Skip to content

‘More difficult than the Camino’: A bishop's guide to St. Cuthbert’s Way

Editor’s note: This report was originally published Jul6 13, 2023. We’re republishing it during the week of Christmas 2023, for your reading enjoyment!

If you find yourself trudging along St. Cuthbert’s Way, be prepared to spend hours in the driving rain. Store up on snacks, because for miles you will pass no stores. And you may be one of the few pilgrims on the route among clusters of hikers. 

But don’t worry: It will be worth it. If you persevere along the trails through the Scottish Borders and northern England, you reach the point that medieval writers called the “mons gaudium” — the “hill of joy” — where you will have the first glimpse of your destination. In the distance you will see the greenish hue of the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, where the 7th-century Anglo-Saxon saint served as bishop. 

Bishop James Conley, Archbishop Paul Coakley, Bishop James Wall, and Fr. Burke Masters on St. Cuthbert’s Way. Courtesy photo.  


At least that was the experience of Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska, when he walked the 62-mile path this week. He made the journey with Oklahoma City’s Archbishop Paul Coakley, Gallup’s Bishop James Wall, and Joliet’s Fr. Burke Masters — four friends bonded by a common love of walking pilgrimages. 

“There are very primitive sections where you feel like you’re really at the end of the world because there’s nothing but sheep and a few cows,” Conley told The Pillar in a July 6 phone interview as he prepared to return home.

“You’ve got these beautiful rivers, like the River Tweed, which runs through the whole part of the St. Cuthbert’s Way. And then when you reach a peak about seven miles from Lindisfarne, you get your first glimpse of the North Atlantic, which is stunning. You can see the island, especially when the tide is out.”

Conley, who covered part of the Camino de Santiago last year with his three friends, noted that the mons gaudium on that pilgrimage is the moment when you first see the spires of Santiago de Compostela Cathedral.

“And it is the same on this pilgrimage,” he said. “You can see the Holy Island and you can see the water. You can see the ruins of the old monastery there. You know you’re close.”

The pilgrim party walks on St. Cuthbert’s Way. Courtesy photo.  

‘Soaked to the bone’

St. Cuthbert’s Way begins at the gates of the 12th-century Melrose Abbey, which is believed to contain the embalmed heart of Robert the Bruce, King of Scots from 1306 to 1329.

From there, pilgrims walk a rugged, meandering route through the Scottish Borders and the English county of Northumberland toward the sea.

Of the four pilgrims, it was Bishop Wall who first heard about the pilgrimage.  

“We read up on it, did some research, and found out that it was very ancient, going back to the time of Cuthbert,” Conley explained. “When he and St. Bede were both buried in the priory in Lindisfarne, the Holy Island, for about 200 years, that became a very popular pilgrimage to make.” 

“And then of course with the Viking raids and after the Norman Conquest, they translated the bodies of both Bede and Cuthbert to Durham Cathedral. That’s where they rest now, but the pilgrimage route continues even to this day.” 

The quartet brave the rain on St. Cuthbert’s Way. Courtesy photo.  

Subscribe now

The first day was long and arduous as the four pilgrims combined two stages into one, covering 18 miles in eight hours.

On the second day, Conley and his companions crossed the more than 17 miles between Harestanes and the village of Kirk Yetholm, praying the rosary along the way. At times, it was also challenging.

“We were going through some really heavy, almost waist-high grass. It was absolutely soaked with rain. Our pants and our feet and our shoes were soaked to the bone. We were basically slogging along for eight or nine hours,” he said.

“We just wanted to get to someplace dry, so we could take off these wet clothes and dry off and get warm. I’m glad it was kind of early on because we still had some energy. But that was probably one of the low points of the trip.”

The four pilgrims at the Spread Eagle Hotel in Jedburgh, Scottish Borders. Courtesy photo.  

The party crammed four days of walking into the first two days because their time was limited.

“In some ways, it was more difficult than the Camino in Spain,” Conley reflected. “Partly because in Spain, you’re going through little villages all the time. The Camino Frances is such a popular pilgrimage route. There are stops along the way: Restaurants, cafes, places to rest and be nourished.” 

“But the St. Cuthbert Way, really there’s not much between the destination points. We realized very quickly we had to take along our own provisions because we had no place to get lunch or to stop and rest. So we had a couple of eight- and nine-hour days of just solid walking with no stops other than water.” 

“We carried our own water and we had some snacks and provisions, but we didn’t have any proper place to stop for a meal. That made it more difficult, but also the terrain through that part of Scotland and northern England is very mountainous and hilly. But beautiful and very diverse topography.” 

