Pilgrimage Project: Wales & Scotland
I went to the UK to track the old ways, to seek the ancestors of my mother’s line, the one’s who knew how to speak to earth and work with stones. I went to place my body upon the land of my ancestors and see what knowing came thrumming up from the soil. I had gotten the message that I needed to embark upon these heritage trips nearly half a decade ago, but it took a few years of marshaling the time and resources to make them come to life. I started last year by visiting Ireland, and then this year I traveled to the UK, beginning with the sourcepoint of my mother’s line–England. Wanting to understand how the old ways have survived on this Island, I couldn’t miss taking a trip to Scotland and Wales as well, two historic strongholds of pagan ways and earth-honoring belief systems. There is so much to share from both of these places, but for now I think I will just say: if you get the chance… go there. Deep magic wells up like moor water from these lands, and I am so excited to return one day.
Keep reading for tips on walking the pilgrimage path, reflections on each place I visited, along with accompanying songs to help you step into the mood and medicine of each sacred spot. (Also, the order of the posts with “::” markings makes a sample itinerary if you are interested in planning your own journey to these lands).
:: Wye River Valley ::
When Rivers were dragons
Dragons are very close to the heart of Wales. Still featuring on the country’s flag, here, the dragons of old were never slayed, but continue to live on as a symbol of the enduring potency of the old faith. Dragons, paganism, and earth energy itself are all one in the same. During certain times, dragons were literally shorthand for the old ways— which is why so many medieval knights are intent on slaying them in all those paintings.
Interestingly enough, as much as we think of Dragons as fire-breathers and air-spinners, in nearly every land-based culture around the world, dragons were associated with the waterways. Dragon-lines, in fact, are synonymous with the ancient lines of water that run beneath the surface of the earth, yin pathways that give our earth its own inner meridian system.
Knitting together the borders of England and Wales is the River Wye, a silty, serpentine river of extravagant curves. I spent my whole first day here weaving throughout the verdant grassy banks. As I strolled, the butterflies moved between blue sky, green hills and the fertile river’s flow. The day was so happy it shined. River valleys are like this— peaceful in the extreme. There is a primal part of us that say— yes, life here will be easy for me here. For truly, it is. The wye valley is dotted with farms, vegetables grow easily, and the cows are happy in their pasture. The snaking river means that waters are calm, life-giving, ever-nurturing.
This particular part of the Wye river valley is known for its sacred sites, including Tintern abbey. Walking the river bank, it all made sense. Before the churches, before even the wells, there was the river. There was the river that meandered first across a flat plane and slowly, over millennia, created a valley. It was the river, that gave life to this whole place.
In some creation stories it is said that dragons made the world. Walking along the banks of this ancient river, literally witnessing the valley sculpted by this brilliant rush of earth water, I can feel the winding truth of it all.
Here be dragons.
On the banks of the maternal, eternal River Wye, Tintern abbey has found its final form. Once a place devoted to Mother Mary, the abbey now has grass for floor and sky for ceiling, and something tells me it has never been more at home than it is now— with its windows full of living hillside and the immense beauty of a valley that never ceases in her giving.
Tracking the old ways
Just like learning to track animals across the landscape, we can learn to track the even older sacred places through the newer signs— churches, names, paths still taken, within and around. One clear sign that you are in the presence of a place where the old reverence for the earth powers, and the maternal energies of life, once lived is the occurrence of Archangel Michael and deified women, such as Mother Mary.
Places dedicated to Archangel Michael were often placed near old pagan sites of worship, as it was thought that this angel could help to clear the countryside of the old ways (little did they know that all angels are also pagans). Another indicator is finding a sacred site that reveres female saints, such as Brigitte, or the Mother Mary herself. The old ways die hard, so often it was easier to just name-change the wells rather than stamp out the age-old traditions. To the country folk, the transition must have just seemed like an outfit change. Sometimes, it still feels that way.
Just few miles down the road from Tintern abbey there is a little visited well dedicated to St. Anne. On the small placard made by local school students, the sign explains that once the well was dedicated to Annis, the Celtic goddess of rivers, wells, magic and wisdom. On midsummer’s eve, they wrote, the faeries dance here. The kids had drawn them on their sketch beside a very wild looking St.Anne. This particular well has been visited, and sipped from, for thousands of years by pilgrims seeking healing.
