I meet Anthony Schrag in the square in Selkirk, under the stern gaze of the statue of Sir Walter Scott. He recognises me because I’m the only other person in walking gear. I recognise him by his bright red Gandalf-esque pilgrim’s staff.
When I ask about it, he smiles and grimaces. Some 12 days into his 2,500km “pilgrimage” – he started from Huntly in Aberdeenshire in June and aims to finish at the Venice Biennale on 1 October – the staff is a confirmed pain in the neck. “Every time I stop for the night, I leave it outside and hope someone will steal it, but no-one does. But, annoyingly, it’s working as well. Someone just came up to me and asked if I was the man off the telly’.”
Schrag’s 111-day journey is the brainchild of Claudia Zeiske, director of Huntly-based Deveron Arts, one of Scotland’s leading socially engaged arts projects. When her proposal for Scotland’s show at the Biennale, a project with Schrag engaging local people from the city, was rejected in favour of Graham Fagen, she came up with Lure of the Lost, a journey to Venice as a “contemporary pilgrimage”. It asks questions about what it means for an event to become venerated by the art world (as the Biennale has) and what it means to be on the outside.
For Schrag, however, the conceptual basis of the project is superseded by the practical: how many miles per day; the benefit of one type of boot over another; in short, what it takes to walk 2,500km one step at a time. I’m joining him on his last full day in Scotland, walking from Selkirk over a couple of low hills to Hawick. Ahead lies the Border and the Pennines, and later, the Alps.
“Getting out of town is always the hardest thing,” he says as we leave Selkirk behind and begin to walk uphill through sunlit deciduous woodland. Schrag, who admits he is a “nervous map reader”, stops frequently to consult his photocopied map and, while wi-fi lasts, check it against Google.
Leaving the woods behind, we cross a field and look down on the valley beyond. Munching flapjacks and talking about poetry, we realise we’ve parted company with the path, but a short detour down a narrow country road will put us back on track. “People ask if I’m having profound thoughts,” says Schrag. “The romantic notion of the artist, pilgrim, writer wandering to have profound thoughts. I’ve had very few, I’m more concerned with whether I’m going the right way.”
Interestingly, the poet Simon Armitage, who has published two books about long walks, said much the same: instead of writing poetry on his walks, he found himself largely preoccupied with the route and the practicalities.
Schrag’s journey began in Huntly, on the Feast Day of St Anthony (ironically, patron saint of the lost), and took him straight into the walking equivalent of a baptism of fire – three days’ hard going in the Cairngorms, crossing a mountain each day. With troublesome new boots and mist closing in, he faced his first serious challenge. “I couldn’t see a thing, I realised I was going in the wrong direction and didn’t know how to get back to the path. Then, out of the mist came a man I can only describe as Colonel Mustard, wearing plus-fours, with a big curling moustache. He gave me directions and then strode off again. I almost wondered if he was a throwback to a previous time.”
Schrag’s art practice is participatory, he works with people rather than producing objects for exhibitions. Born in Zimbabwe, and having grown-up in Vancouver, he graduated from Glasgow School of Art’s MFA course in 2005, an admirer of David Harding’s pioneering work in socially engaged art. His projects have included becoming a “rent-a-dad” to look at fatherhood and male role models (for Deveron Arts) and trying to find the “most normal person in Lincolnshire”. For him, the art in Lure of the Lost consists in the conversations he has along the way (and in more formal events planned at the Edinburgh Art Festival, and in London).
“I’m walking to Venice, that evokes questions: why Venice, why walking, what’s the Biennale? To me, that’s to me where the art happens.” He quotes writer Lewis Hyde who describes the work of the artist being in the “disruptive imagination”.
“My doing this makes people question things they’ve taken for granted, makes them see the world slightly differently. People are interested in practical things: how far do you walk each day, where do you stay, what do you carry, because they want to know how this is different from their lives.”
We pass through a farmyard, and a fine rain starts to fall as we begin a more serious climb up the edge of a forestry plantation. Schrag has had to think hard about what the Venice Biennale means to an artist like him, whose work sits outside the usual run of galleries and exhibitions. “The Venice Biennale is about objects, but I don’t make objects. Am I placing more value on it than I actually have for it, because I’m walking 2,500 km to get there? Will I solve any of these things? Is that the point of a spiritual journey – an epiphany, about life and about the project? Or will I just find further questions?”
As walkers have observed down the years, travelling on foot offers a unique perspective. Some writers have described walking as an act of resistance, counter to the rush and pressure of the modern world. “Animals are sceptical of walkers,” he says, as a herd of cows stops to stare at us curiously. “People are suspicious of walkers, it’s such an archaic thing to do: why aren’t you taking the train? Why aren’t you even cycling? I spoke to an artist who walked through France, he was stopped by the police several times because they thought he was an immigrant. When we travel, we travel in cars, on trains, those who walk are those who can’t afford it, or want to be under the radar.”
At the same time, walking brings you closer to your environment than any other form of transport. “You see the landscape changing, and the people, they sound different, look different, are engaged in different ways of living. In the Cairngorms, it was grouse-shooting, now we’re moving into golf-course territory [at this point, we have just reached one, and are steering carefully across the fairways, past parties of golfers]. You have deeper awareness of the boundaries, how they cross-fade, whereas you can go from airport to airport and find exactly the same shops, the same things.”
After a break to eat our sandwiches under the spreading branches of an oak, we face another hill, one of those – although it is far from mountainous – which seems to have an infinite number of summits, each one revealing itself just when you think you’ve reached the top. Schrag says he is less comfortable with the quasi-religious nature of “contemporary pilgrimage”, but when we stop to free a young sheep which has got its head stuck in a wire fence – a lengthy tussle which, for any spectators, would surely have been comedy gold – he says it feels like “a suitably biblical act”.
Cresting the final summit, we get our first glimpse of Hawick in the valley below. As the dirt track becomes a narrow Tarmac road, a blue line of much higher hills becomes visible on the horizon to the south.
“That’s where I’m headed,” says Schrag, resolutely, hefting his backpack. My last glimpse of him is walking determinedly into Hawick, ticking off another day on his marathon journey, putting one foot in front of the other.
• The Way to Venice, a talk chaired by David Harding, with speakers including Schrag (on satellite link) and Lucy Byatt, curator of Scotland + Venice, is at St Patrick’s Church, Edinburgh, 30 July. A Contemporary Pilgrimage Walk from St Anthony’s Chapel ruins in Holyrood Park to Rosslyn Chapel takes place on 31 July, see www.edinburghartfestival.com. There will also be a discussion on The Right of Free Movement on 20 July, Toynbee Studios, London, www.deveron-arts.com