St. Cuthbert’s Way

Our age calls for strenuous practices to take us out of the “new normal” of things like the blithe harvesting of fetal organs, gay marriage, and transgender militancy, and to reconnect us with the old normal and mere human sanity. For some, traditional prayer, fasting, and almsgiving will suffice, but for others – among whom I count myself – additional, demanding steps may be needed.

So, although I have no Scottish or English blood, with wife and brother, I made a pilgrimage along “St. Cuthbert’s Way” last week, 100 kilometers of beautifully rugged countryside from Melrose (Scotland) to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne (England). Cuthbert’s Way is not famous, like the Camino in Spain, which I walked and wrote about here last year. Indeed, it was created about twenty years ago, partly to stimulate tourism, but also – in a clever move – as a way to preserve some of Britain’s Christian past that might otherwise pass even further into oblivion.

St. Cuthbert (c. 634-687) was part of the early wave of evangelization by the Irish monks who first made their way to the island of Iona, and from there to the Scottish Borders and Northern England. Cuthbert was born in Northumbria and studied at Melrose Abbey; he died, after a saintly life and much traveling, preaching, and battling magic and paganism, on the Holy Island. He was a renowned spiritual director and hermit – as well as prior, bishop, and miracle worker – and his final burial place in Durham was a popular medieval pilgrimage site. The Venerable Bede wrote a biography portraying old Cuthbert as something between St. Francis and the prophet Isaiah.

The ruins of Lyndesfarne Abbey on the Holy Island
The ruins of Lindisfarne Abbey on the Holy Island

Great natural and cultural beauties lie along Cuthbert’s Way, but no little melancholy as well. You start from now-ruined Melrose Abbey and finish the first day, after a strenuous hike over high hills, at the equally ruined Drybrugh Abbey, where Walter Scott is buried. Then, a segment to the remains of the Jedburgh Abbey, still imposing, though it’s not been used since the 1850s.

From there, there are long stretches, very sparsely inhabited; it can take a whole day of steep climbs and trudging through heavy terrain from one tiny village to the next, under the constant threat of rain and whipping winds. It’s good for contemplation and prayer, detachment from current woes and immediate contact with Creation. But it’s not for the physically or emotionally timid.

The trail is well marked, except just after “Cuthbert’s Cave” (where monks once hid his incorrupt body from invaders). The arrow there was clear, but the path was not. Of course, that had to be where the worst rain hit and mists began to roll down from the surrounding hills making visibility and reckoning difficult. After stumbling around and trying various directions – in no little trepidation, hours from any help – we came upon a footbridge and the long, waterlogged way to our next place of shelter.

Cuthbert himself must have often taken parts of the Way, because it sometimes follows the ancient Roman Road between York and Edinburgh built by Agricola, the Roman governor and military commander (77 to 85 AD) in Britain, and father-in-law of the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote a famous study of his virtuous rule.

On that stretch, there’s a gravemarker for a 16th-century warrior, sometimes called the “Joan of Arc of Scotland”:

Fair maiden Lilliard
lies under this stane
little was her stature
but muckle was her fame
upon the English loons
she laid monie thumps
and when her legs were cuttit off
she fought upon her stumps.

That’s not the only well preserved legend, whatever its truth. In tiny Moorebattle, they still remember the Linton Worm, which is to say a local dragon, now passed from middle earth.

Nothing, though, tops the ruins of the Lindisfarne Monastery. Lindisfarne was a thriving community for 800 years, sending out missionaries in many directions, most importantly to Durham, where the great cathedral now stands. The island is cut off part of every day at high tide. So from the mainland, you have to time the crossing so as not to wind up in one of the elevated “safety boxes.”

The ruins of such a vibrant, and now gone Christianity, give you a bittersweet perspective on our own time. The Lindisfarne monks survived Viking raids and various local wars – until Henry VIII. Everyone knows Henry pillaged the monasteries, but it’s sad to see the result at a place like Lindisfarne. Still, it shows that our situation is not unprecedented: Henry’s unruly sexual appetites and political ambitions destroyed one of the ancient Christian centers. The markers on the site make no bones about it. But the abbey is honored centuries later. Henry is not. And Christianity lives.

The modern statue of Cuthbert’s body being carried by monks outside Durham cathedral
The modern statue of Cuthbert’s body being carried by monks outside Durham cathedral

And Old Cuthbert has not disappeared from the British scene. The day we left the Holy Island, a news story from Durham recounted the vandalization of a statuary group, representing monks bearing the body of Cuthbert, currently located outside the great cathedral. The cathedral committee voted to bring it inside. But local residents objected, one saying, “I don’t know why we have to move our statues inside when they’re not the problem. We need to deal with the real problem, the hooligans.”

We’ll need to deal with much more and far worse to preserve the Christian legacy in public. But Cuthbert’s incorrupt body, I think, must have inspired Walter Scott when he wrote:

Before their eyes the Wizard lay,
As if he had not been dead a day.
His hoary beard in silver roll’d,
He seem’d some seventy winters old.
     A palmer’s amice wrapp’d him round,
     With a wrought Spanish baldric bound,
          Like a pilgrim from beyond the sea;
     His left hand held his Book of Might;
     A silver cross was in his right;
          The lamp was placed beside his knee;
High and majestic was his look,
At which the fellest fiends had shook,
And all unruffled was his face:
  They trusted his soul had gotten grace.


Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.