AS CHURCH attendances continue to dwindle, one ancient tradition remains strong.

The Camino de Santiago, Europe’s most popular pilgrimage route, attracts 250,000 pilgrims annually, up from just a few thousand during the 1970s.

A resurgence is also being witnessed across Scotland with six major pilgrimage routes under development, while holy places have seen a 14 per cent rise in visitor numbers since 2013.

Now after centuries of hostility towards pilgrimages, Kirk leaders are set to embrace the religious excursion as part of moves boost the cause of Christianity.

This year the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland will be asked to vote on the practice and affirm its place.

During the Middle Ages when pilgrimage was practised across Europe, Scotland’s holy places such as St Andrews and Iona became significant sites of worship.

However, during the Reformation, devotees rebelled against abuses such as selling relics of sacred objects like pieces of saints clothing, locks of hair or bones.

Reformers discouraged pilgrimages, viewing them as superstitious, and they fell out of favour across Europe for a time. However, they never quite fell away.

John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, for example, viewed pilgrimage as a metaphor for the challenges we face on our pathway through life.

Speaking about the vote to reverse centuries of opposition to the practice, Rev Dr Richard Frazer, convener of the Kirk’s Church and Society Council, said: “What those who frowned on pilgrimage missed is that the most important part of pilgrimage is not the destination but the journey. It is on the journey that we meet others and find Christ in the stranger. It’s unfortunate that in reforming some wrongful practices, we may have neglected a way to worship that is meaningful to so many.”

A report on pilgrimage is to be presented to the General Assembly this summer, from which a deliverance will be voted on “to affirm the place of pilgrimage within the life of the Church.”

Dr Frazer said: “Worship comes in many forms and pilgrimage is one of them. The habits of Sunday morning services, as noble and as good as they are, do not necessarily reach people who have a profound spiritual hunger, but have never developed those habits.

“People who walk the Camino may not be conventionally religious, but very few who reach Santiago de Compostella would deny the journey there was a spiritual experience. In a time when the Church is looking for new ways to touch the hearts of all people, pilgrimage is a very powerful tool.”

In the first centuries AD Jerusalem and other Biblical sites quickly became a destination for early Christians. Known as the People of the Way, those first Christians were instructed to journey so that they might spread the good news. Over centuries the missionary saints became legends.

Saints and their exploits became associated with special places: St Columba and Iona; St Ninian and Whithorn; St Cuthbert and Lindisfarne; St Magnus and Orkney; St Mungo and Glasgow; St Andrew and St Andrews.

Last month the National Lottery announced new funding of £399,000 to develop the Fife Pilgrims way, a 70-mile route that will travel from Culross and South Queensferry to St Andrews. And on Easter Sunday – the 900th anniversary of St Magnus’s death – a pilgrimage route in his honour will be launched in Orkney.

Rev David McNeish, minister for Birsay, Harray and Sandwick in Orkney, says the St Magnus Way came about after a small group of people from different churches came together to discuss a pilgrimage route on the island.

“After St Magnus’s martyrdom on the island of Egilsay his body was brought to Birsay on the mainland. Then 20 years later, when the seat of power moved to Kirkwall, his bones were taken there. So there was a journey Magnus himself took after his death, as well as evidence of people making pilgrimage to Orkney in the Middle Ages.”