When I completed my first Camino, the word ‘pilgrimage’ gripped me. Religion and spirituality aside, there’s something about a well-trodden path that’s been walked for centuries by thousands of pilgrims.

I used to associate the word pilgrimage only with religion and only with the world’s major pilgrims’ ways—Fatima, Shikoku trail in Japan, and of course the Camino de Santiago.

Walking the Camino, I learned that a pilgrimage doesn’t have to be strictly tied to the historical religious beliefs of a region. It can be an outdoor adventure and journey of self-discovery for everyone, believers and non-believers alike.

And St Cuthbert’s Way has shown me that the Camino isn’t the only magical pilgrimage of the sort. I first learned about St Cuthbert’s Way completely by accident. When walking one section of the Northumberland Coast Path, I was told that it links directly to STW.

Intrigued by this unique pilgrimage, I decided it was going to be my next long-distance walk. And now that I have completed it, I can’t recommend it enough.

Like other long-distance pilgrims’ ways, St Cuthbert’s Way provides great walking, great company, and great scenery, as well as a chance to reflect on life.

Overview

  • Length: 62 miles
  • Region: Scottish Borders (Scotland); Northumberland (England)
  • Start: Melrose, Scottish Borders, Scotland
  • Finish: Holy Island of Lindisfarne, Northumberland, England
  • Time required: 4 to 8 days
  • When to walk: April to October
  • Difficulty: Easy to moderate
  • Direction: West to East

St Cuthbert’s Way is one of Scotland’s Great Trails. Even though the trail was officially established in 1996, the Holy Island of Lindisfarne has been a major pilgrimage centre since the middle ages. Around 2,400 people walk St Cuthbert’s Way each year.

The walk is named after a 7th-century saint, St Cuthbert. He began his religious life in Melrose Abbey, where the trail begins. The trail ends with Holly Island of Lindisfarne, off the Northumberland Coast, his original pilgrimage shrine and eventual resting place.

Following the footsteps of Saint Cuthbert, the route starts in the Scottish Borders, passes through the sweeping Northumberland National Park, goes beside the banks of the beautiful River Tweed and River Till, and stretches across the tidal causeway that leads to Holy Island.

Along the route, you will encounter a wealth of historical and cultural interest points. The route also features beautiful natural landscapes.

The trail will take you through woods strewn with bluebells, past castles and cornfields, between the triple peaks of Eildon Hills, and onto ancient Roman tracks. Occasionally, you will catch a glimpse of the North Sea.

St Cuthbert’s Way meets St Oswald’s Way in the village of Holy Island.

Difficulty

The trail is graded easy to moderate or moderate, but it all depends on the itinerary you choose.

I agree that the SCW is not particularly challenging, but I must admit that I underestimated the terrain underfoot. I began the walk with a stiff climb. It extended for about 15 miles.

There are also a few uphill sections between Kirk Yetholm and the beautiful market town of Wooler. I’d say that this is the most strenuous stretch of the route.

Although most of the sections are flat and low-level, the trail features a considerable altitude gain overall (6805 feet). Moreover, the boggy sections slowed me down a bit.

Still, I think that the trail is suitable for people of all abilities and ages. I recommend doing at least some walking before you set off, but many people choose to get fit along the way.

You can walk the route in either direction, but most people choose to walk west to east. If you walk from Melrose to Holy Island, you will have the wind behind you and your journey will chronologically fit in with the religious life of St Cuthbert.

Gear

For a pleasant walk, you will need comfortable, waterproof footwear. Some sections of the trail can be quite boggy, especially after spells of heavy rain. Get a pair of high-quality hiking shoes and a few pairs of waterproof hiking socks.

You should also get a lightweight backpack, weatherproof trousers and jacket, comfortable walking clothes, and sunscreen.

I found my trekking poles to be useful as well. Since I spent a few nights in the great outdoors, I also bought a warm sleeping bag and a lightweight bivvy tent.

Even though midges aren’t a big problem in the Scottish Borders, you may want to bring a midge repellant just in case.

Waymarking and Navigation

Map of Scotland

I found this long-distance trail to be well waymarked throughout its course. In both directions, the route is clearly and consistently signed with the St Cuthbert’s cross symbol.

With the exception of low clouds and misty descents, there won’t be many situations where you’ll need a compass and a map.

Still, don’t start your walk without a map. I brought a Harvey map and a Cicerone Guidebook with me. They served me pretty well, even though I didn’t face any serious route-finding problems.

Alternatively, you can get the OL16, 338 and 340 Ordnance Survey Explorer maps. Rucksack Reader and Birlinn have also published guidebooks for the trail.

In case you forget to buy a map or a guidebook before you head out, do know that maps and guides are readily available in visitor information centres along the route. You’ll find one in every major town on the trail.

Making the Crossing to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne

St Cuthbert's Way Crossing

Holy Island is the main reason why St Cuthbert’s Way is one of the most unusual and most spectacular long-distance trails I’ve ever walked.

