September 14 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Border folk of Berwick and Belfast: A Catholic pilgrimage into Scotland’s emigrant past

ROSS AHLFELD travels to Berwick and the nearby holy island of Lindisfarne before heading across the sea to Belfast, as he explores Scottish roots in Catholic places

THERE are only a handful of places beyond the borders of Scotland that are considered partly ‘Scots’ in culture and ethnicity; one is Berwick Upon Tweed, which once was a Scottish town, and another would be the East Ulster counties of Antrim and Down.

Both places are linked by the fact that many of the folks living in Antrim and Down today have distant ancestors who emigrated from the wild regions along the border with England during the Plantation of Ulster in the 17th century. Encouraged by King James VI, tens of thousands of lowland Scots came to Ulster in the 1690s fleeing famine in the Borders. It was during this period that Presbyterianism became the majority religion in this part of Northern Ireland.

Roaming the gentle rolling countryside of the Borders, it’s difficult to picture these ‘rough border folks’ as the colonisers of Ulster. How could such a fierce people emerge from such an idyllic pastoral land?

However, the numerous castles in the region and a quick read at the borders’ turbulent history of ethnic and religious conflict offers an explanation as to why King James chose these folks to displace the Catholic Gaels of Ulster.

These musings manifested themselves to me last month while trudging slowly over wet sand during the low tide on the pilgrim route to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne where St Aidan established his monastery.

Wooden vertical poles are the only indicators of the safe route between the mainland and island and the sight of the poles stretching across the wide open flat sand and mud is one of the most iconic views in Northumberland.

To walk this route is to follow in the footsteps of our medieval ancestors in Faith. It is a truly spiritual experience.

To be honest, I wasn’t that taken with arriving on the Island itself, which I found to be spiritually underwhelming with its various gift shops (inset right), tearooms and overemphasis on modern notions of ‘Celtic Christianity’ which now seem to take precedence in so many places which were once great centres of Benedictine spirituality and devotion to Our Lady.

Don’t get me wrong, ending a pilgrimage with fresh crab and a pint is a rare treat but I wasn’t so keen on parting with the best part of a tenner to get in to see the ruins of a mediaeval priory (That tenner was later much better spent back in Berwick at Shielfield Park watching Berwick Rangers). Thankfully, the old Anglican parish church of St Mary the Virgin provides a peaceful space for pilgrims to pray and reflect.

Like so many pilgrimages, the actual journey across the sands provided a better opportunity for prayer and reflection than the actual destination. I found the marker poles especially conducive to praying the Rosary on the way to the island, while this ethereal and often otherworldly landscape provided a chance to reflect upon the wonder of creation.

If you are planning on making this pilgrimage then I would highly recommend bringing along the spiritual writings of the late Basil Hume (inset, far right); Benedictine monk, cardinal and one of the North East of England’s most esteemed hardy sons. In particular, Cardinal Hume’s Mystery of the Incarnation in which Hume calls us all to his Benedictine holiness of silence, solitude and stillness, which is to be found in the remote places of Northumbria.

Even so, at various points along the way I still found my thoughts drifting away from Northern England and back to Northern Ireland and the troubled history of our islands and its peoples. Each footstep into the dark sands and mud of Lindisfarne seemed to bring to life Seamus Heaney’s Bog Poems. In Heaney’s The Tolland Man, he asks why so many people have been ‘sacrificed’ for land and borders.

Such life issues remain highly relevant today. Indeed, Pope Francis’ recently cast out the death penalty from the Catechism, and St Pope John Paul identified the ongoing practice of capital punishment as a misguided expression of atonement and punishment, tracing the death penalty all the way back to Cain’s sinful killing of Abel in his papal encyclical Evangelium Vitae.

Of course, other pilgrims take different things from pilgrimages; I have, for example, seen calls for places such as the ruins of St Andrew’s Cathedral in Scotland and the old priory on Holy Island to be reconstructed and re-consecrated. For me, this is would be a waste of time and energy. In my opinion we’d be much better served trying to maintain and support those living parishes communities which exist nearby such places of former glory which are now lost to us.

For example, the charming Church of Our Lady and St Cuthbert is hidden away among the quiet backstreets and narrow lanes of Berwick Upon Tweed, made famous by the Salford artist LS Lowry.

The interior is typical of the Gothic Revival style of church built by Catholics immediately after the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. Yet, at the same time, it also has the feel of a distinctly English, centuries old, country village church, left untouched by the Reformation. Most importantly, Christ is here, present in the Eucharist; sustaining the faithful through the offering of daily Mass.

