To be a Pilgrim – David Johnson considers the benefits of a good walk.

As a squeaky-voiced probationer chorister in Derby Cathedral choir, I loved singing “To be a Pilgrim”, also known as “Who would true valour see”. It is the only hymn that John Bunyan is credited with writing, sung to the tune “Monks’ Gate” by Ralph Vaughan Williams. I think that it was the reference to “hobgoblins” and “foul fiends” that captured my imagination at that early age: what do “hobgoblins” and “foul fiends” look like? Later, hearing the hymn sung by a packed congregation in St Paul’s Cathedral at the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965, it sent a shiver down my spine. The version sung and played by Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band on their album “Sing Lustily with Good Courage” is an altogether more rollicking interpretation. They’re obviously having a great time singing and playing it, and the quaint sincerity of Bunyan’s words stirs us, the listener, out of our easy-going Christianity to the thrill of a great adventure.

The Church of Scotland’s Annual Report and Accounts for 2015 had the title “People of the Way”. The Moderator of the 2016 General Assembly, Rev. Dr. Russell Barr, chose this as his theme for the year.   It’s a description given to the followers of Jesus since the time of St Paul, people who were notable for their worship, the generosity of their welcome and the care that they provided. And they did a fair bit of travelling, mainly on foot, just as Paul did. During her Moderatorial Year, the Rev. Susan Brown, exhorted us to “Walk with Me”. That was when I decided to start a series of small-scale Pilgrimage Walks at Maxwelltown West. So far we have visited the Ruthwell Cross, Sweetheart Abbey, Dundrennan Abbey, St Queran’s Holy Well and the site of the Martyrs of the Solway memorial at Kippford.

Rev.Dr.Richard Frazer is minister of Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh and founder of the Grassmarket Community Project which helps vulnerable people. He has been very influential in the revival of pilgrimage in Scotland and in the Church of Scotland’s decision officially to promote and revive pilgrimage after 450 years of opposition from the church. I caught up with Richard at this year’s Wigtown Book Festival where he was speaking about his recently published book describing a pilgrim’s journey to Santiago de Compostella. On his 700-mile walk from the French town of Le Juy-en-Velay to the shrine of St James the Great, Richard discovered that a journey, however it is made and undertaken with an open and hospitable heart, can provide spiritual renewal and transformation, filling what many people see as the “spiritual void” of 21st century life.

He told me, “I would urge everyone to get outdoors and into nature. When walking it’s almost as if the landscape starts to read you and you become part of the landscape.” Richard says that you don’t need to start with faith. “It’s very accessible: it’s a physical experience which becomes spiritual.”

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By the time that you are reading this we hope to have undertaken two more walks. The first, a Heritage Walk taking in the crypt of the Crichton Church, the Crichton Estate, Castledykes Park and Maidenbower Crag. The last walk of 2019 follows the Old Torr Path to Red Haven near Auchencairn, where we hope to witness the annual “pilgrimage” of thousands of pink-footed, greylag and barnacle geese to the largest saltmarsh in the Stewartry. Our walks always end with a pause for refreshment and a chance to confirm our commitment to “People of the Way”.  Please join us as we walk into 2020; you will be most welcome. Be assured, we’ve not yet come across any “hobgoblins” or “foul fiends”!