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The Fife Pilgrim Way: In the footsteps of monks, miners and martyrs, by Ian Bradley 

27 September 2019

Philip Welsh considers a history-rich journey

THE newly opened Fife Pilgrim Way takes a 64-mile route from North Queensferry (or, alternatively, Culross) to the tiny city of St Andrews — medieval pilgrimage destination, cradle of the Scottish Reformation, ancient university, and golfers’ paradise.

It strikes a course between the more traditional pilgrim route of the St Andrews Way and the scenic Fife Coastal Path, and deliberately takes in some unprepossessing stretches of the former West Fife coalfield, with the hope that it might contribute some regeneration to the region.

Ian Bradley, formerly Professor of Cultural and Spiritual History at St Andrews, is a prolific author whose interests range from Celtic Christianity to Victorian hymns. What he provides is not a walking guide — he directs us elsewhere for that — but an ideal illustrated companion to the rich historical background of the area, ancient and modern (there is little reference to natural history).

After a slightly sulphurous introduction to medieval pilgrimage — “we need to appreciate the overwhelming fear of death, judgement, Hell and damnation that was universal” — we learn about centres of monastic life along the way, and about Fife’s coal-mining heritage and radical left-wing political tradition: an MI5 officer investigating British Communists reported in 1974 that “nearly all of them seem to come from Fife.”

Bradley reveals some “striking modern expressions of faith” in the new town of Glenrothes, and guides us through the complexities of the 17th-century Covenanters. Finally, we explore St Andrews — its monks, its martyrs (Catholic and Protestant), John Knox, and the university, whose “spiritual heart” is apparently St Mary’s College, of which the author was Principal.

ian bradleyThe 1889 memorial brass that marks the tomb of Robert the Bruce in Dunfermline Abbey Church, in a photo from The Fife Pilgrim Way

Bradley mentions his insistence that some of the city’s commemorations should include an element of reconciliation for past conflicts, but in general he stands back in the book, and his occasional moralisings are a bit lugubrious: “Inverkeithing Train Station also provides a bus link to Edinburgh airport. Such staging places prompt reflection about the ever-changing and transitory nature of our lives.”

The Fife Pilgrim Way is an excellent introduction to a wide landscape of Scottish Christian and social history through the lens of one region. It may even reinvigorate parish fund-raising: “Under the instruction of the parish minister, every male aged between sixteen and sixty had to fire at least six shots from his bow at targets every Sunday after the church service. Anyone who did not turn up for this practice was fined two pence.”

The Revd Philip Welsh is a retired priest in the diocese of London.

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