Similarly, our fellow ‘nonconformists’ have a nearby, historic Methodist Chapel in Alnwick which is also worth a visit. The Chapel sits just along the street from Alnwick Working Men’s Social Club (which is also worth popping into for a quick pint). This Wesleyan Chapel is one of the oldest in world and John Wesley actually preached here and laid the foundation stone in 1786.

A few days later I left the Scottish Borders behind and made the short journey across to the Glens of Antrim and then down into Belfast for a couple of days to visit various community projects, friends and places of interest to us contemporary pilgrims.

My first stop was the Reach Project. This charity helps individuals within the Loyalist community work towards mutual respect by better understanding their own history and culture in a positive way.

Reach also provide advice and assistance to those most in need in society, regardless of race, religion or creed. They tackle issues of drugs abuse, loan sharks, suicide, welfare issues and food poverty. Most impressively, the folks at this project work with victims and survivors alongside ex-paramilitaries and time served ex-prisoners integrating back into society.

In truth, in the Loyalist strongholds of East Belfast I did not find any ‘rough border folk’ or a fierce tribe of bitter anti-Catholics.

Rather, I found hospitality and I learned that those within the ‘Protestant Ulster Loyalist’ community aren’t simply ‘planters’ or imperialists or colonists anymore than the Catholic Nationalist community are the pure and untainted, direct descendants of the ancient Gaels of the Fenian cycle.

In reality, the history is very messy and cultural identities are complicated (like most Irish history) with Vikings, Normans, Tudors and a constant movement of people between south west Scotland and the nearby North East Ireland over many centuries.

Again, Seamus Heaney also wrote about the idea of cultural schizophrenia and having a type of name which marks you out as belonging to a potentially hostile tribe.

Interestingly, some within the Loyalist community are embracing not just their Ulster-Scots heritage but also the more ancient Gaelic myths of the Ulster cycle which are normally associated with the Nationalist community. The Ulster cycle contains the exploits of the hero Cuchulainn and the band of warriors known as the Red Branch Knights and their defence of Ulster against Queen Maeve’s forces.

The project coordinators at Reach tell me that they are now moving onto the next chapter of bridge building which will focus on dialogue between the community and LGBT people. They seek to addresses the impact of the exclusion of LGBT people within loyalist communities.

Equally, the Corrymeela Community is a Christian community whose objective is the promotion of reconciliation and peace-building through the healing of social, religious, and political divisions. I visited Corrymeela the next day and learned that they were also discussing how we and our LGBT community can live together with respect, through a series of retreats and public meetings including an event at the renowned Redemptorist Clonard Monastery in Belfast.

Naturally, the Passionists in Belfast are also engaged in the similar business of reconciliation at the nearby Houben Centre for Peace and Reconciliation.

Of course, we should not be afraid of any dialogue which allows us to openly and respectfully discuss LGBT issues while still adhering entirely to Church’s teachings. Especially since one of the very few things which Catholic and Protestant congregations in both Northern Ireland and in Scotland all share in common is the fact that all of our parishes are haemorrhaging young people at an alarming rate. Our kids are describing feelings of hurt, rejection and a lack of mercy—we have a duty to seek reconciliation and have compassion towards one another.

Appropriately, the theme of reconciliation continued on into my next awe-inspiring pilgrimage destination to L’Arche Belfast, who maintain various projects. Projects such as ‘Green Buds’ where people of varying ability-levels grow fruit and veg at an allotment in the Castlereagh hills. L’Arche also run ‘Roots Soup’ which is a cooking and catering social enterprise which involves individuals with learning disabilities working together to learn and grow.

L’Arche is an ecumenical Christian community, open to people of all faiths and none who put mutual relationships and trust in God at the heart of our journey together.

Before heading home I was presented with a book of poems by the great Ulster-Scots poet James Orr which brought out something of Heaney’s ‘cultural schizophrenia’ in me too. Orr was Ulster’s best known weaver-poet. He was a ‘New Light Presbyterian’ and radical with a burning concern for the poor and his fine poems always remind me of all my Calvinist and Lutheran forefathers. On St Patrick’s Day in 1808, Orr wrote these mournful words about St Patrick;


“And Long the tribes he came to bless,

Alas! Thro’ many a barb’rous age,

Did sect with sect, and clan with clan,

Disgrace ou hist’ry’s hideous page,

Renouncing the reformer’s plan.”


Yet, it’s not all doom and gloom and there is always hope! In his book The Broken Body, Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, teaches us that ‘Now, as never before, we must try to bridge the gap that separates people, cultures, races, religions, rich and poor.’

“Jesus,” he says, “calls us to follow him to help bridge the gap—especially the great chasm of fear, and so become peacemakers like him.”

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