The section of St Cuthbert’s Way across the shimmering sands to Lindisfarne is the final challenge for walkers and, arguably, the most unique attraction of the route.

You can use the traditional Pilgrims’ Path or the Lindisfarne Causeway to get to Holy Island. I was a bit hesitant to follow the pilgrim’s trail across the sands but I am glad that I went for it.

This crossing is for walkers only, as opposed to the Lindisfarne Causeway which is shared by cars and walkers. The Pilgrims’ Path is about 3 miles long and takes about an hour and a half to cross.

It is quite muddy so I did it barefoot—as is tradition. The feeling was spectacular. It was hard not to feel uplifted even with all the younger pilgrims shrieking around me as their wellies got stuck in the cold mud.

Crossing the Pilgrims’ Path is a great way to establish a spiritual connection to this wonderful island, but you must be extra careful.

Twice a day at high tide, Holy Island is cut off from the mainland. So, you’ll need to plan your crossing carefully at low tide.

Time and tide wait for no man, and many drivers had to learn this the hard way. Just one day after I made the crossing, fast-riding tides stranded one driver. Apparently, the driver hadn’t bothered to check the safe-crossing times.

Don’t let this deter you from walking the Pilgrims’ Path. Pilgrims have safely crossed to and from Lindisfarne for centuries.

It’ll be one of the best walking experiences of your life if you follow these tips:

  • Make the crossing only during the middle of the safe crossing times. Check the safe-crossing times published by the Northumberland County Council.
  • Set off two hours before low tide.
  • Only attempt to cross the causeway when the tide is receding. Don’t attempt to cross the causey at any other time.
  • Don’t attempt to cross the causeway at dusk or in poor weather conditions.
  • A good stick can be useful; it can be very slippery in places.
  • Ideally, you should cross the causeway barefoot. If you wear boots, you might lose one or both of them in the mud. I’ve seen this happen.
  • You can always walk beside the road if you do not feel confident about walking across the sands. But please note that the traffic is fast and that the road can be very busy.

I found a convenient bench at the end of the crossing. I stopped here to clean my feet and put my socks and shoes back on. Then I made my way to Holy Island village; it’s just a 5-minute walk from the Path.

Getting to Melrose

Melrose Abbey Scotland

Edinburgh is the closest major transportation hub. I took a train from Glasgow Queen Street to Edinburgh Waverley. Then, I took a train from Waverley to Tweedbank, where I hopped on a bus to Melrose. The entire journey lasted about three hours.

You can also take the train from Edinburgh Waverley to Berwick-upon-Tweed railway station. Bus #67 links Berwick-upon-Tweed to Melrose.

There is also a regular bus line between Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and Melrose.

If you are coming from London, you can catch the train from Kings Cross to Melrose (5 hours). It leaves every half an hour.

If you are considering driving to the town, please note that there are just a couple of long-stay car parks in town.

For those travelling from outside the UK, Edinburgh Airport or London Heathrow, Stansted or Gatwick are likely the best options.

Edinburgh airport has flights from Amsterdam, Brussels, Berlin, Belfast, and Dusseldorf.

Newcastle Airport can also be a great option. It is mainly served by low-cost charter airlines from Europe.

Getting Back From Holy Island

Causeway Holy Island

There is very limited public transport from Lindisfarne to the Mainland. I caught a taxi to Berwick-Upon-Tweed. It cost me about £20.

The only alternative is to take the local bus; it also runs to Berwick-Upon-Tweed. Whether you are going north or south, Berwick-upon-Tweed has excellent bus and rail links.

I saved quite a lot of money by buying train tickets well in advance. I used the Traveline North East website to plan my journey. Normally, bus and train timetables are released three months ahead.

Best Time to Walk St Cuthbert’s Way

St Cuthbert's Way in Autumn

The trail is open all year round, but the terrain can be quite demanding in winter. Moreover, accommodation options are limited during this season.

St Cuthbert’s Way should offer a wonderful experience anywhere between April and October. That said, there are no guarantees of good weather at any time of year. When I walked the trail (late May), the weather was quite changeable.

In spring, the countryside bursts back into green and the wildflowers start to come up. So, it should come as no surprise that April and May are the most popular months on the trail.

Although most sections of the trail are quiet throughout the year, Holy Island can be quite busy during these two months. Make sure to book accommodation well in advance.

Planning Your Itinerary

Most hikers complete the trailin 4 to 5 days. That said, this is not a race. If you want to enjoy your walk, as well as the villages, castles and many other points of interest you can find along the route, take your time.

You can easily tailor overnight stops and daily route distances to suit your fitness levels. But don’t forget to factor in accommodation availability.

