The East Neuk Festival will attract thousands of visitors but the area was once the destination for pilgrimages of a different kind

Cellardyke in the  East Neuk of Fife
Cellardyke in the East Neuk of Fife
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A MODERN-DAY pilgrimage to the East Neuk of Fife conjures up images so vivid you can picture them as postcards. Crail harbour with its trusty boats, sea-crusted creels, and peeling sign advertising lobster cooked while you wait.

The church at St Monans, so close to the sea it appears to hover upon it like an architectural miracle. The queue that snakes outside the fish and chip shop in Anstruther no matter the time of day. The Fence Collective, a bearded band of folk musicians. The third oldest university in the English-speaking world, where Prince William and Kate Middleton locked gazes. And nearby, the greatest reason of all to head to this ancient kingdom. The Old Course at St Andrews, otherwise known as the mother church of golf.

Yet a pilgrimage to the corner of Fife famously described by James II as “a fringe of gold on a beggar’s mantle” used to mean something else entirely. It actually meant a pilgrimage. From the 10th century to the Reformation in 1560, St Andrews was one of three major pilgrimage destinations in Europe, alongside Santiago de Compostela and Rome. People came in their thousands and for centuries to this windswept seaside town – to see an arm bone, three fingers, a tooth, and a kneecap. These were said to be the holy relics of the apostle St Andrew, venerated in Scotland’s largest cathedral which, when it was consecrated in 1318, was ten feet longer than the great basilica at Santiago de Compostela. The relics were held to be so precious they gave the town its name.

“This was once a vast complex,” Ian Gray, producer of the East Neuk Festival, says as we approach the cathedral’s ruins, and the surrounding graveyard looking out to sea. The east gable of the presbytery where the relics were held still stands, itself a stone skeleton witnessed today by a biting summer wind and a couple of thrawn tourists, or rather modern day pilgrims.

“There would have been huge numbers milling around here,” he continues. “And so many services were here to cater to them: a street of shops, inns, hostelries, and two hospitals. It’s thought that the way St Andrews is laid out, with its two medieval streets converging on the church, was so that the pilgrims could process through the town. And Market Street in between them is where the traders and shops set up specifically for the pilgrims.”

This year the East Neuk festival, renowned for its top-class chamber music in the old stone churches and village halls of the area, is creating an exhibition exploring this lost history of pilgrimage. A labyrinth has been created for Crail Community Hall by East Neuk artist Hilke MacIntyre, imagining pilgrim routes through the region. The main exhibition is a 1490 fictional pamphlet for pilgrims written by Gray, or rather “Jan Grau, a sinner”. A kind of medieval Rough Guide to Pilgrimage, it contains such tongue-in-cheek travel advice as “un-armed pilgrims are the preferred target for every pick-pocket, mugger and murderer in Christendom. Insects will bite you. The driving rain will chill you. Chiefly, do not gossip, gamble, go whoring or play bag-pipes (they are everywhere in Europe but nowhere more so than in Scotland).”

It may be an invention, but the message is serious. So much of this history has to be imagined because so little can be known. And some feel this extraordinary history of one of the world’s great pilgrimages has been neglected. Pilgrimage and the East Neuk may go together like sea and sand, fish and chips, or golfing and Americans, but it’s a pairing that remains hidden. By comparison, the Camino of Santiago de Compostela, the pilgrimage route through northern Spain, continues to draw 200,000 pilgrims every year.

“We don’t have records because everything was destroyed,” Gray says. “The Reformation buried something that, hundreds of years later, remains underground. And you know, it’s not exactly something you talk about in the pubs. The tensions between Catholics and Protestants are still very much alive.”

However, attempts are being made to restore this and other historic routes in Scotland. A pilgrimage pledge to raise awareness was signed last year by church and civic leaders, and ACTS (Action for Churches Together in Scotland) has started a Pilgrimage Walking Routes initiative aimed at restoring old routes. This Sunday, as the East Neuk Festival draws to a close, the first official pilgrimage to St Andrews in more than four centuries will begin. The pilgrims, led by Cardinal Keith O’Brien, will start the 100km, five-day walk to St Andrews cathedral at 10.30am, leaving from St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh.

What about the pilgrims of the Middle Ages? “Many of these people were poor, illiterate farming peasants tied to their parish,” Peter Yeoman, head of cultural resources at Historic Scotland and author of Pilgrimage in Medieval Scotland, explains. “A parish you could walk from one side to the other in an hour. They had to ask permission from their priest. Imagine what a big deal it must have been.”

