Dark Night of the Soles

“Dad, you don’t have to suffer…”

The entreaty from my daughters Bonnie and Tammy reverberated through my head, gently chastising me for being so goal orientated as I pushed hard in my quest to complete a west-to-east traverse of Scotland at its widest and most beautiful.

GeoffPilgrimage27The final Findhorn-Peterhead leg should have been easy but my body was crying out with pain and exhaustion, and once, when I heard an anguished whimper, I realised with surprise that it had come from me. Hey, pilgrim, is this the best you can do?

I’d hoped to start in expensive new trail shoes that I’d tried out the day before, sadly with disastrous results. An easy 11km (7 mile) beach walk had removed the skin from my right heel and started new ‘hotspots’ that are a precursor to blisters.

So it was back to my old boots, and with Findhorn’s whirling wind turbines still in sight, I was beginning to hobble. I thought of all the wisdom available to me, and especially the Findhorn credo: “If it isn’t fun, it isn’t sustainable.”

My daughters had also made perfect sense: “Have fun, be brave and remember that you don’t have to suffer, freeze or go hungry to spread your message. Spread your message in true happiness.”

I thought of the Dark Night of the Soles headline for this blog and began to laugh. Yes, I’d been taking myself far too seriously, being driven by ego and behaving like a tourist intent on a destination, rather than a pilgrim celebrating each step of the journey. Hey, lighten up and have fun. And I did.

GeoffPilgrimage24While others were fighting rush hour traffic or sitting behind desks and computer monitors, I was exploring the Moray Coast Trail with its superb signposting and inviting paths, hidden beaches and wildlife gems like the cliffs and rock stacks that are the domain of nesting fulmars and seagulls.

Slowing my pace and suppressing my competitive instincts, I appreciated the smaller things like spider webs encrusted with jewel-like droplets of water, insects scurrying purposefully and bees bestowing the priceless gift of pollination.

When a pleasant weariness overtook me at the end of the first day I found an open-fronted World War II lookout point on the beach that offered shelter from the rain without obscuring beautiful views over the ocean. I enjoyed aloneness without feeling lonely, also trying to imagine what it had been like for those young soldiers – now nearly all dead – who had manned these coastal defences. I pondered the futility of war and colossal waste of money and manpower that created mile upon mile of concrete pillboxes and tank traps marching across the coastal landscape.

Day Two started as it ended, with rain, rain and more rain and mounting misery as I taunted myself with negative questions. Could I really be the change I wanted to see in the world? Was this giant walk just the manifestation of an oversized ego? If I was really treading lightly upon the Earth why did my feet hurt so badly?

GeoffPilgrimage22Of course, deep down I knew there could be no other way as I was following my inspiration to make a difference and could draw strength from others like Peace Pilgrim and Satish Kumar who are signposts to how it is done.

Then, near the picturesque coastal hamlet of Cullen, my spirits soared again. Former forester Fiona Sutherland, now a healer and mum, came striding towards me wearing a wide welcoming grin. She and her forester hubby John, and young daughters Catriona and Maia, had chosen to open their home and hearts to a weary traveller. Just when I needed it I was overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers.

Out of the blue Emma Pearson, another healer and an efficient ex-Army type, arrived with a present of invaluable advice, plasters for blisters and ointment to prevent chafing. And then she was gone, making me wonder if I’d just met the reincarnation of Florence Nightingale.

Unbeknown to me my friend Sylvia Black had also dropped off the ingredients for a sumptuous supper, as well as snacks for the next day. I slept sublimely in the luxury of an inflatable airbed and treated myself to an uncharacteristically late start. Not 5am but 8.45!


Now home is wherever my feet lead me… what freedom!


Day Three eventually found me in Macduff, a town in Aberdeenshire which is reputedly the only place in Britain where deep-water wooden fishing boats are still built. It was lovely but I couldn’t face a crowded campsite and had settled on the idea of a discreet patch of lawn in the local cemetery when I spotted the Myrus Holiday Park. It was virtually deserted and I rolled out my bivvy bag on lush grass after enjoying a hot shower in the best ablution facilities I’ve encountered in any caravan park anywhere. Bliss!


Rattray Head lighthouse

My feet still hurt but I had weathered my Dark Night of the Soul, appreciating that a pilgrim accepts whatever might come and looks for the lesson in every situation, as well as the gift in each person along the way. I in turn try to be a gift to all I meet, while helping raise awareness about the issues that inspired this walk.

Day Five since the restart from Findhorn was the best and I’d resolved to be kind to myself. Leaving Fraserburgh in dank, grey mist I decided to go only as far as the Rattray Head lighthouse and either wild camp or book into the nearby eco hostel in the lighthouse keeper’s former home.

I also ignored the advice of those well-intentioned folks who told me of a dangerous deep river crossing, urging me to stick to the main tar road instead of the beach. Yes, I did get wet up to my calves but the water soothed the blisters, and the beach walking, much of it barefoot, was a tonic for body and soul. Maybe there’s an important message that I feel most connected to the Earth while walking barefoot.

Dropping off my camping gear at the hostel I decided to carry on along the beach to Peterhead, the most easterly point in the country, stopping to photograph the remains of shipwrecks and marvelling at my good fortune. The tides were no longer favourable and the wind was howling at my back, but I felt energised and exhilarated, recognising that from baby steps as a pilgrim I’m learning and relearning valuable lessons.


The last few steps to Peterhead

For once the inner journey is more important than the outer one. I’d added fresh insights and my confidence is growing. The statistics are taking care of themselves thanks to the pedometer I clip to my waistband. Another 172km had been added to my tally since leaving Findhorn five days earlier, while the total since starting on the sacred Isle of Iona stands at 593.6km (368.9 miles), around 766,219 steps and several blisters. (How’s that for irrelevant information?)

Yay… I’ve walked in the spirit of the ancestors across my first country. My tender but willing feet have transported me across Scotland from lighthouse to lighthouse, also kindling fond memories of the Kommetjie Lighthouse in Cape Town that was part of my early morning meditation walks in another life, just a few weeks ago.

Now home is wherever my feet lead me… what freedom!

Pilgrim lessons and rememberings:

  • Any journey starts with a single step that takes you closer to your objective
  • Appreciate that we are all capable of much more than we imagine
  • Dream big and understand that nothing is impossible
  • Know that 60-something, or any age, is a number and not a limitation
  • Recognise the spark of divinity that resides in everyone
  • See the gift that each person brings and be a gift to them
  • Look for the lesson in every situation and event
  • Accept that what happens is just what happens and don’t judge it
  • Celebrate the interconnectedness of all things knowing you are but a strand in the web of life
  • Remember that Love is the Answer and ask What would love do now?

Geoff Dalglish

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