I opted for a six itinerary; I spent three nights in my bivy tent and three nights in B&Bs. To help you plan your adventure, here are a few itinerary suggestions:

4-Day Itinerary

  • 1st Stage: Melrose to Harestanes Visitor Centre—15 miles
  • 2nd Stage: Harestanes Visitor Centre Kirk Yetholm—17 miles
  • 3rd Stage: Kirk Yetholm to Wooler—12 miles
  • 4th Stage: Wooler to Lindisfarne—18 miles

5-Day Itinerary

  • 1st Stage: Melrose to Harestanes Visitor Centre—15 miles
  • 2nd Stage: Harestanes Visitor Centre Kirk Yetholm—17 miles
  • 3rd Stage: Kirk Yetholm to Wooler—12 miles
  • 4th Stage: Wooler to Fenwick— 12 miles
  • 5th Stage Fenwick to Lindisfarne—6 miles

My 6-Day Itinerary

  • 1st Stage: Melrose to St Boswells —6 miles
  • 2nd Stage: St Boswells to Morebattle—21 miles
  • 3rd Stage: Morebattle to Kirk Yetholm—7 miles
  • 4th Stage: Kirk Yetholm to Wooler—13 miles
  • 5th Stage: Wooler to Beal—13 miles
  • 6th Stage: Beal to Lindisfarne—6 miles

Alternative 6-Day Itinerary

  • 1st Stage: Melrose to Harestanes—15 miles
  • 2nd Stage: Harestanes to Morebattle—9 miles
  • 3rd Stage: Morebattle to Kirk Yethold—7 miles
  • 4th Stage: Kirk Yethold to Wooler—13 miles
  • 5th Stage: Wooler to Fenwick—12 miles
  • 6th Stage: Fenwick to Lindisfarne—6 miles

7-Day Itinerary

  • 1st Stage: Melrose to St Boswells —6 miles
  • 2nd Stage: St Boswells to Harestanes—9 miles
  • 3rd Stage: Harestanes to Morebattle—9 miles
  • 4th Stage: Morebattle to Kirk Yethold—7 miles
  • 5th Stage: Kirk Yethold to Wooler—13 miles
  • 6th Stage: Wooler to Fenwick—12 miles
  • 7th Stage: Fenwick to Lindisfarne—6 miles

Accommodation

Most villages and towns offer a range of accommodation choices. Melrose, where the route starts, has a campsite, a B&B, and a choice of hotels.

I pitched my tent somewhere near St Boswells. If you’d rather sleep in a warm bed, Dryburgh Arms Pub with Rooms, a Specialty Inn, is just one mile from the village.

There is no accommodation in Harestens, but you will find a B&B in the nearby Ancrum.

In Kirk Yetholm, you’ll find a shop, a youth hostel, a hotel, and a B&B. I stayed at the Farmhouse B&B at Kirk Yetholm.

Wooler offers a good range of accommodation options. I stayed at the Cheviot View in Wooler.

There are plenty of accommodation options on Holy Island. But, as mentioned, Holy Island can be quite busy in summer.

Even though I booked everything 4 months in advance, I barely managed to find an available room in Lindisfarne. Moreover, accommodation in Lindisfarne is quite pricey.

You can find a list of available accommodation options for every village and town along the trail on the official website. As for Lindisfarne, you might want to check out this list.

Many accommodation providers along the SCW offer transport to and from bus and railway stations. If you prefer to stay at the same place every night, some will even ferry you to and from their location each day.

Several baggage transfer services and private taxi companies also cover the route.

Camping

Wild camping Scottish Borders

I camped 3 nights out of 6. There are a few designated and wild campsites along the SCW.

You can wild camp just about anywhere on the Scottish section of the route. However, water may be an issue if you’re wild camping.

I didn’t want to take water from rivers and burns due to chemical runoff. Make sure to always have enough clean drinking water with you.

There are two countryside codes you will need to adhere to as St Cuthbert’s Way crosses the Scottish-English border. In fact, wild camping isn’t quite legal in England.

I respected the law and pitched my tent at The Barn At Beal campground. I paid 7.5 pounds for one night. The campsite was fantastic and so was the on-site restaurant.

There is also tent capacity at West Kylorea Farm near Fenwick.

All of this said, I don’t think you will get in trouble if camp wild up on the moors in Northumberland.

Just make sure to pitch late and leave early. Alternatively, you could ask for the landowner’s permission to set up camp.

However, camping of any kind is not permitted in Lindisfarne. You’ll definitely get in trouble if you try to set up camp on Holy Island.

If you plan on camping, make sure to check out the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and the Countryside Code from Natural England.

Highlights of the Route

St Cuthbert's Cave

  • Three Great Border Abbeys (Melrose, Jedburgh and Dryburgh Abbey), Scotland
  • Cessford Castle
  • Scottish Borders
  • Eildon Hills and Cheviot Hills
  • Wideopen Hill
  • Northumberland National Park, England
  • St Cuthbert’s Cave
  • Lindisfarne Priory, England
  • Dere Street (ancient Roman road)
  • Northumberland Coast, England
  • Pilgrims’ Path

Links to Other Routes

Southern Upland Way Sign

  • Southern Upland Way (Great Trail of Scotland)
  • St Oswald’s Way
  • Borders Abbey Way
  • Northumberland Coast Path
  • Pennine Way (First National Trail in England)

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