Scotland

Papal visit: Pilgrim's progress from Barra to Glasgow

Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea, Castlebay, Barra
Image caption Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea on Barra was the starting point for some pilgrims

For these small islands at the southern end of the Outer Hebrides, the arrival of the Pope in Scotland is a major event.

Historically there has been a religious divide along this archipelago with Presbyterianism more dominant in the north.

In Barra, South Uist and Benbecula though, the majority of church-goers are Catholic.

I'm warmly greeted off the flight at Barra, where the plane lands on the beach, by the matriarch of the MacNeil family.

Though not going to the Holy Mass herself, Marion MacNeil introduces me to her mother Katie and 15-year-old daughter Alyson, both of whom will be singing in choirs before the Pope.

Alyson has been practicing since May, often having to travel by boat to South Uist, sometimes not returning until the following morning and heading straight to school.

While packing, she explains: "I'm really excited to be going, it's such an honour to be singing for the Pope. It's such a once in a lifetime event."

Alyson's grandmother Katie is one of the 800 who are forming the Diocean Choir at Bellahouston Park.

At her family croft, overlooking the ferocious sea on the western side of Barra, she tells me: "Having been to the rehearsal, there is a huge amount of excitement and euphoria. It's probably something that will happen once in my lifetime.

"It's very humbling but at the same time it's quite an honour."

Image caption A pilgrim boards the ferry at Castlebay on Barra

Wednesday morning and the Castlebay priest, Father John Paul Mackinnon leads pilgrims on to the early morning ferry to Oban for a rough crossing which will take seven hours.

He spent the previous night ironing his alb, the formal white gown, and admits being nervous.

"A lot of us think that he will actually be so close that we'll be able to reach him, " he says.

"Maybe when he says the sign of peace I'll be able to reach out and hold his hands.

"Sometimes you have to say 'he might actually be a few feet away from you'."

The first part of the journey is smooth though the lounges are quiet.

Only a handful seem to have come on board, Father John Paul explaining that some have dropped out because of the weather and the hours of standing required at the Mass.

But he assures me at least a dozen Pilgrims are among us plus the junior choir and several more who will fly to Glasgow later.

We start to see land, but not Oban. The Caledonian MacBrayne ship stops at Lochboisdale to pick up more passengers.

Here the pilgrim count rises considerably.

A larger island, the parish priest in South Uist brings at least 30 more souls.

The waves pick up too.

Swaying from side to side - me, not him; islanders are used to these crossings, church veteran George Maclellan looks forward to the Mass.

"Personally it's about taking part in such a historic occasion," he says.

"For the people of the island, it will help to strengthen their faith."

Sleeping bodies of pilgrims and tourists share the lounges of the MV Lord of the Isles as it cruises across the Minch.

Image caption Father John Paul MacKinnon irons his alb

The sound of the girls practicing their Gaelic singing occasionally fills the quiet.

Slightly late, the ferry makes its way up the sound of Mull before docking in Oban.

From here pilgrims head off in different directions, some travelling on by car and others by train.

I join the hourly service bus whose owner, Catholic tycoon Brian Souter, has offered free rides to pilgrims.

On my journey, only five take up the gift but the coach is filled with commuters and tourists.

Seated beside me is Alison Ross, a native of New Zealand now living in South Uist.

A recently confirmed Catholic, she explains: "It's part of my journey into the Catholic Church and the faith.

"I want to go along and be part of a big crowd worshipping together and hear what the Pope has got to say."

The bus arrives at Glasgow's Buchanan Street station in the early part of the evening, no doubt overtaken by those who have made the journey by air.

Final estimate is that about 80 people will represent the neighbouring islands.

As the pilgrims disperse further, the city takes an early night, ready for the big day ahead.

How are you preparing for the Pope's visit?

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