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On Cairns and Crosses

When Galloway folk speak of home, we don’t talk of heather in bloom or the mist upon sea lochs and mountains. Our place is broad and blue and it smells of rain. Perhaps we can’t match the extravagant pibroch scenery of the north, but we’re anchored to this place by a sure and lasting bond. “ -Patrick Laurie, Native

Taking the M77 south out of Glasgow, the city fades quickly into layers of green hills. As you pass into Ayrshire, fields of cows line the highway, and soon the hills turn into sweeps of rolling moorland, with the silhouette of the Galloway hills blue and misty in the distance.

I visited the Rhinns of Galloway last summer. The hammer-shaped peninsula is the southernmost point in Scotland, all dramatic sea cliffs plunging into the Irish Sea, nothing but waves between you and Belfast. It was in early June, and the roadsides were bursting with wildflowers. There was a heat wave, and I swam in the sea and was washed over in pure summer bliss. I camped out on the rocks amongst the sea thrift and absorbed the Galloway sunshine.

By mid-July, the sea thrift had died. This time I headed down through Galloway Forest Park, through the Machars to the southern tip of Burrowhead, through Wigtown, Creetown, and all the way over to Kircudbright. It’s a very different part of Galloway. Much of it is farmland. Some of the towns are past their prime, and the beaches are more subdued than the sparkling waters of the Rhinns. But this part of Galloway is full of fascinating sights and histories of the people who have lived here and travelled here for thousands of years.

My first stop was St. Ninian’s Cave, at the southern tip of the Machars Peninsula. St. Ninian was Scotland’s first saint, and the first to bring Christianity to Scotland, even before St. Columba founded his abbey on the Isle of Iona in 563 CE. He was born in the year 360 CE, died in 432, and spread Christianity through the Picts and Gaels in Southern and Central Scotland. He built a white church near what is now the town of Whithorn, and it is said that he used to retreat to small cave on the coast on Galloway for solitude and prayer.

The easiest path down to the cave cuts through a heavily wooded glen. You’re surrounded by dense woodland, all bracken and nettles, until you emerge between the two sides of the gorge onto a rocky beach. The cave is at the far end, and as you make your way down, you pass stone stacks left by previous visitors, marking their journeys.

The cave itself is quite shallow, more of a niche than a proper cave. But because of its religious significance, it’s become a place of pilgrimage. In fact, people - including Robert the Bruce and King Edward II - have been making the pilgrimage since at least the 7th century CE. All around the entrance, people have left wooden crosses, or traditional tokens such as coins and shells. Several of the crosses carved into the cave walls are believed to be from as early as the year 700.

The crosses were quite rustic - just two sticks tied together with bits of sea rope. In India and Jerusalem, people buy elaborately carved crosses, printed candles, floral arrangements and the like to leave as devotions. These handmade alternatives felt very intimate - pilgrims using what they had available to give over their message.

Further north up the Machar Peninsula I came across a very different type of pilgrimage spot. The Torhouse stone circle is over 4000 years old and sits in a field amidst the rolling hills of Galloway. It’s quite a large circle, with an outer loop of big round stones surrounding a smaller inner circle, and is one of the best-preserved stone circles in Britain. Some people say it might have been initially built as a burial site, although was later used for ceremonial purposes.

Today it sits alone in a field. On one side of the fence, cattle were grazing, with sheep on the other. A lone electricity wire ran alongside the single track road I came on. While I tried to imagine ancient rituals and Bronze Age worshippers, today the circle was quiet. Just rocks in a field. Perhaps it’s the people who make the place.

High up in the hills of Galloway Forest Park lies a crumbling house and farm. Drystone walls remain far longer than the memory of the family who used to live here, and today wild raspberries grow in the rooms they used to live in. In 1997, artist Matt Baker created ‘Quorum’, a series of sculptural faces, built into the walls of the house. How many stone ruins do I pass walking in the hills? Sometimes I stop, explore, take a picture, but it’s so easy to forget that this was somebody’s home. Somebody lived their whole life here, and this is what remains.

And so I visited my final place of pilgrimage, this one somewhat more modern. Just south of the town of Whithorn, a rocky outcrop forms the Isle of Whithorn. The small channel between the island and the mainland was filled in as the town and harbour were built, so today you wouldn’t know it used to be an island. But for many pilgrims, this was where they landed from their sea pilgrimages to St. Ninian’s Cave. They would stop and pray at the nearby chapel, offering their thanks for safe passage. And today this tradition carries on, in the form of the Witness Cairn.

The Witness Cairn is a drystone enclosure where thousands of pilgrims have deposited stones, often in memory of loved ones, or to mark their presence on their pilgrimages. You can narrow in on individual stones, hand-painted with inscriptions such as ‘grand-dad’ and ‘Forever Remembered’. But it’s all together that the enormity of the pile takes hold. I came to Galloway for three days, and that’s my experience of it. But people have been coming here for thousands of years, on holidays and pilgrimages, living here, and working the land.