On Friday 16th September, a group of 31 church members and their friends gathered at the church for the start of a pilgrimage that would take us from the shores of Loch Lomond to the legendary island of Iona. There was some trepidation about the weather as we set off, but as we settled into our luxury coach under the care of Kenneth and our coach driver John, spirits were high.
The first part of the journey took us to the village of Luss on the shores of Loch Lomond, famous as the location for the TV series “Take the High Road”. Our destination, however, was not the scenes made famous by the TV show; rather, it was Luss Parish Church. There we were hosted by Rev. Dane Sherrard, Minister of Luss and Arrochar churches.
During our visit, Rev Sherrard was ably assisted by the Rev. Bill Hannah, formerly minister at Muirkirk. Dane proved to be a remarkable character. His long, curly, grey hair and abundant energy and enthusiasm disguise the fact that he is past normal retirement age. Although at an age when he could be expected to start taking things easy, his love for the work of the Gospel in Luss and Arrochar prompted him to volunteer to continue in his parish ministry. He began by telling us about the pioneering work of Saint Kessog, who established a missionary base at Luss in 510AD, more than 50 years before Columba arrived in Iona.
Following Kessog’s martyrdom some 10 years later, Luss became a place of pilgrimage and Kessog was, for a period, patron saint of Scotland. In the intervening years, Luss has been changed from a place of pilgrimage to a tourist destination, with around 250,000 visitors a year coming to a village with a population of 120. As well as a popular tourist destination, the church is a popular place for weddings with almost 200 weddings, blessings and re-dedications being performed every year. Dane’s vision was to challenge visitors to not merely be tourists, but to become pilgrims. To that end the church has embarked on a number of ambitious projects, including a major refurbishment of the church itself; a major bridge building project by the Royal Engineers; a complete transformation of the glebe conducted by teams of visiting youngsters from Scotland, the rest of the UK and abroad; and the creation of a pilgrimage centre.
In addition to all this, the church has taken advantage of the equipment installed to film and broadcast weddings, to allow them to conduct web broadcasts of their Sunday services which are now viewed in around 50 countries around the world. How all of this was accomplished by a combination of faith and visionary zeal would almost require a book, let alone a couple of paragraphs, but suffice to say that the inspiring vision of Rev. Sherrard and the wonderful hospitality which we received in the manse left us feeling that our pilgrimage was off to a flying start.
We moved on from Luss along the side of Loch Lomond and on into Argyllshire, before long arriving at Oban. There we boarded the ferry “Isle of Mull” for the 45 minute sail to Craignure on Mull, location of the Isle of Mull hotel which was to be our home for the weekend. The hotel is a modern spa hotel. There we enjoyed wonderful sea views as well as the food and facilities which the hotel offers.
Saturday the 17th woke to bright sunshine, in answer, no doubt, to a great many prayers for good weather for our trip to Iona. We boarded the bus, bright and early, at 8:30 AM, for the 30 mile journey to Fionnphort, the base for the Iona ferry. Although the journey was conducted on single track roads, the spectacular scenery made it a most memorable trip. Among the sights we witnessed were one of Mull’s famous white-tailed sea eagles; several spectacular rainbows (which proved to be a feature throughout or visit); and views of some of the smaller islands, including Staffa. The sea crossing proved to be a little lively, but after 10 minutes we set foot on Iona.
The short walk from the village of Baile Mòr to Iona Abbey took us past the ruins of the 13th century nunnery and the burial ground of many former Scottish kings and chieftains in the grounds of St. Oran’s chapel. Next to this chapel lies the cathedral itself, although the existing buildings are much later than the wooden buildings constructed by St. Columba and his followers, of which no trace now remains. The existing cathedral was a Benedictine monastery dating from several centuries after Columba and has been extensively restored to its former glory. It is a great encouragement to think that the Christian faith has been rooted in Iona for almost 15 centuries. During that time the outward observance of the faith has changed from the Celtic church, through different monastic orders to today’s ecumenical community, but fundamentally it remains the same faith, reminding us that we are part of a huge Christian family spread through the centuries and across the world.
Following a fascinating, guided tour of the abbey, we met together in Michael’s Chapel which is adjacent to the main abbey. This small chapel is very simply furnished with only four rows of pews arranged either side of a simple table. The plain, whitewashed walls were lit by candles and the sunlight streaming in through the windows. The chapel was just large enough to contain our group, but the combination of its small size and high ceiling seemed to create the perfect acoustics, and the hymn singing was as powerful and melodic as that of a much larger congregation in a much bigger building. This communion service proved to be the highlight of the visit for many, if not all, of us.
Following the service, we were free to spend some free time exploring Iona for ourselves before setting off on a much calmer return crossing back to Mull. Again we enjoyed the incredible Mull scenery on our way back to the hotel. Following another fine evening meal at the hotel, we were able to take over one of the hotel lounges for a sing song. There was a great deal of enthusiastic participation both in singing and dancing, so much so that I began to worry that my repertoire of songs might run out! Fortunately, we finished just in time and retired to bed, in preparation for our trip to Tobermory on the Sunday.
Sunday morning proved to be, if anything, even brighter than Saturday. We set off for the twenty-odd mile journey along what are deemed to be “A” roads in Mull (I think we would have some trouble in seeing a single track road as an “A” road in Ayrshire!).
On arrival in Tobermory, our bus driver vey skilfully negotiated the narrow streets of the town to drop us off at Tobermory Parish Church for the morning service. Here we found yet another remarkable manifestation of modern Christian life and worship. The church, which is part of a group of four churches, has had no minister for some time. Normally they have visiting preachers, but, unfortunately, none were available for that day. Undeterred, the service went ahead, conducted by members of the congregation who also read a sermon supplied by the church’s interim moderator. As we enjoyed tea and coffee in the church hall afterwards, it was good to compare notes with the Tobermory congregation and we were given a good deal of food for thought about how our own Christian service might have to adapt to changing times.
A short walk down the hill took us into the centre of Tobermory with its picturesque frontage, made famous by the children’s TV series “Balamory”. More shops were perused, more teas and coffees consumed and even the odd fish supper was enjoyed before it was time to return to the hotel for our evening meal. Once again we were able to use the hotel lounge where we had a Scottish quiz and another sing-song.
Monday morning arrived much too quickly as we reached the time to set off on our journey home. However, we still had the opportunity to spend some time in Oban and later in Inverary before arriving back in Prestwick at around 6:00 PM.
Looking back, this trip proved to be much deeper than a mere holiday weekend. It was, I suppose, what a pilgrimage is supposed to be. A time to think about what the Christian faith means to us individually and how we can live out the faith in our own time and place. It was also a time of new and renewed friendships. It was remarkable how many people who were apparently strangers to each other, discovered they had unexpected, close connections through other people and places. All In all, a memorable experience and one to be repeated regularly.