Pilgrimage to Pluscarden: A France-to-Scotland Trek

The faithful are on a special mission this summer.

700-plus years of monastic life is still going strong at Pluscarden Abbey.
700-plus years of monastic life is still going strong at Pluscarden Abbey. (photo: Courtesy of Pluscarden Abbey)

As you read this, teams of young pilgrims are making their way across France, heading for an abbey in the north of Scotland, commemorating more than 700 years of monastic history.

Pluscarden Abbey, at Elgin in Moray — the nearest town is Inverness — was founded by Benedictine monks from Val-des-Choux, Burgundy, in the 13th century.As you read this, teams of young pilgrims are making their way across France, heading for an abbey in the north of Scotland, commemorating more than 700 years of monastic history.

The original monks made their way on foot from France to found three monasteries in Scotland — the other two were also in the Highlands, at Beauly in Ross and Archadden in Argyll.

Pluscarden still thrives and is adding new buildings as it looks toward the new demands of the 21st century. Its last major restoration was in 1948, when it was rebuilt from a semi-ruined condition, having fallen into neglect in the preceding centuries.

For the 21st-century restoration, the monks needed to raise funds, but also wanted to make the life and work of the abbey better known, and to celebrate its message and heritage. The monks follow the Benedictine rule, chanting the daily offices, and work in the gardens and grounds, as well as offer spiritual direction and retreats. Its original foundation was enabled with grants from King Alexander II of Scotland.

This summer’s pilgrimage, ending in September and retracing the steps of the founders who came from Burgundy more than 700 years ago, is part of a wider program of events and activities for the project, which has been called “Pluscarden 1230,” after the year of the abbey’s foundation.

In charge of the venture is David Broadfoot, formerly of the British army. He trained at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and served with the Gordon Highlanders in various parts of the world, retiring with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

He has previously managed projects at Cawdor and Glamis Castles. “This is essentially about the last bit of restoration of the abbey,” he explained. “As an ex-military man, I am not very good at just sitting and begging — I wanted to do something active.”

“This is a pilgrimage, lasting 13 weeks, beginning in Burgundy and finishing at Pluscarden. Pilgrims have signed up to walk for a week — from Monday to Saturday, walking approximately 100 miles, about 15-16 miles each day. There will be changeover on the Sunday to the next group of pilgrims, although we have three chaps who are actually walking the whole distance, the whole 13 weeks.”

“It’s a real spiritual pilgrimage. There will be Mass and daily prayer, and they will be sleeping in abbeys along the way,” he added. “They will start each day with a good breakfast, and there will be an evening meal waiting for them on arrival at the next destination. We have backup vehicles to carry backpacks and so on.”

This is a multifaith event; although the majority of pilgrims are Catholics, there are some Anglicans, non-Christians and people of no religious belief participating. Broadfoot is himself an Episcopalian. The idea for the venture came as a result of contact with historian Phillip Adamo of Augsburg College in Minneapolis, who is an authority on medieval monasticism. “I met him when he was speaking at a conference in Rome, and we came up with this idea: He’ll be walking with us for part of the route and writing a book about it all,” said Broadfoot.

Adamo is enthusiastic about the venture and has been teaching a course at Augsburg to link with the pilgrimage, and some of his students are also walking the route.

Pilgrims have been invited to raise funds for the abbey by asking friends and supporters to sponsor their walk, with £1230 ($1,566 U.S. dollars) as the target for each pilgrim. “Most have raised more than that, and several have doubled it,” Broadfoot said. “But the real message is not about fundraising, but about raising the profile of what an abbey is, what Pluscarden is all about and what it represents.”

Father Giles from the abbey and Ghurkha (an important regiment in the British army) officer Jai Lama from Kathmandu — who is a friend of Broadfoot’s from their army days and is helping with the whole project — arrived in Burgundy before the pilgrimage started to arrange the launch.

The original abbey at Val-des-Choux is now in private hands and is a boar-hunting center, and the owners entered into the spirit of the pilgrimage with gusto, arranging for a marquee for Mass, followed by a barbecue — sending the pilgrims on their journey in style.

Enthusiasm for the project abounds. Rory Stewart, member of Parliament for Penrith and The Borders; Harry Bucknall, former Coldstream Guards officer and author of a book about walking from London to Rome; and Alice Warrender, who, after suffering serious injuries in a road accident, decided to help her own recuperation by walking from Canterbury to Rome, are among the patrons.

The royal patron of “Pluscarden 1230” is Princess Michael of Kent, who said:

“I am delighted to be supporting the Pluscarden pilgrimage, an ancient tradition which allows us to connect with the land, location and ourselves, and the time is right for its resurgence.

“Indeed, around the country many people are rediscovering the power of this ancient practice. It is both remarkable and very special that hundreds of years after the founding of Pluscarden, people are very excited to explore the remarkable heritage of this unique location and support the abbey buildings as they enter a new phase of their long history.”

Joanna Bogle writes

 from London.