By Ben Dolphin
It was as perfect a winter's morning as you could hope for - clear, calm, freezing and frosty, with an icy blue overhead. I was stood on the stone pier at North Queensferry, about to walk to Dunfermline along the first leg of the new Fife Pilgrim Way. Sunrise had passed, but the sun hadn't yet climbed up over the wooded outline of Mons Hill on the other side of the Forth. I'd actually planned ot be walking by this point in time, but with a rapidly warming golden glow to the southeast and the massive silhouetted bulk of the Forth Bridge, framing the moment perfectly, I just couldn't tear myself away.
While I waited for the new day to begin, the familiar distant clunking of metal wheels on an echoey surface abruptly announced a train’s slow but steady passage across the bridge, which was opened in 1890. Loud…..but growing fainter as they crossed, these were folk heading south on their way into Edinburgh or beyond. A few quiet minutes later the same familiar sound, this time faint…..but growing louder. Folk heading north into Fife or farther afield.
As the first fiery spot of light burned through the trees, an enormous cargo ship appeared under the bridge and motored its way up the Forth, presumably to the refinery at Grangemouth. I watched as it sailed west towards the two other massive bridges spanning this stretch of water: the Forth Road Bridge, opened in 1964, and the newer Queensferry Crossing, opened 53 years later in 2017, both with their distant ceaseless hum of rubber on asphalt. A constant stream of cars, buses and lorries in both directions, north and south.
As someone who generally prefers natural splendour to anything humans have to offer, I don’t mind saying that this is one of my favourite places in all of Scotland, because it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer scale of the spectacle before you. One stretch of water, busy with boats, spanned by three very different bridges from three very different centuries. Such is sunrise in North Queensferry, as iconic a Scottish experience as you could hope for.
What strikes me most as I stand there watching the commuters, traders, tourists, shippers, shoppers and everyone else besides hurriedly going about their business, is the palpable sense of motion and interconnectedness. Lines of communication are plain to see. And yet despite the obvious hubbub and ceaseless movement, for the most part you feel removed from it. That’s the odd contradiction of North Queensferry. You feel that you are close to the beating heart of the nation, with a grandstand view of its arteries but none the less you feel oddly sidelined too. All the action happens ‘up there’ somewhere, on sturdy decks held aloft by cantilevers and cables. Like watching from afar.
The relative serenity and calm of modern North Queensferry belies its historical importance as a bustling artery in national life, and the evidence, the history, is all around you as you stand on the old Town Pier. Look across the water to South Queensferry and you’ll spot its opposite number, the Hawes Pier. Look north towards the village and you’ll see a tiny wee lighthouse. The world’s smallest working light tower, in fact, built in 1817 to guide traffic into the bay.
The clue is in the name, of course. Queen’s Ferry, both North and South. Boats of all shapes and sizes have been crossing this, one of the narrowest points on the Firth of Forth and therefore a logical crossing point, for thousands of years. But the most recent regular crossing saw four vehicle ferries running between the two villages until 1964, when the Forth Road Bridge was finally opened. Standing there now, on an admittedly historic-looking stone pier it’s hard to believe that just a few decades ago almost 1 million vehicles a year were being transported across this narrow expanse of water via 40,000 ferry crossings….albeit to the longer Railway Pier to the west.
As for the royal connection, if they didn’t know better I wouldn’t blame folk for thinking it had something to do with Victoria, seeing as every other view, well, bridge, park and road in Scotland seems to have been named for or after her. Indeed just up the high street the Albert Hotel hints at that royal connection, referencing Queen Victoria’s landing at the Town Pier in 1842, but she isn’t the queen of the Queensferries. That honour goes to one Margaret of Wessex.
With a name like Wessex, Margaret wasn’t a local by any stretch of the imagination. Born in what is now Hungary in 1046, she was the grand-niece of Edward the Confessor and the daughter of the Saxon prince Edward the Exile who, following the Danish invasion of England in 1016 was….surprise surprise…..exiled. Her brother Edgar (the Aetheling) had a claim on the English throne but the Norman invasion of 1066 threw a spanner in those works, after which her family fled north to Northumbria. From there they sailed for mainland Europe but were instead blown off course, landing in Fife almost directly underneath the Queensferry Crossing…..erm…..which wouldn’t have been there at the time, obviously. Hence that stretch of coast now bearing the name ‘St Margaret’s Hope’.
Her family were given refuge by the then king of Scotland, Máel Coluim (Malcolm) III, who ended up marrying Margaret just a couple of years later. Now Queen of Scotland, Margaret’s influence as a pious Roman Catholic reformer in a predominantly Gaelic culture where a Celtic Christianity prevailed was significant. She invited Benedictine monks from Canterbury to settle at Dunfermline, established churches, paid for the restoration of the monastery on Iona, cared for the poor and favoured Anglo-Saxon language over Gaelic at court.
Most notably for our purposes, she encouraged and help facilitate the steady stream of pilgrims who had, since at least AD965, been coming from across the British Isles and even farther afield to visit the relics of St Andrew in…..yep you’ve guessed it…..St Andrews.
At this point it’s prudent to explain a wee bit about medieval pilgrimage. Essentially it was an expression of piety and involved travelling some distance in order to visit places or people of spiritual significance, the latter often in the form of relics housed in shrines, and consequently receiving the power or the inspiration of those places or people.
