Friday, 20 February 2015

Gunn's modern pilgrimage

On Wednesday 11 March, during my Following the River mini-residency with Dunbeath Heritage Centre, I’ll be joining the Helmsdale-based arts organisation Timespan on a walk to the monastic site at Ballachly just west of Dunbeath. For Timespan this walk is part of their project 58° North -A Modern Pilgrimage Around the Globe, a journey to discover the creative communities which share with Helmsdale their latitude, coastal setting and population size. For me, this collaboration is an opportunity to explore the ideas in Neil Gunn’s Highland River from a slightly different angle.

Though few people use the term pilgrimage, a lot of Gunn’s critics allude to this idea when they discuss his novel Highland River. In my view, the journey of the adult Kenn is a pilgrimage as the main character senses an immense urge to find the source of the river - ‘the source of being, of all being’ as Dairmid Gunn writes in the introduction to the novel - and this journey is - what this author calls - positive and life-enhancing.

More then ten years ago, when I still lived in The Netherlands, I walked parts of the Way of St. James to Santiago de Compestela in the northeast of Spain. I carefully mapped my route from my hometown to the Spanish city, read many accounts of people who had done so before me and learned about the key cathedral towns en route. On my way, I delighted in visiting churches and monasteries, and encountering signs of the scallop shell that affirmed I was on the right way. And I was in good company. Above all, my memories of the pilgrimage are infused with the kindness of people who recognised me as a pilgrim and with the conversations with fellow pilgrims who shared my path for a few minutes, hours, sometimes even several days.

A few weeks ago I read an account by Celeste Ray about pilgrimages to Ireland’s holy wells in Landscapes Beyond Land, a book edited by the anthropologist Arnar Arnason and colleagues. She describes how Irish communities visit holy wells to venerate the saints associated with them. On the way to the wells these pilgrims visit stations to pray. At the actual well, pilgrims leave votives such as strips of cloth tied to nearby trees and bushes  as a plea to the saint for health and wellbeing for themselves or those close to them. Similar to pilgrims on the Way of St. James, pilgrims to these holy wells follow an established route along which they carry out specific  religious practices as have many people done before them.

It is not hard to see that Kenn’s journey to the source of the river is different from the above religious pilgrimages. I choose, however, to call Kenn’s walk a pilgrimage too. That said, for Kenn the pilgrimage is a personal and his destination is one of personal choice rather than one carrying religious significance. Whereas religious pilgrimage is undertaken for the fulfilment of some prayer, Kenn’s - and my own walk to the source of Gormack Burn - is a journey of discovery and reflection. I would even argue that the path of personal growth involved has become more important than actually reaching the destination. What’s more, the pilgrimage started long before Kenn embarked on the actual walk as it was the strength he derived from his childhood memories of the Highland river when he was in the trenches during the World War I, that ultimately urged him to embark on his walk to the source of the river. From my own pilgrimage along the Way of St. James I’ve learned that the discovery and reflection related to pilgrimage not only precedes and coincides with the physical journey, but also extends well beyond the arrival at one’s physical destination.   

I’m interested in learning more about Timespan’s understanding of pilgrimage in the context of their 58° North project. If you want to join us in our conversation on Wednesday 11 March, please email Jacquie Aitken at

Copyright text and image Petra Vergunst

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