While there, I sat for a while by the nameless, faceless circle of dark benevolence. I sipped only a little, but I was filled just the same. I think, in the end, the wells and waters don’t mind what we call them. I don’t think Michael minds, or Mary, or Annis. I think they would be happy, in fact, to dance together like faeries on midsummers nights. We are the ones that somehow think they are separate things. When, in truth, they are each like the four springs that fills the round bottom of a well, nameless and deep. All that matters, I think, is that when such benevolence is offered, we drink.
:: Brecon Beacon National Park ::
St Cynog Church yew
The ancient yew. You cannot stand outside of it in order to understand, you must go in. Thousands of years old, this yew has become like a ship, something you climb into. Its many branches have formed a worn platform, a kind of ledge above the quiet ground where you can be rocked. A crows nest where you can count the many masts— one, two three, ten— of this tree sailing, still, through its own dreams.
The Church of St Issui
I had come to Wales seeking megaliths and the mega charge that come from them, but it turned out these quiet places of prayer were the ones that called me in. It was often the churches, their sweetness, their still-held communities, that spoke to my heart. Doubtless, my ancestors spent many, many hours underneath these simple steeples. It was likely the backbone, the pole star, of their week. Sunday was the one day off in a long life of work, a time to connect and remember that there was reprieve somewhere. The part of me that often shirked the churches of wood for the even older places of stone and glen, had to soften and conceded— there is holiness here too.
I could feel, stretching back into my line, all those who prayed before me. The tenderness of what they prayed for. The simplicity of this– that you will pray, and some benevolence will answer you. There is something to be said for the good, round, wholeness of such belief. In this tiny church perched on a scenic hill, I sat down to pray in silence, as I learned to do growing up in the Quaker faith, and I could feel my prayer linking me with the past, with all the hearts that knew to commune through words sent like ships into the light. I saw the beauty of the simple life, that simple prayer, and the incredible truth that all things are similarly touched by the light of the divine, that sun streaming through every window no matter where it was built.
There was never a question of which faith, what worthiness, there was only this— you pray, you are answered. This world is an answer to our prayers.
:: Snowdonia ::
I couldn’t visit Wales without driving straight into the heart of some of her most mythic mountains. After all, if there are two things that are unconditionally holy in all places around the word it is: water and mountains. Water and mountains.
Dinas Emrys- Merlin’s Hill
A wooded hillock in the folds of Snowdonia; this high place was once the seat of power of Wales and holds the seeds of ancient stories. The way the old tale goes, King Vortigern was trying to build his castle upon the hill but every night the work would of the day would tumble down. He was told he needed to sacrifice a fatherless boy in order for the building to succeed. The boy he found, however, ended up being a young Merlin. To save his life, the child seer told him that the castle kept falling because inside the hill two dragons, a red and white, were fighting, and that the quakes wouldn’t end until the red dragon had been victorious. Sure enough, they dug down and there were the dragons. Eventually the red dragon prevailed, the castle was built, and Merlin’s life was spared. The myth has been read for a long time as the triumph of Wales (the red dragon) over the invading Saxons (white). But the truth of myths is that they look in all directions. They show us where we’ve been, and also where we are going.
Before the dragons were fighting, they were converging. Dragons, as emblematic totems of ancient earth lines of energy, often meet in such power spots. But rather than attempt to conquer one another, they intersect, creating a great outpouring of energy. Before this story was parable of armies and invasion, perhaps it was an old Druidic wayfinding tale to say… here is power upwelling.
Sitting at the top of Dinas Emrys, looking out over the two snaking lines that mark the valley—the peat stained rush of the river Glaslyn, and the road, glistening white as it winds into the distance— I wonder if the myth isn’t once again working on us. Asking us if we’d like to reenter it from another door, and change the way we’ve been telling it for all these years.
What if it isn’t a fight? What if it’s not about the red dragon prevailing over the white, or the river overcoming the road, but the two meeting like old lines of earth energy? What if the myth we most need now is how to lay down the old stories of conflict for the even older stories of dance, of meeting, of creating power by coming together? That is a story worth retelling.
