The bells of a Moray monastery resounded yesterday to welcome back pilgrims from a massive 1,300-mile journey.
For the last 13 weeks, intrepid walkers have been retracing the steps which the original residents of Pluscarden took from Val des Choues in Burgundy, France, to the north-east of Scotland nearly 800 years ago.
Yesterday, they returned to the abbey, near Elgin, carrying stones from the Benedictine monks’ ancient home to form the foundations of a restoration project.
More than 100 pilgrims followed a cross and the banner of Pluscarden from the gates of the monastery to the historic chapel.
Enthusiastic children from Mosstowie Primary School joined the walkers on the final leg of the journey behind the flags of Scotland, the UK and France.
Then, a poignant ceremony was held inside the atmospheric buildings to welcome the stones to Pluscarden from France.
Father Abbot Anselm Atkinson said: “Those monks that first came to this place many centuries ago gave life to this place.
“The monks will now give life to these stones.”
The Pluscarden congregation then rejoiced in song before sharing a massive lunch.
Priest monks from the abbey joined the expedition throughout its huge journey across France, England and Scotland.
Father Giles was among the expedition which took the first steps back to Moray in May.
He said: “There was an amazing amount of generosity along the way.
“We stayed in church halls, monasteries or sometimes just camped out….whether in Britain or France, the friendship was amazing.
“There was a phenomenal atmosphere on the walk. We were such a disparate group of international people, not pre-selected or anything. We just came together and I’m glad we did.”
Money raised from the expedition will fund a £2million project to create a new women’s retreat house at the abbey as well as a building to house the substantial library.
Bids are being prepared to the Heritage Lottery Fund to pay for the rest of the project.
Lord Lieutenant of Moray, Lt Col Grenville Johnston, said: “I hope this will result in even more people knowing about the abbey and what it’s doing.
“Hopefully, it will result in more support for their project to make Pluscarden an even more fascinating place to visit.”
Only three pilgrims walked every step of the 1,400 miles from France back to Pluscarden.
Al Monkman, from Garmouth, and Maria Byron, from Buckie, were joined by Rinnes the golden Labrador for the entire expedition.
The trio spent 89 nights on the journey while walking nearly 20 miles a day for six days a week.
At least one priest monk from the monastery joined them and dozens of others for every leg of the journey while the rest of the Pluscarden residents prayed for them from Moray.
Yesterday, Mr Monkman and Mrs Byron were given the honour of carrying the stones from Val des Choues through the gates to the abbey while Rinnes walked by their side.
Mr Monkman, a former station commander at RAF Lossiemouth, said: “Since I retired, I’ve started long-distance walking as a hobby.
“I was really attracted to the pilgrimage because it’s been for all faiths and none. It’s been so inclusive.
“We didn’t know each other at the start of the journey, but we’ve really become a family along the way. It’s been remarkable.”
Mrs Byron, who is originally from the Czech Republic, added: “The friendship we’ve established between us is beautiful. It really brought us together.”