What is a pilgrimage?
This was a question that occupied our thoughts on an almost daily basis during our walk from Val-des-Choues to Pluscarden. What is a pilgrimage? And, depending on the answer, are we really doing a pilgrimage or is this just some sort of pleasant, walking holiday?
The practice of pilgrimage has its roots in religion and spirituality. It usually involves a journey (sometimes a very long journey), often with the goal of visiting a religious shrine or other location of great spiritual power.
Pilgrimage has existed in many cultures throughout history: Christians traveling to Jerusalem, Muslims making the haj to Mecca, Hindus on their way to Varanasi. Modern-day pilgrimage often emphasizes these historical roots. Pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago today recreate a route that is at least 900 years old. Another aspect of pilgrimage, at least in the medieval Christian tradition, includes a kind of penance, the hardship of walking great distances acting as satisfaction for sins committed earlier.
Was the Pluscarden 1230 Pilgrimage a pilgrimage, in any of those senses?
For starters, it was only loosely historical. The premise of the Pluscarden 1230 Pilgrimage was based on the idea that Val-des-Choues in Burgundy sent monks to Scotland to found Pluscarden. Were we accurately recreating their journey?
First, we have no written record from the 13th-century monks who left Val-des-Choues for Scotland. Did they travel the whole way on foot? On horseback? By ship? Their sponsor, Scottish King Alexander II, could easily have provided any of these means of transportation.
But did he?
We also have no idea which path they took, by land or by sea. We can guess that those long-ago monks probably went in as straight a line as possible: from Val-des-Choues to Calais to Dover, then from Dover to Morayshire, to the future site of Pluscarden.
The route of the Pluscarden 1230 Pilgrimage wasn’t so simple, at least not in terms of being the shortest, most direct path. For example, our “re-constructed” pilgrimage began by heading south, for no other reason than we wished to visit Val-des-Choues’s other daughter monasteries—Val-Saint-Benoît and Val-Croissant — along the way.
And in the UK, instead of going from Dover straight up the east coast to Pluscarden, we cut west from London across to Prinknash, the Benedictine monastery that gave a new foundation to modern-day Pluscarden. From there we headed northeast again to Edinburgh, then west again to Ardchattan, another daughter house of Val-des-Choues, near Oban. Next we headed north and east again, visiting Beauly, a third daughter of Val-des-Choues in Scotland, before finally arriving at Pluscarden. All of this zig-zagging would have made no sense to our medieval counterparts. But for the Pluscarden 1230 pilgrims, it meant the chance for deeper experiences: visiting the great cathedrals at Reims, Laon, and Westminster; connecting to other monastic communities; even enjoying spiritual experiences not connected to organized religion, like hiking through the Scottish Highlands, whose immense beauty makes a strong case for God’s existence.
Was Pluscarden 1230 a real a pilgrimage?