The greatest number of St Andrews pilgrims’ badges, “the first tourist souvenir” as Yeoman calls them, have been found in the Thames mud, London. “They date from 13th and 14th centuries,” he says. “So clearly there was passage through London, both by Londoners and people further afield.”

How would the pilgrims have travelled to the East Neuk? “There were hostels along the way that would take care of you,” he says. “The town of St Andrews and various other places in the East Neuk derived enormous economic benefit from pilgrimage. Hostels and hospices were endowed by the nobility or run by monastic houses. The nuns of North Berwick looked after the hostels on both sides of the Forth. Earlsferry got its name because the Earls of Fife endowed a free crossing for pilgrims in the middle of the 12th century. Queen Margaret did the same at the end of the 11th century, which is how Queensferry got its name.”

The names may have remained, yet there are few scars left on the landscape. “The more I looked, the less I found,” is how Gray puts it. On our 2012 pilgrimage to Fife, which admittedly is achieved by car, satnav, and a stop for fish and chips, Gray points out a few church ruins, crop marks, chapel remains, and an ancient bishop’s road. But mostly the history has been hidden just as the old roads have been laid over with tarmac.

Yet look again, scratch the surface and you find clues. “It’s the same as the railways that used to run here,” Svend Brown, artistic director of the East Neuk Festival tells me. “You’ve got all this history lying just under the grass.” Sometimes it’s more visible than that. Guardbridge, a village on the River Eden, was named for its medieval bridge built to aid the pilgrims’ crossing. This was once the last overnight stop on the route to the Holy City: a station where the pilgrims washed, had their feet bound, and were held by the Augustinians before being guided to the final destination. Today, the six-arched Old Guard Bridge still stands and it’s the Victorian railway viaduct that has been reduced to a few stumps in the river.

Stretches of the Fife Coastal path would have been used by wandering pilgrims as they visited shrines, the likes of St Fillan’s Cave at Pittenweem, or the Isle of May along the way. Centuries later, this 150km stretch of coastal path is also how tourism, the modern version of pilgrimage, came to the East Neuk. The Holiday Line trains trundled along the very same path until the 1960s when the Beeching axe fell and the stations started closing. Today, on the stretch between Pittenweem and St Monans, the only folk we bump into are a couple of walkers and locals out with their dogs.

“It’s true that there is little left to reveal the history,” admits Yeoman. “But I think the fact that it is a bit fugitive makes it all the more interesting. You can walk in the footsteps of thousands of pilgrims armed with just a bit of historical knowledge.”

Back in St Andrews, I head to the Visit Scotland Information Centre on Market Street. Golf is the main reason for pilgrimage to the town, with history coming a poor second. “I haven’t had a single person ask me about pilgrimage,” a tourist adviser tells me “and I’ve worked here ten years.” Over in the church graveyard, I meet a trio of Australians who made the 28-hour trip from Melbourne to St Andrews for one reason only.

“We’ve come on a pilgrimage too,” Paddy Brady, 63, says when I tell him the history of the church. “See that gravestone?” He points at a stone where his two manically grinning friends are taking turns to photograph each other. Below, golf balls and tees have been reverently placed like 21st century alms, secular offerings instead of donations and votive candles. “That man, Old Tom, is the father of golf. He lived to 86 and used to swim in the sea every day. And that’s his son, Tommy, also a champion, won three British opens in a row. Died at 24. This is the pilgrimage of a lifetime, I tell you.” Brady sighs beatifically. Before I leave I take photos of them by the gravestone, three men beaming in the shadow of their god.

Later, I talk to writer and former bishop Richard Holloway who will be appearing at the East Neuk Festival to talk about his own personal pilgrimage, from faith to doubt. We may live in a secular world, he says, but walking fulfils a deep human need. “There is something about walking for a purpose with a large bunch of people,” he says. Think of the Jarrow hunger marches; Gandhi’s year-long salt march to the sea. Think of the great pilgrimages made by those of us protesting against the Iraq war.”

Pilgrimage, in other words, transcends religion. “Getting out into the world and moving our legs for a purpose is a deeply distinct, human thing,” Holloway says. “As Bruce Chatwin said, it goes back to our nomadic nature. We walked out of Africa and we’ve been covering ground, crossing tundras, migrating, wandering the earth ever since. We’re all pilgrims when you think about it.”

• The East Neuk Festival opens today