"A good long walk in beautiful surroundings"
By his own count, Cameron McNeish has walked from one end of Scotland to the other about six times. At least two of these journeys have previously been recorded on video: "Scotland: Coast to Coast," which documented a 200-mile east to west route from Aberdeen to Inverie, and the following year, to commemorate the opening of the 470-mile Scottish National Trail in 2013, "Scotland: End to End," a north to south trek from Kirk Yetholm on the English border, to Cape Wrath, the most northwesterly point in Scotland. Now comes "The Pilgrims' Trail," with McNeish following a 250-mile northeasterly route from the island of Iona, off Mull, though Lochaline, Inch Kenneth (an island visited by Johnson and Boswell in 1773 during their trip to the Hebrides) Strontian, Glinfinnan, Morar, Glen Affric, Strathferrar, Strathconon, up and down the 3,400-foot high munro Ben Wyvis, through the town of Portmahock, site of a fascinating archaeological find some years ago, and ending at the beach at Tarbat Ness in Easter Ross. In the process, he travels through some of the ravishing scenery in Britain ("as wild and remote a landscape as anywhere you'll find in the world").
Although few pilgrims likely walked the entire route traced here, McNeish pays tribute to the early Celtic Christians who lived in these parts centuries ago, beginning with Saint Columba, a 6th-century Irish abbot and missionary, who founded the abbey on Iona, considered "the cradle of Christianity" in Scotland. But as McNeish traverses these largely empty spaces on his journey from west to east, he reminds us of many other human activities that contributed to the political, industrial, and commercial history of Scotland: "the Celtic priests, Vikings, fugitives, redcoat armies, lead mine workers, deer stalkers, drovers, hydroelectric workers."
As usual on his videos, McNeish has taken care during his journey to meet with a variety of knowledgeable and interesting locals. With boat-builder Stan Reeves, he crosses the channel from Iona to Mull on a 40-foot craft, a replica of the kind of vessel used by the Celts centuries ago. Another resident of Mull, Meg Douglass, offers insights into Scotland's Pict ancestors. Near Strontian, McNeish talks to Gerry Loose, a dairy farmer, ecologist, landscape gardener, and poet. Naturalist Kenny Taylor explains why he could spend an hour examining a single boulder and the "wee beasties" living there. Fiona Younie shows us a Pictish burial ground, and recounts how Saint Columba made a journey to Loss Ness, where one of his monks reportedly had an encounter with a sea monster. In one of the glens we meet fiddler Duncan Chisholm, who plays us some airs from his three recorded albums. Sara Maitland, an award-winning writer, lives alone in an isolated cottage, spends 75% of her time in silence; she is not an introvert, however, and the other 25% of the time enjoys the conversations she has with people like McNeish. In Portmahomack, a small fishing village in Easter Ross, Martin Carver, from York University, shows us "Scotland's best-kept secret," some of the 240 artifacts from a remarkable 13-year archaeological dig (ending in 2007) that revealed an 8th century civilization as vibrant and advanced as any in Europe at that time. Among the artifacts are intricate stone carvings and evidence that the Picts not only read books, but also created them.
In addition to the spectacular scenery, McNeish shows us numerous other fascinating natural and human-made sites. There's the white silicon sands in Lochaline, used during World War II to make submarine periscopes. In Glenfinnan, he spends the night in a converted West Highland Line railway car, equipped with kitchen and sleeping compartments ("I feel like a wee boy coming in here!"). Toward the end of his journey, he visits the village of Inver, where in 1830 an outbreak of cholera killed half of the population. In early 1940s, all of the residents were evacuated for an indefinite period so that the beach could be used as a practice area for the D-Day landings.
But in the end it's the breathtaking scenery that's at the heart of the appeal of "The Pilgrims' Trail." As McNeish observes, "steep-sided hills go up to high rocky ridges, birch and pine on the slopes, rocky cascading rivers . . . You'll be forgiven for thinking that you are in the most remote part of the highlands--and you are--but it's also an area that's been heavily industrialized." The occasional hydroelectric facilities, however, that are now a part of the landscape, do little to detract from its beauty. As McNeish observes, when viewing a mountain lake, "Look at that--that's the sort of view that makes all the bad days worthwhile!"
Larry B | Ventura, California | October 2018