:: Rosslyn Glen ::
Rosslyn chapel in Scotland is known for its air of peaceful mysticism and subterranean power, but if you keep going from the chapel itself, you can take a winding trip through the history to visit the other ways we’ve prayed. Walk past the ornate egg of the chapel and down a path into the glen and you’ll enter an ancient nemeton, a sacred Druid’s grove that once functioned as a church of trees. The yews here were planted in a circle, holding something invisible in their center.
Weary from sickness, I took a long nap here, under one of the granddaughter yews. My body was so tired, and the feeling of the place so pure, I didn’t so much fall into sleep as lift into it, clear out of my body and into the formless light. I came back an hour or so later and opened my eyes to my traveling partner Sylvia Linsteadt returning to tell me, breathlessly, that the path continues.
It turns out, I’d you keep winding your way down to the river, you’ll arrive back to the beginning of how we prayed, or as close as you can come to that origin. Looking over the river bank, set into the alcoves of a stone cliff, are a series of petroglyphs, circles, spirals and S’s whose shape seem to mimic water itself.
No one knows exactly how old they are, but looking up at them I couldn’t help but feel I was in the valleys of Lascaux, the Paleolithic landscape, the beginning itself. I felt chills, as if a wind were moving through the long cave of history, straight from the oldest ancestors to me. Gazing at those ancient carvings all I could hear was “here is water, here is life” and all I could think was “is there, really, any other prayer?”
To learn how to worship with the trees, to pray from the cliffs, and in the water knee deep….sometimes I think that’s the only reason why I’m here. And that thought, so simple, makes nearly any moment in this wild church of a world so holy and sweet.
:: Glen Coe ::
It made me think of the great councils of guides we are all ringed by, whether we see them or not. The elders who meets us when we pass from one life into another. The ones who have seen every runnel of history make its way down mountain and valley to the shore. Those wide, wise ones who have witnessed every moment of the journey it took to get here and love us still. Love us for our tenderness, love us for our trying, love us for the great bravery it took to come here at all.
:: Mull ::
A Hebridean pony on the Isle of Mull. A place where the dream of true love somehow seemed so real.
Lochbuie Stone Circle
Some stone circles seem to pull you in like an embrace and there’s not much else you have to do but feel it.
It never fails to delight me, that some healing can be like this. That not all medicine must be won from some distant summit or reached by a journey that nearly breaks you, but here, open, as easy as a hug.
The older I get, and the more I experience of wholeness and loss, the more I think it’s this kind of healing, the small, unexpectedly easeful mercies, that are the most powerful of all.
I’ve never been much of a hiker. I used to say I’m more of a “rambler”, as I have a tendency to meander off path, getting involved in a random stream bed or boulder and forgetting about the destination. But in Scotland, I suppose, I could call myself a stravaig-er.
I first heard this word from Robert Macfarlane (whose definition is above) in his brilliant book Landmarks, and again in The Old Ways (which I finished just before arriving to Scotland). It is a kind of richness to be able to speak words aloud to the land from which they were born. To go wandering and say “stravaig” as you walk. Knowing these old words, even just a few, opens up something in the heart of a land. To be given them is a gift beyond measure.
Traditionally, stravaig can mean both a physical wander and the ramble of a good conversation. And often, I find, one informs the other. Sylvia Linsteadt and I have spent most of our time in Scotland on one long stravaig, on foot and in thought, seeing where it would lead us.
Sometimes I think the purpose of life is mostly to spend one’s time stravaig-ing…with little dots of purpose found along the way. It comforts me to know that there is a place, still, for such wandering in a world that feels so driven for final destinations.
Here’s to more time, and space, for the stravaig of life.
:: Iona ::
There are thin places on this earth, and there are power places. Some places, however, are both.
A small slip of an island in the inner Hebredies, Iona has been a place for pilgrimage and visioning since ancient times, probably far further than we can even reckon. Here, the membrane between realities is a dissolute as salt in the sea. And everywhere there is a great, bright, visionary power upwelling.
