Sacred Places Journal
2 October, 2001: Wigtown and Whithorn: Pilgrimage Revived
On the way to Wigtown and Whithorn, it's a beautiful drive through the gently rolling countryside of Dumfries and Galloway, alternating sun and rain. The stone-fenced hills are dotted with sheep, and we hear on the radio that two new areas of England have been declared free of foot and mouth disease. We had seen warnings in the western Isles, but were told there had been no cases there. Dumfries-Galloway (map and photos) was the hardest hit area of Scotland, being just over the border from the plagued Lake District.
At Wigtown, we walk down a leafy path to Martyr's Stake, marking the site of the execution by drowning of two local women on 11 May, 1685. Margaret M'Laughan, 63, and Margaret Wilson, 18, were tied to stakes until the tidal Bladnoch River rose over their heads, because of their sympathies with the Covenanter Movement, which for 50 years defied the claim of the king to be the head of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Further, they refused to submit to the introduction of Episcopalian bishops or the use of written liturgy in their services.
Locally billeted government troupes pursued these rebels when they met illegally on the moors and in the hills for worship. Some were shot as they fled, others were taken prisoner, tried, and sentenced to execution or banishment into slavery.
Lashed to the Martyr's Stake - but only in danger of being covered by marsh grass.
The Martyr's Stake is now on dry land some distance from the bay, as a new channel was cut in 1817 to allow a deeper entrance into the harbour.
We take the boardwalk across the broad, flat sea-marsh meadow to the stake. Saltmarsh grasses now rustle at its base in place of the lapping waves.
In the churchyard just up the hill, we find the graves of the two Margarets. Such a peaceful resting place on this lovely autumnal day.
After some winding around charming country lanes between cow-filled pastures, we arrive atop the appropriately named Windy Hill for a stunning view of the bay. As we struggle to keep from being blown over, we reach the obelisk monument erected in 1885, as it declares, in memory of the noble army of martyrs in Galloway and other parts of Scotland by whom during the age of persecution our Religion and Liberties as now established were secured and as a lesson to prosperity never to lose or abuse these glorious privileges planted by their labours rooted in their suffering and watered in their blood.
I am reminded of the lad from the rental-car agency this morning who said he was "dying to get away" from his small town, then added, "But you can't lose touch with your roots. Never lose touch."
At Whithorn (Whit-horn), whipped by the wind, I grip my notebook close to me to copy from the sign:
Whithorn Pilgrim Way. Whithorn was the major focus of pilgrimage in lowland Scotland, rivaling Iona and St. Andrews for the attention of the kings until the Scottish Reformation snuffed out the practice of pilgrimage 4 centuries ago. This peninsula ourished the earliest Christian community in No. Europe some 15 centuries ago.
At the grave of the two martyred Margrets in Wigtown Old churchyard.
At the Pilgrim's Tearoom a lady explains the work of the archeologists at the Whithorn dig and the meaning of the crosses they have found. "In a way," she says, "Ninian did his own pilgrimage, taking the Christian message out from here." We watch a video entitled "The Light Shineth in Darkness" about Ninian the Light Bearer: a local boy educated in Rome who returned with the message of the one holy God and redemption through Christ and the Holy Spirit.
We view a museum of stone crosses, enter a crypt of bishops' graves, view the ruins of the Whithorn priory where the canons spent their lives in the worship of God, celebrating eight services a day, and see today's parish church at the back of the priory grounds formed from the ruined nave of the medieval cathedral. Whithorn was truly the cradle of Christianity in this part of the world.
Overwhelmed with shards of knowledge spanning 1,600 years, pieces like the broken stones and pottery bits of the archeologists whip patternless inside my head just as the wind whips my hair outside. We set out through the green farmland to find our B & B. Our hostess has the door open for us and takes us around the side of the house through a flower-filled walled courtyard to a glorious sunroom. I sink onto the rattan sofa, while Evelyn goes into the room to make tea.
Gatehouse to Whithorn Priory - entrance to Medieval Pilgrim's Way
Wigtown from atop Windy Hill
Medieval Bishop's tombs in priory crypt. St. Ninian was buried here.