liminal event in the same way that taking bodies on funerary processions was – people exited normal society through ritual, continued in a rite of transition until they reached the shrine and then partook in rituals such as praying, processing round the shrine, touching the shrine or even crawling into the tomb base to get closer to the shrine. All of this would have been augmented by exotic incense, dramatic statuary and bright colours, which would altogether have heightened the sense of ritual.

All classes of people were keen to perform a pilgrimage as everyone had reason to invoke divine intervention. Royal Pilgrimage in Scotland had quite strong support from two very different monarchs. Robert the Bruce was well known for visiting the shrine at Whithorn in search for a cure for leprosy (as Whithorn was famed for) while some 200 years later, James IV was very keen on pilgrimage visiting Whithorn and Tain in a bid to get remission from sin for his part in the coup against his father. He was also said to have worn an iron belt throughout his adult life as penitence.

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