By day three, the pilgrims hit their stride, walking for eight hours straight, enchanted by the peace and beauty of the route to the town of Wooler. At times, Conley would listen to podcasts on his wireless earbuds, including The Pillar Podcast.

A wooden sculpture of St. Cuthbert on St. Cuthbert’s Way. Courtesy photo.

Leave a comment

Lessons for a 21st-century bishop

On the fourth day, the group took on the remote stretch to the village of Fenwick, where they passed a carved wooden statue of St. Cuthbert, a sign they were near St. Cuthbert’s Cave, where the monks of Lindisfarne were said to have taken the saint’s body in 875 A.D. as they escaped marauding Vikings.

Walking along the route gave Conley a chance to reflect on Cuthbert’s heroic episcopal ministry. 

“Cuthbert was only bishop of Lindisfarne for two years. But in those two years, Bede tells us that Cuthbert went on foot to go out confirming and bringing the sacraments — celebrating the Sacrament of Confirmation, blessing marriages, baptizing. It really gave me a whole new perspective about what it means for a bishop to go out,” he said.

“I am the bishop of a diocese of about 25,000 square miles. My diocese crosses two time zones, from the Colorado border on the west to the Iowa border on the east. I spend a lot of time traveling out to rural places to celebrate the Sacrament of Confirmation — a three-hour drive to celebrate Confirmation for three or four children.” 

“Walking along St. Cuthbert’s Way made me think about what it must have been like for him on foot, bringing the sacramental graces of our Lord to people in out-of-the-way places and also dangerous places. He would oftentimes go without food because he would just depend upon God’s providence and he’d be fasting as well.” 

“For a bishop, we do so many confirmations, maybe 40 or 50 every year. It kind of becomes almost routinish. But then it reminds you: This is really important, because the bishop is the ordinary minister of the Sacrament of Confirmation. It’s the sacrament that really commissions someone in initiation to go out. And not only do they complete their own faith, but it also commissions them on behalf of the Church to be evangelizers. So basically the bishop is creating new evangelizers through Confirmation.”

St. Cuthbert’s Cave. Courtesy photo.  

It was on the fourth day that the party reached the mons gaudium: The first view of Holy Island. But they couldn’t linger as they needed to press on to their lodgings. 

“It disappears again as you drop down into the next valley,” Conley said of Lindisfarne. “But at the top of the crag opposite there’s an even better view, if you don’t mind a short detour. And from there you can see Bamburgh and the Farne Islands, where Cuthbert and Aidan lived as hermits.”

 “Aidan is another really interesting saint. The two centers of evangelization were Iona and Lindisfarne. These missionaries like Columba, Colmán, Aidan, Cuthbert, and many others that were monks from Ireland but also from England came over, commissioned by Pope Gregory the Great. It was really the work of these monks that brought the faith to the British Isles.”

Bishop James Wall, Bishop James Conley, Fr. Burke Masters, and Archbishop Paul Coakley arrive at Holy Island. Courtesy photo.  

Share The Pillar

Prayer and haggis

On the fifth and final day of the pilgrimage, the quartet traveled the six miles from Fenwick to Holy Island, which can only be accessed when the tide is out. Rather than walking along the paved causeway, they took off their hiking boots and trod barefoot over the sands.

The pilgrims stayed at an inn called the Manor House, beside the ruins of Lindisfarne Priory. As they strolled around the island, Conley wrote on his Facebook page, “it was easy to imagine St. Cuthbert and St. Aidan and their brother monks living within the beauty of this seascaped island, the sounds of Gregorian Chant wafting in the air.”

Bishop James Conley, Bishop James Wall, Archbishop Paul Coakley, and Fr. Burke Masters on St. Cuthbert’s Way. Courtesy photo.  

Conley said that the pilgrimage’s high points were the times of prayer, when the four men stopped to recite the rosary or celebrated Mass at their hotels after the day’s walk.

The bishop noted that St. Cuthbert was known for traveling the region with his Mass kit.

“In fact, when they exhumed his body, which was incorrupt, buried with his coffin was a little tiny Mass kit that he would carry with him,” said Conley, who added that the pilgrim party took turns carrying their own kit with everything they needed for Mass, including vestments.

Other high points included the local ales and food. The four pilgrims make a point of eating the specialities wherever they travel. On this trip, that meant a full cooked Scottish or English breakfast and, of course, haggis.

What was Bishop Conley’s verdict on the national dish of Scotland, which has been likened to a crumbly sausage?

“It tastes good, but I’m not too interested to know where it comes from or what it is,” he said.

A traditional Scottish haggis. Credit: Stockcreations / Shutterstock.

The Pillar is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.

Comments 16