Modern Pilgrimage in the North: where to visit and what to see?

Posted by True Highlands in Kit and Caboodle | 1 comments

The idea of modern pilgrimage can be explored through visiting special places where we live, in Scotland and around the globe on our own journeys of reflection and discovery. It can also be a spiritual or creative journey or another experience.

Timespan, in Helmsdale, has recently been exploring pilgrimage and monastic life in the north through research and discussion, as well as a programme of walks, talks and trips. Participants have also been asked to contribute their favorite pilgrimage places in a series of interactive mapping activities.

As society becomes ever busier is there a place for a modern pilgrimage in your life?

In preparation for the next phase of Modern Pilgrimage throughout 2015, Timespan has been mapping the area’s significant early monastic sites and events and it is hoped that this will encourage visitors, to the area, to explore monastic north and enjoy time for contemplation, relaxation and creativity. An accompanying historical narrative will include a timeline with suggested modern pilgrimage routes to follow.

Monastic North in brief
It is thought that Christianity made an appearance in Scotland in the late 4th century AD when St. Ninian, a native of Galloway, travelled north as far as Sutherland and Orkney. He is commemorated in many place names, including Navidale, to the north of Helmsdale, meaning “the Saint’s dale”. The early chapel was burnt down in the 16th century, but the cemetery still commands a stunning position surmounting a steep sided mound overlooking the bay below and outwards to the North Sea.

Navidale Cemetry by Jean Macdonald

Two centuries later, it is thought that St. Donan, an Irish missionary, established a chapel and teaching house on the east coast at Kildonan near Helmsdale, in the heart of Pictland. The presence of a cross inscribed stone near Kildonan Church may indicate the boundary of an early monastic site. In the summer months the church is accessible to visitors.

In contrast, a carved stone found at Borrobol in Kildonan, on display at Timespan, shows the enigmatic symbolic artwork of the pagan Picts, i.e. the back quarters of a boar and a crescent and V-rod. This stone was carved around the 7th century AD, when the early Christian missionaries were beginning to make an impact in northern Pictland.

At this time, marauding Norsemen used the route along the river valley at Helmsdale to penetrate further west on annual quests of pillage and destruction. Many monasteries were burned to the ground and their treasures stolen. The presence of Norse place names indicates settlement at a later date.

Timespan has developed an app trail, for iPhone and Android, along the Kildonan Strath and visitors can learn more about the area’s fascinating history virtually or by following a set of ten waymarkers along the magnificent landscape of Kildonan.

The constant threat from the Norse may have led to St. Donan leaving the east coast to set up a new mission on the west on the Isle of Eigg. It was here that St. Donan and his followers were tragically martyred in 617AD at the hands of the Picts.

In the late 7th century, St. Maelrubha of Applecross, made a greater impact on Pictland. It is thought that he was rebuilding on the ruins of St. Donan’s missionary work among the northern Picts. The distribution of  St. Maelrubha dedications correspond to St. Donan’s in northern Scotland.

By the mid 13th century, the county of Sutherland was incorporated into the Bishopric of Caithness and the Abbot of Scone was appointed canon of the church of Kildonan. A network of northern pilgrimage routes were frequented by holy men and warlords and many places were dedicated after saints.

Some of these pilgrimage destinations were to the shrines of St. Duthus in Tain, St. Gilbert in Dornoch and St. Magnus in Orkney. It is hoped that further research will shed light on these and other sea and land pilgrimage routes in the north.

To assist these weary travellers the 5th Earl of Sutherland built a hospital and chapel, dedicated to St. John the Baptist, at ‘Hebnisden’ (Helmsdale?). It was gifted to the Cistercian Abbey at Kinloss, Moray in 1362. This generous act may have been prompted by the Earl’s own personal pilgrimage to Canterbury with his wife in the same year.

The Earl’s ancestors, who originated from Moray when the Sutherland Earldom was created a few centuries earlier, established a long lasting family bond between the two areas and a relatively short sea passage of four hours. The coarse white woollen robes of the Cistercian monks may have been a familiar sight at the hospital Helmsdale on special visits or occasions. Timespan recently organised a return pilgrimage to Kinloss to visit the abbey.

The earthworks of the hospital building and surrounding boundary wall can still be seen in Helmsdale Graveyard near the river mouth. A well dedicated to St. John is located directly across the river accessed by a coastal footpath. These sites are included in Helmsdale village trail.


A later site includes a chapel built at Easter Garty, just south of Helmsdale for Margaret Baillie, Countess of Sutherland in the late 15th century. It appears on a map dated 1774 and was probably demolished by 1800.

There are many more monastic sites worth visiting all over the north and Timespan will be developing new tourist maps in 2015 to encourage visitors to learn more about and explore monastic north for themselves!

A Modern Pilgrimage around the Globe in 2015
Join us on a journey of discovery with our own Northern identity and the ambition to learn from others who share the same latitude at its heart. We would like to invite you to join us on our next Modern Pilgrimage. We will be drawing a circle around the globe on the 58o latitude in search of creative communities that are located close to the sea with similar populations to Helmsdale in Sutherland. This is where our journey of discovery begins.
Can we re-write our history? Can we position ourselves on the southern edge of North?

The future for Monastic North
We would like to hear from anyone interested in continuing the research into monastic north in 2015. Please email: archive@timespan.org.uk or tel. 01431 821327

Jacquie Aitken, Project Manager, April 2015

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Comments (1)
  1. jane Coll says:

    i wonder if you are aware of the work done in Caithness by a small group who have designed six circular trails linking the named sites in the county. Details can be found at http://www.wickstferguschurch.org.uk/page16.html

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