The motivations for going on pilgrimage could have been penance, atonement, seeking help for an affliction, offering thanks, shortening the amount of time you might find yourself in purgatory, or avoiding eternal damnation altogether. It was also sometimes meted out as criminal punishment, and in some cases you could even pay for someone else to undertake pilgrimage for you, although I can’t imagine that practice was viewed favourably. I also learned just last week that you didn’t even have to be alive to undertake pilgrimage! Apparently it wasn’t unheard of for dead bodies to be carried on pilgrimage, although for reasons I’m sure you can imagine not all of them made it to their final destination intact…..which certainly can’t have been much fun for whoever was bearing them.
Pilgrimages could be made to locally or nationally important saints, but generally speaking the closer you could get to the source of your faith the holier the experience. A trip to the Holy Land itself, for example, was top drawer. But St Andrews was a major pilgrimage in medieval Europe, for it was home to the relics of one of Christ’s twelve apostles.
Quite how one of Andrew’s teeth, arms, kneecaps and fingers ended up in Fife is a matter for conjecture. Some say that in AD345 Rule (or Regulus), a Greek monk, was tasked with taking them to the farthest corners of the known world in order to safeguard them from the Emperor Constantine. Rule was duly shipwrecked in a far corner of the known world at a small Pictish settlement, where he founded a church to house Andrew’s relics. Others say that they arrived in AD732 with Acca, Bishop of Hexham.
While the precise history is murky, St Andrews has undoubtedly been in use as a seat of royalty and church authority since Pictish times, with its name changing again and again to reflect the swings in dominance of language and power. The most recent and well known of these is Kilrymont, meaning ‘church on the headland’, but go further back and the variations include Ceanrigmonaid, meaning ‘head of the King’s mount’, which shows how the church gained ascendancy at that location over time.
However Andrew’s relics came to arrive at the settlement, their presence came to define the town and, in the 12th Century, the largest cathedral in Scotland was constructed in order to house them. Even the town’s road layout, with North Street and South Street, is believed to have been planned as a one-way system with which to manage the volumes of pilgrims to and from the cathedral. And within easy reach between those two thoroughfares is Market Street. Very handy for purchasing a few trinkets or something to eat, I’m sure you’d agree, and if pilgrimage is starting to sound a little bit like modern commercial tourism, it’s not entirely surprising.
Now, it is absolutely not my intention to make light of the piety and devotion of pilgrimage by making such a comparison, rather I think it gives a useful modern frame of reference to consider the impact pilgrimage must have had on the communities through which such routes passed. It’s tempting to think of medieval times as being backward and ill-informed, of people living very local lives in tiny villages and never encountering anything of the world beyond, in actual fact there was a great interconnectedness between relatively distant places.
Most folk never travelled of course but, as tourism is now, pilgrimage was big business. It brought strangers from comparatively far-off places and from different backgrounds into contact with one another, and in its own way made the world that little bit smaller. And just as the easily identifiable tourist uniform in St Andrews today consists of a backpack and a smart phone held aloft, pilgrims were apparently recognisable too, dressed fairly uniformly in cloaks and wide-brimmed hats. Some even collected special pilgrim badges from key sites along the way, which very much reminds me of the patches sewn onto modern backpackers’ rucksacks. “Look where I’ve been!”, they announce.
All kinds of routes could be used to reach St Andrews but, as with recreational equivalents today like the West Highland Way or the Fife Coastal Path, it would have been easier to follow established routes that linked key religious sites and towns, along which dedicated establishments that met the needs of long-distance travellers sprang up. A network of hospices or hostels facilitated pilgrims’ movements across the region, and included lodgings at Inverkeithing, Kinghorn, Scotlandwell, Kinglassie, Leslie, Markinch, Kennoway and Ceres among others.
Hospitium of the Grey Friars, Inverkeithing. Dating from the 14th Century, it would have offered accommodation to passing pilgrims.
Queen Margaret helped establish such hospices, but most notably of all she paid for a free ferry service across the Forth. I’m not sure at what point in time ‘Queen’ was formally adopted by those two villages thereafter but that is essentially where they get their names from.
Margaret died in 1093, just days after her husband Máel Coluim, the King, was killed in battle at Alnwick, and she was buried in Dunfermline Priory. But even then her work was by no means done, as all manner of miracles were attributed to her over the next 150 years or so. Those, coupled with her enduring reputation for piety, eventually resulted in Queen Margaret being canonised by Pope Innocent IV in 1250. Thereafter known as Saint Margaret, her remains were exhumed and moved along with those of her husband to a shrine in the new abbey at Dunfermline.
The links with St Margaret solidified Dunfermline’s popularity as a pilgrimage destination, not just because of St Margaret’s Shrine at the Abbey, but also for St Margaret’s Cave nearby, where the Queen had been known to pray. Both the shrine and the cave are still there today (the latter accessible by a London Underground style tunnel after it was disrespectfully buried by a car park), and both still attract visitors in large numbers, which brings us firmly back into the present, back to a stone jetty in North Queensferry on a cold, frosty morning.
Satisfied with the sunrise I now turned my back to the Forth, faced the village and imagined myself having just disembarked from the Queen’s Ferry.
Another train clunked slowly across the Forth, and the distant rolling of thousands of wheels echoed all around. Those sounds of modern connectivity initially seemed as far removed from the 11th Century as it was possible to get, but the longer I stood there the more I realised that nothing much had fundamentally changed in 900 years. This has always been an important place. Now, as then, it’s just folk going about their business, crossing into Fife at the narrowest point before radiating outwards and onwards to whatever their destinations might be and whatever experiences they’re seeking. And so, with that thought in mind, I started walking in the direction of Dunfermline Abbey, the first leg of the new Fife Pilgrim Way.
Check out Part 2, ‘Walking the Trail’
For more information on the Fife Pilgrim Way, visit the website.