Walk the Whithorn Way

by Sara Barton, 21st October 2022
Whithorn | Dumfries & Galloway
Walk the Whithorn Way

Most people will have heard of the Camino de Santiago, the route pilgrims and longdistance walkers take to reach Santiago de Compestela in northern Spain. But did you know about the 1200-year-old pilgrimage route to the shrine of one of Scotland’s most venerated saints? Read on to learn all about the Whithorn Way in the South of Scotland. 

What is the Whithorn Way?

The Whithorn Way is a 149-mile walking route running from Glasgow Cathedral to Whithorn and on to the Isle of Whithorn in Dumfries and Galloway. Broken into 13 sections of 10-15 miles, the walk emulates the path trodden by many before to visit the shrine of St Ninian.

Trekking through the moorlands, back country lanes and with stunning coastal views, it is easy to understand how this wonderfully sustainable tourism trail could rapidly become just as big a hit as Spain’s Camino, which currently attracts 600,000 travelers annually.

City centre start

With the start of the route at the heart of Glasgow, the Whithorn Way offers the chance to head off from the city centre and explore relatively inexpensively. And once you are done walking, getting home can also be done sustainably with bus and train options heading from the region back to Glasgow and further afield.

With more people wanting to get outdoors and explore the routes less travelled, the Whithorn Way offers a fantastic array of possibilities. It is not just a walking route and can be cycled – which would certainly speed things up!  A unique section along the coast allows some fascinating geological features to reveal themselves and the moorland sections offer glimpses of wildlife. And especially as you enter Dumfries and Galloway, don’t forget to look up as night falls for some fabulous star gazing in these wonderful dark skies.

Helena talks about the Dark Skies above the Whithorn Way.

Panoramic views of Solway Firth

Last year a new off-road section connecting Whithorn with St Ninian’s Cave opened for travellers too. This new five mile section offers stunning allow panoramic views from the cliffs above St Ninian’s Cave over the Solway Firth.

And the Whithorn Trust has partnered with the All Roads Lead to Whithorn Trust, a community development trust which has just spent £3m on a new Whithorn community hub incorporating a 16-person bunkhouse aimed at walkers, cyclist and e-bikers.

Support from landowners is being sought to extend the Whithorn Way, off road from Whithorn to St Ninian’s Cave.

Apps & maps

Support materials for those keen to tread in the footsteps of pilgrims include a guidebook to cultural highlights, Walk the Whithorn Way, and an app of the same name which helps geolocate you in relation to the route. And for those preferring a good old fashioned map, 14 sectional OS maps are freely available from the Whithorn Trust or at venues along the route.

The project has been a huge volunteer effort and many participate in putting up signs, leading walks and visiting landowners. It has been the subject of a four-part Border ITV series and its social media campaign #walkthewhithornway shows Whithorn is on track to become the centre for a new form of sustainable visitor, building on its more than a millennium of well-being tourism.

Lifelong cyclist Ted enjoys the Whithorn Way on two wheels.

Historical importance

So you may be wondering who is St Ninian and why was he so important? Now overshadowed somewhat by St Andrew and St Columba, during the 14th -16th centuries St Ninian was the most venerated saint in Scotland– proximity to his relics were believed to offer cures for physical illness and, crucially, time off in Purgatory which would speed entry to Heaven. It can be hard for modern society to remember the influence the Church had over the general population at this time in history.

By the late 1400s the Royal House of Stewart had shown particular patronage and today you can see the Royal Arms of Scotland at the Pend entrance to the former Whithorn Priory.

With Royalty paying homage, regular folks followed quickly and soon this westerly pilgrimage route to Whithorn was trodden by thousands of pilgrims in the Middle Ages as they sought physical and spiritual health at the shrines to St Ninian.

The Whithorn Pend proudly displays the Royal Arms of Scotland showing the significance of its historical past.

Remanents of pilgrim stops

Of course, travellers need food, shelter and something to keep them going as they head for their destination. In those days this was all on foot or at best on horseback. So the landscape is linked by dozens of sites such as chapels, grand abbeys, bridges and fords and holy wells – all there to accommodate and service these long ago travellers. The remains of these are still a part of the landscape today.

Across the lonely beauty of the moors of Barrhill are the standing stones of Laggangairn, prehistoric monuments which were later inscribed with crosses by Christian pilgrims heading to Whithorn. At Glenluce Abbey, pilgrims would have sought sustenance from the Cistercian monks who lived there and passing through the Monreith estate, you are near to the archaeological remains of mediaeval Myrton Castle, where James IV stayed on his way to Whithorn.

Glenluce Abbey, Historic Environment Scotland
The ruins of Glen Luce Abbey, once home to Cistercian monks.

Pilgrim passport for success

Pilgrims sewed badges to their clothing in the Middle Ages to mark the stages they had passed en route and today the Whithorn Way offers a pilgrim passport: you can either get a free booklet and collect stamps along the way or scan QR codes on your smartphone, which are located at the venues which form start and end points for each section.

Modern day pilgrims collect their completion certificates while this original pilgrim’s badge, with loops to sew it on, was unearthed in Dumfries.

The route and its features

The route begins at Glasgow Cathedral, one of the most complete medieval cathedrals in Scotland, and heads along quiet converted railway lines and canals, threading its way past historic Kilwinning Abbey to the coast at Irvine. From there, there is a magnificent and unique stretch of beach walking, hugging the coast for most of the way to Girvan. Beyond this, the route is rural and remote, passing through tiny Colmonell, which has some of the most important stained glass in the country hidden away in St Colmon’s Church, and passing through some of the most remote moorland parts of the route as it enters Galloway at New Luce.

Entry to Galloway

Glenluce Abbey was a gathering point for pilgrims, as they completed the last stretch of their journey to Whithorn. From here the route passes through the Regional Scenic Area of Mochrum Lochs, with its magnificent tower house and massive inland cormorant colony. The approach to Whithorn gives fantastic views towards the Mull of Galloway from the steep road at East Barr and threads inland, where place names with saintly origins show the proximity to the important religious site at Whithorn.

Reaching Whithorn

Reaching Whithorn you will receive a certificate to verify your long walk at the Whithorn Trust visitor centre. Once you’ve refuelled, there are some off road sections linking Whithorn to Rispain, an Iron Age fortified camp excellent for picnics, and onwards through woodland towards St Ninian’s Cave. Off to one side of a pebbled beach you can see 8th Century graffiti crosses carved by pilgrims who came here 1200 years before you! You can head along on the cliffs (sometimes vertiginous!) to the Isle of Whithorn, past Burrowhead, famed for its Wicker Man film sequence, to the picturesque port called the Isle of Whithorn. This harbour was once owned by the Priory of Whithorn and in olden times was once a true island. In St Ninian’s time, the water was the highway and this was a landing point into Scotland, and a busy port for commerce and pilgrims alike.

Today it is a quiet beautiful spot with locally brewed beers from Five Kingdoms Brewery available at the Steam Packet Inn. Gaze out from the spit of land at the end towards the Isle of Man, the Cumbrian hills and the Mull of Galloway.

Once an island, the Isle of Whithorn is now connected to the mainland and offers idyllic views at the end of a cliff walk.
Videos exploring the Whithorn Way were produced with funding from the Visit Scotland Destination and Sector Marketing Fund.