IF thou wouldst view fair Melrose aright,
Go visit it by the pale moonlight;
For the gay beams of lightsome day
Gild, but to flout, the ruins gray.
Sir Walter Scott, The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Canto II.
Having taken Walter Scott's advice, I am standing in the half-light of a cool September morning, waiting for the sun to rise and light the ruined red sandstone pillars of Melrose Abbey. A relentless breeze harries the dying grasses at my feet, a few wisps of cloud scurry past overhead. Winter comes early in Scotland, and even though autumn has barely begun, there is a touch of frost in the air.
Today marks the beginning of a pilgrimage: together with my stalwart companion, the Reverend David Albon, I am going to hike Saint Cuthbert's Way, a modern pilgrimage route that connects Melrose, in the Scottish Borders, to the Holy Island, Lindisfarne, on the northeastern English coast. Fourteen centuries ago, the Celtic monk Cuthbert is said to have walked from Melrose to Lindisfarne to take up a post as prior for the community that lived on that island. Information about his precise route died with him. We know he set out from Melrose; we know that he reached Lindisfarne. The itinerary that linked those two certainties is lost.
England's great historian, Bede, who supplied our primary evidence for this pilgrimage, wrote nothing about the journey itself. Did Cuthbert walk in a straight line to Lindisfarne? Did he head north and take a ship? We simply do not know. Nevertheless, in 1996, a group of hiking enthusiasts charted a probable course across the hills of southern Scotland, and today, a 63 mile trail connects Melrose to Lindisfarne. St Cuthbert's Way is one of the newest pilgrimage routes in the world, and while it may lack the prestige and antiquity of Spain's Santiago de Compostela, it compensates with charming pubs, pastoral landscapes, and occasional brushes with the checkered history of Britain.
I am up before dawn, because I want to capture a photo of Melrose Abbey, the most visible remains of medieval monasticism in this town. The ruined building that stands here today, is a former Cistercian monastery, founded in 1146. It once occupied a prestigious position in the life of both church and state. The mother house of the Cistercian order in Scotland, the abbey was frequented by Scottish rulers, and the heart of Robert the Bruce was buried in a lead capsule on the site. Border wars with England, as well as the Protestant Reformation, led to its slow decline. A fatal wound was delivered during an English attack, when King Henry VIII had the abbey set on fire. After the Reformation, the last monks were driven out, and the Abbey began to crumble. Stones were pilfered to raise new homes, turning the building into a quarry. Today only a few walls remain, columns set between gaping holes, a romantic ruin.
In any event, this is not the monastery where Cuthbert began his career. That honor belonged to Old Melrose Abbey, founded by Saint Aiden of Lindisfarne in the mid-seventh century, two miles east of town. A wanderer, like his spiritual son Cuthbert, Aidan had been sent from the famous Scottish monastery on Iona to serve as the first bishop of Northumbria. In addition to spreading the Celtic form of Christianity throughout the north, Aidan also planted monasteries at Melrose, and his diocesan seat, Lindisfarne.
Cuthbert never met Aidan. Their nearest approach was a celestial encounter. According to Bede (Life of Cuthbert, 4), the young Cuthbert was often to be found in the Scottish hills tending sheep. One night, while his companions slept and Cuthbert busied himself with prayers and psalmody, he saw a marvelous sight. The darkness shattered, pierced by a stunning light that streamed down from the heavens. Touching for a moment upon the earth, this ethereal blaze collected an object of incredible brightness and conveyed it into the sky. Young Cuthbert interpreted the event as the spirit of a holy man, later revealed to be Aidan, ascending to heaven. Stimulated by this sight, he decided to devote his life to winning a similar heavenly reward, and shortly thereafter, entered the monastery at Melrose.
There is no heavenly light this morning, and in fact, the sunrise is less than dramatic. I take pictures of the monastery for forty minutes, then pack up camera and tripod, and return to my room in the B&B. In a couple of hours I will be taking the first steps of a 63 mile pilgrimage, placing my feet in the (theoretical) steps of Saint Cuthbert.