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North pilgrimage route could be ready for next tourist season

By Gordon Calder

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The group hopes to have the pilgrimage way ready for the next tourist season.
The group hopes to have the pilgrimage way ready for the next tourist season.

AN ancient pilgrimage route, which passes through Caithness, could be re-established in time for next year's tourist season.

That is the aim of a new body which wants to attract visitors to the area by travelling the route from Tain in Ross-shire to Caithness and on to Orkney.

Jane Coll, the secretary of the recently-formed Northern Pilgrims Way steering group, explained that it will require around £5000 to get the initiative underway.

She said: "We are just starting to investigate costings for things like signs, leaflets and to set up a website but the figure would probably be about £5000. We are looking at various funding sources at the moment. The route would share the John O' Groats Way between Tain and Dunbeath, curve inland from Dunbeath to Spittal by Loch More, using existing paths, and then cross to Orkney by one of the three ferries at Scrabster, Gills or John O' Groats."

Mrs Coll pointed out that George Watson and David Glass of the Caithness Field Club did much of the research to find evidence of the far north links to the Tain and Kirkwall route.

"The aim is to re-establish the ancient pilgrimage route between Tain and Kirkwall. From the beginning of the 12th century, Tain was the destination of many thousands of pilgrims visiting the grave of St Duthac, a native of the town and a famous preacher and miracle-worker. The best known of these pilgrims was King James IV, who visited the site annually for many years. Later Kirkwall cathedral was built in honour of St Magnus, whose bones were built into one of its pillars. This too became a popular pilgrimage destination. There would have been travel in both directions but with the changes caused by the Reformation in the 16th century, the practice of going on pilgrimage died out," she said.

Mrs Coll, who lives in the Dunnet area, was part of the group which created the six Northern Saints Trails in Caithness. "We came across the pilgrimage route information while researching the trails and decided to bring this route into the 21st century and contacted the Scottish Pilgrim Routes Forum," she stated.

That led to meetings taking place and the setting up of the steering group earlier this month.

Group chairman and Thurso and northwest Caithness Highland councillor, Karl Rosie, is excited about the potential of the the Pilgrimage Way.

"We are presented with a fabulous opportunity in Caithness, Sutherland and Ross-Shire with this initiative," he said.

It was pointed out that the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain – a Unesco world heritage site – has been popular since the 1980s and now has over 200, 000 people a year. Visitors walk the route or travel it by bicycle or on horseback.

The route attracts religious devotees as well as people with a wide range of interests and provides opportunities for local businesses and communities regards accommodation, transport and souvenirs.

Mr Rosie said: "This pilgrimage project ticks so many boxes in what we are striving to achieve in creating slow tourism and enabling general health and well-being activities."

The group will meet again at the end of August. "By then we will be hoping to have facts and figures for the cost of the signs, leaflets and website," added Mrs Coll.

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