In Search of Margaret


Maybe it surprises you to find out I’m in Scotland right now.  It rather surprises me.  I never had a particular desire to visit Scotland.  Nothing against the country, but I’d heard it was rainy and cold… and rainy and cold have never quite been my thing.  While working on Redeeming Power and considering the persons I wanted to profile at the end of each chapter, though, I got quite hooked on a Scottish saint: Margaret.  The more I began to read about her life and the way that she exercised her power, the more obsessed I became with visiting the sites associated with her and the less the rain and cold seemed to matter. 

Imagine my delight when Leslie—one of the fellow Collegeville Institute scholars I met when working on the book—decided to finish her PhD in Aberdeen and invited me to visit.  Now, the thing you must know about Leslie is that she is a very good sport.  When we were at Collegeville, she was the one always game to take a break from the library to go see things like the headwaters of the Mississippi River or the world’s largest ball of twine.  So the real bonus of having someone like Leslie invite me to visit was knowing that not only would I have a place to stay, but I would have someone to accompany me to the quirky off-the-beaten path places I wanted to go. 

I know most people travel to Scotland with the intention of checking out sea monsters and the whiskey trail and Balmoral Castle.  Instead, I asked Leslie to go whacking through a wooded area with me in search of Malcolm’s Tower—a circle of ruins marking the fort where St. Margaret married her somewhat boorish but nevertheless affectionate husband Malcolm “Big Head” the Third in 1070 AD.  Theirs was a sort of “Beauty and the Beast” tale. They had eight children together, three of whom became kings of Scotland and one the queen of England. 

Leslie and I had an easier time finding Dunfermline Abbey—the site of a Benedictine monastery she launched in the area and the location of her tomb at one point.  We also had no trouble traversing the Firth of Forth (a term that I cannot resist repeating as often as possible in a sentence), a crossing for which Margaret established the first ferry.  And we faced no challenge getting into Edinburgh Castle where Margaret died in 1093, nor the chapel in the middle of the palace complex that her son David I built in her honor.  Well, no challenge that is but rain and chill.  (Surprise!) My sad little American umbrella was no competition for the wind that day and lasted but an hour.

Leslie’s tolerance for Ann’s weirdness was once again put to the test, however, in our search for Margaret’s Cave—the place where Margaret was known to sneak off from the castle to pray. The cave had once been a major pilgrimage site with tens of thousands of annual visitors, but in 1962 the town’s council voted to fill in the ravine that led to it and pave it over with a need town parking lot.  A number of townsfolk protested and before the parking lot was constructed the council arranged for a large metal sewer-like tunnel to be laid from a tiny building on the corner of the parking lot to take visitors still into the cave. 

Apparently once you go into this entrance, you descend 86 steps and walk a couple hundred feet and then you are there.  I say “apparently” because it turns out that the cave reopened for the summer of 2024 on June 15 and we were there on June 14.  So sad.  But the two women who were operating the entrance to the cave for the summer and straightening things up for the opening were most gracious.  One of them offered to take my phone camera down into the cave for me, snap some pictures, and bring it right back.   I am not accustomed to entrusting my phone to the hands of strangers when I am abroad (or even when I am home).  But this was Margaret’s Cave.   So bless her heart, she ran down all 86 steps, took pictures, and then—more impressive—ran back up all 86 steps just for me, so that you could enjoy the photograph that tops this newsletter.

And this kind of kindness has been characteristic of so many of the Scots that I’ve met on this trip. They are friendly and helpful and generous in sharing their knowledge of whatever it is that Leslie and I are asking about.  Be that bus schedules or directions or whiskey or the history of a place they love.  I hope you enjoy this picture from inside the cave of Margaret that I did not personally see.

Tomorrow I head off on what will surely be another adventure.  I am going to Iona—a tiny island off the Isle of Mull which is (as you have likely already surmised) also an island off the coast of Scotland.  This will require two trains, two ferry rides, and an hour long excursion across the Isle of Mull that I’ve not quite figured out yet. Iona is where St. Columba landed in 563 AD to form the first Celtic monastery in the region.  I will say more about this in my next newsletter assuming I am not stranded on the Isle of Mull, but for now I will just add that it is important to the quest as Margaret helped to re-establish Iona after it had been ravaged by the Vikings.

While you are waiting with bated breath to see if I make it to Iona, perhaps you would like to find out more about St. Margaret yourself.  She was a woman study and prayer and great charity who also had some wicked embroidery skills and a commitment to honoring the Sabbath.  You can find out more about all this in Chapter 12 in Redeeming Power I invite you also to listen to my reflection on this past Sunday’s Gospel on the mustard seed.  As many of you know this is my all-time favorite parable.  It reminds me constantly that every small thing makes a difference—small things like Leslie’s patience with me these past couple days or the caretaker at St. Margaret’s cave running up and down all those steps.  No matter how small, it all matters.  God is at work inside the little things.

I’ll be back in touch soon.