When I was little, after my parents put me to bed, sometimes I would lay my body by the bright crack of the door and try to peer under it. Though I could never see full forms, I could see their shapes, feel the light, and be comforted to know that just beyond that bright slip was a place where my caretakers continued to live, loving and planning good things for me. Being in Iona felt like laying my body along the long bright crack beneath the door, and peering in to the unbelievable light and love that awaits us just on the other side of this reality.
Sylvia Linsteadt and I had so many experiences while we were here— dreams, night visitations, downloads and visions— I truly feel I am just beginning to understand it all. Like a seam in the great fabric of the world, Iona is a place where the light enters the parts of you that have become thin. And I am so grateful for the days we got to spend inside this light.
The peace of the nunnery
Called Saoghal nam bam, or World of women, this quiet place on the low green shores of Iona was one of my favorite experiences on the island. A space of refuge and respite, Iona was a sanctuary of gardens, books, peace and prayer for over 350 years. Here, the red clover was blooming wild like a round circle of ladies, laughing together in the warming room. Here too was an ancient, worn, sheela-na-gig. Her stone legs parted over the window, low enough so her vulva can be touched, for love, luck, protection, and praise. She is worn down almost down to her contours, and emanates such ongoing contentment.
Centuries of women here, laughing, loving their sheela, caring for themselves, tending the good within their beings during a time when so much of the world said they were lesser than.
I imagine them, this gathering of nuns, not as patriarchy’s refugees, but as sisters, entire and sure, kneading the good bread of reality to make it soft once more.
There are places on the earth that never cease to hold us when we need holding. Places where the mother is still mothered. In the nunnery of Iona, those who hold so much can still be held. Here you can go and still be warmed, as you do your work of kneading the contours of the world, making it ready for the old ways to rise once more.
The colors of Iona
I don’t know if you’d believe me, if I told you of the colors of Iona. Like the droplets of a rainbow, detached themselves from the fog and came to land on every place soft enough to receive them. The impossibly green grass. The every shade of blue sea. The rose in red and fuchsia and the color of windswept cheeks now warmed by milk and fire and tea. The sun comes out and Iona dazzles. The sun hides and Iona shines.
Even though we’ve left the island the whole prism of this place still seems to be working on me. I hear there’s an old saying… those who come to Iona won’t come once, but three times. May it be so!
:: Kilmartin ::
On our last day in Scotland, Sylvia and I walked through the rainsoaked glen of Kilmartin, an ancient complex of sacred and archeological sites. Drawn to the great carved stones first, we placed our palms over the hundreds of cup marks made onto its ancient face. Mystery circles, horseshoes emanations, spirals and tiny dishes, no one knows why these markings were made, though theories abound. Star maps, songlines, wayfinding, power spots, offering pots. We may never know exactly why they were carved, expect that they were. Sitting beside them in the September rain, all I knew was that the puddles invited you to play, and I wondered if, despite the original intention, maybe this was the ongoing invitation.
That evening we climbed into Neither largie cairn, a burial and ceremonial chamber of old, with a roof still intact, if not dripping with sporadic rain. When we introduced ourselves it felt like the stones stood taller to take a good look at us. I drummed, the sound low as rain, a tone like the first note, a music that could move through stone. The rhythm was the humid breath of the ancestors humming. I drummed and Sylvia sung, and both of us felt the ancestors, they very old ones, come closer. It was a joy just to give gratitude for their presence on this earth, and for ours as well. We lit a candle and blew it out. We left offerings of rowan berries and water from the white well of Glastonbury. The stones shined underneath the new water and poured song. We climbed out of the cairn, leaving it sparkling with the love of having been tended. We left, two stars on a rainy night, our hopes renewed, our compasses toward back home.
The book that wants to be written
When this dictate to begin these travels came in, it also arrived with a task… these travels don’t just want to be a personal experience, they want to become a book that will be shared with others to help them on their own journeys. (!) It has felt like a big leap to even approach this, but in sharing these posts I feel so heartened to begin. It’ll take a few years yet, but a guide to help others on their pilgrimages is on its way, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for being on this trip with me.
Want more? Check out the first leg of my trip in England.