Posted by: kljolly | November 15, 2019

Pilgrimage, sailing, and saint’s lives

Aldred’s journey homeward as a twenty-something includes a stint at Govan (Scotland), where he joins the pilgrimage of Cathroe.  I ambitiously outlined the ten-year period from Aldred at the Battle of Brunanburh to his return to Northumbria in an earlier post, Ubi Sunt, that set out my spring sabbatical writing agenda.  That was followed by an account of Aldred’s stay at Glendalough (Ransom) detailed in letters between Aldred and his family.  I then began a chapter that starts with Aldred meeting Cathroe in Govan, embarking on a pilgrimage journey that turned into an odyssey, at least for me.  I made great progress, learned a lot, and intended to post a series of queries on the blog, but then Life happened, I was back in the classroom…and this post delayed.

What started out as a road trip story based on the life of St. Cathroe’s pilgrimage turned into a sea journey and then into a series of saint’s lives recounted at each pilgrimage stop.  I had fun writing the chapter (which is not quite done) but also annotated it with a lot of questions about some of my choices and their historical viability.

1.  Languages. Aldred is living and traveling with people of different linguistic abilities:  Latin, English, Norse, Irish, Gaelic (Scots and/or Cumbric), Welsh.  Everyone in this northern region is probably at least bilingual, but in different combinations.  Some languages are related enough to have some mutual intelligibility (English and Norse, potentially).  Clerics raised in a religious community would find Latin a common language across unintelligible boundaries.  In the course of the chapter and Aldred’s encounters with different people, I have to explain how they communicated, in some cases with someone translating for someone else.  For Aldred himself, I am drawing on my own weak experiences with hearing/speaking other languages.  This is the background note I wrote to myself for the chapter:

Aldred may have spent two years in Ireland, and now finds himself in a Cumbric speaking kingdom, but he has no ear for learning languages orally or speaking them.  He grew up bilingual in his native vernacular Northumbrian English and Latin, but has trouble with Celtic languages, never really learns to speak them well, and has trouble sometimes following a story told aloud.  As a budding scholar, he feels stupid, but as a scribe he has discovered he is a visual learner: he sees words spelled.  He speaks Latin primarily with other clerics.  Lay nobles, household servants, ship’s crews are mostly bilingual or trilingual in English, Norse, Irish, or some form of Gaelic (Cumbric is lost to us, but similar to Welsh).

Throughout the chapter, I indicate when Aldred is having difficulty following something, or occasions when someone translates for someone else:  when the Norse serving boy, who can understand English and some Gaelic, doesn’t understand Latin, or stumbles over an unfamiliar English or Gaelic word; or when Irish clerics mix Latin and Irish in macaronic speech, Aldred has to ask questions.

Does this approach make sense? 



2.  Seafaring Pilgrimage.  The Life of Cathroe (Vita Kaddroe) indicates that Cathroe of Alba was escorted by Scots King Constantine to Govan, where he was received by Strathclyde (Cumbrian) King Dyfnwal, who escorted the pilgrim saint to his borders at Loida (Lowther).  The obvious way to proceed from Govan to Lowther would be overland, with the king itinerating through his territories and relying on the resources of his holdings there.   While traveling overland would make sense both for pilgrims on foot and for an itinerating king, it presents a transportation problem of horse-riding warriors versus on-foot pilgrims.  Going by ship is faster and easier, even though having to go the long way around Galloway.  And it allows me to have them make pilgrimage stops at Arran (St. Molaise’s island) and Whithorn (St. Ninian), which would not be on the itinerary overland.  This choice also forced me to learn a lot about tides, ships, and aquatic life.

Is this choice of traveling by ship too far-fetched?

More questions to come, but for now these are the two big ones.


  1. The main problem I see with sailing round Galloway is navigating the North Channel. This can be avoided by crossing the seven mile wide isthmus between the southern shore of Loch Ryan and the northern shore of Luce Bay, portaging the boat, if necessary. This would be the most direct route between Arran and Whithorn. 9th century Northumbrian coins have been found on the shore of Luce Bay. Maybe Aldred dropped them on his way.

    • Thanks. I did modify the journey at Loch Ryan because of slow going. I have them go into Stranraer to resupply and drop off the pilgrims to walk across the next day: they go to Chapel Finian and overnight there, and the following day on to Ninian’s Cave and then Whithorn. I did not think about portage for the ship, which I have sailing around to the port/isle of Whithorn to meet up with the pilgrims later.
      Has anyone been to Chapel Finian? Is it possible Finian is Ninian?

  2. The harbour at Stranraer wasn’t built until the mid 18th century. The nearest natural harbour was at Innermessan.
    The name Ninian may be derived from the British Uinnian for which Finian is the Gaelic equivalent.

    • Whoops! Uinniau not Uinnian. Sorry!

  3. Thanks! I am changing Stranraer to Innermessan, which doesn’t really alter the storyline for the pilgrims. Do you really think they could portage a ship over that 10+ miles of terrain?

  4. What I had in mind was the portage between Loch Long and Loch Lomond in Håkon Håkonsson’s saga, but that was only two miles! As the crow flies, Loch Ryan to Luce Bay, shore to shore must be 6-7 miles, through low lying wetlands. So maybe not such a good idea!

  5. Okay, I will keep it as is, with the ship sailing around Galloway while the pilgrims walk across and down the coast.

  6. There is a way for boats coming from the north to enter Luce Bay without making the perilous journey around the Mull of Galloway. Between this headland and the main body of the Rhins there is a narrow isthmus, barely 500 metres wide, from West Tarbet on the North Channel to East Tarbet on Luce Bay. Tarbet is the anglicisation of Gaelic Tairbeart which means isthmus or portage site, although the usual English spelling is Tarbert. Coincidentally, the portage site on Loch Lomond, mentioned above, is also called Tarbet (Gaelic: Tairbeart Loch Laomainn).

  7. That is useful to know. I have altered the section so that while the pilgrims walk, the ship sails around as far as Tairbeart and portage across to Luce Bay, thus avoiding the perilous rounding of the Mull. Håkonsson’s saga doesn’t seem to have any details on what such a portage would entail. I guess I have in mind Tolkien’s LOTR with light canoes, but a largish viking vessel? Would the portage way have log rollers or other equipment for drawing the ship along?

  8. The story I was told was that before the battle of Largs the “Vikings” went raiding on Loch Lomond carrying their ship to Tarbet and making a getaway down the Leven to Dumbarton. Such was Viking prowess!
    Experimental archaeology sheds doubt on the myth ( heritage/ Vikings): they would have had smaller boats on board which they dragged to Tarbet. In which case they presumably returned to their ship by the same route.
    Another experiment under similar circumstances to the Rhins portage is described on the website of the Viking Ship Museum, Roskilde ( ship over land). They made a track of greased wooden runners to help the boat slide over the grassy surface.
    The Wikipedia entry on the Rhins of Galloway suggests the use of log rollers and lubrication.

  9. Both sites very helpful. I think I will use the idea of a greased path.

  10. […] the year 941 of my novel, Aldred finishes his pilgrimage with Cathroe and finally arrives home at his family’s Easington estate. Along the way, he encounters wall […]

  11. […] Pilgrimage, sailing, and saints’ lives […]

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