In Praise of the Donkey

New Year’s Day 2020

You can listen to Funky Donkey by the Beastie Boys while you read this if you so desire.

Children love donkeys, Jupiter Artland Xmas 2019

Donkeys = go slow

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a book called ‘Walking with a donkey in the Cevennes’ (France). When he walked there, he was forced to go slowly so that his donkey didn’t “browse”. In order to make it through a walking day of around 20 kilometers with a rucksack on my back, I too engage a modest pace. I have discovered that slow is good for me. I can see the details of the landscape, I can feel the ground under each heel and toe, I have time to muse.

‘I noticed that a donkey has an appealing terrestrial solidity – it’s a good solid animal – yet its limbs are surprisingly slim. It’s as firmly yet lithely connected to the earth as a birch tree. ‘ Beatrice and Virgil which, among other things, features a particularly enjoyable conversation between Beatrice, who is a donkey, and Virgil, who is a howler monkey, about the nature of a pear (that is, the fruit).

by Yann Martel (2010) p. 121 (TW: torture, holocaust)
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Donkey detail from Otoño (Autumn), a painting by Francisco do Barrera 1638, which hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts, Seville, Spain

In his book ‘The Wisdom of Donkeys: Finding Tranquility in a Chaotic World’, Andy Merrifield wrote about how he would watch Grebouille graze in the field for hours, as a sort of meditation. Merrifield trod in Stevenson’s footsteps and he too discovered the unhurried pace of the beast.

Sculpture from the Camino Santiago de Navarra, courtesy of Spanish Fiestas

Did you know? Donkey’s Back (lombo da burro) is the name of a rock in the Lapa de Pombas, a fishing port on the west coast of Portugal just south of Almograve? Local fishermen guide their entry and exit to the harbour by using this and other such masses.

A cardboard donkey, spotted in a shop in Athens, Greece

Stubborn as a mule

Known to be good at kicking, donkeys also have a reputation for stubbornness and this is usually regarded with derision. However, I am assured by owners that if a donkey refuses to do something there will be a good reason, that it’s all about self preservation. That makes sense doesn’t it? It’s funny how we don’t always put ourselves in others’ (horse)shoes, juding them instead by our own habits, standards or preference and therefore perhaps misunderstanding their reasons for not doing something. If we are to learn from the ass, we will look around us when someone is stubborn and ask, ‘why might that be?’ and ‘is there a good reason?’ before we try and force them.

You probably know that a donkey is an ass is a donkey. They are the same thing.

An Irish Donkey, Cork, Ireland

‘Donkeys have been used for transporting people and goods since biblical times. While donkeys have a reputation for being stubborn, they are also notoriously smart and capable of keeping themselves and their passengers away from danger.’ from ‘What is the differece between mules and donkeys?‘ by Jen Davis

Donkey Art outside the Uue Kunsti Muuseum, Parnu, Estonia
identify a donkey
Donkeys have characteristically long ears

Ass attributes

In ‘Stories About My Ass’, Brandon Dickerson writes about how clever donkeys are, how he spent time, sweat and money securing their perimeter fence to stop them escaping. He was just boasting on the phone to his wife about what a good job he had done when Yoti (one of his donkeys) promptly broke through the new boundary with ease and, joined by his companion Donkey, they calmly grazed ‘in his face’ (as it were). From The Great Escape

Mule, donkey, ass, colt…

Mule: A mule is produced when you breed a male donkey to a female horse, also known as a mare. A “hinny,” meanwhile, is produced when you breed a stallion, or male horse, to a female donkey. Mules possess characteristics of both of their parents but are typically sterile and unable to reproduce. (Jen Davis for

Colt: a baby donkey such as Jesus was said to be riding on – ‘humble [lowly] and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ Zachariah 9:9

Donkeys are herbivores and sometimes they live into their 50s (35-40 years is common). They need shelter from the cold and rain because their coats are not waterproof. Because of this they often die of pneumonia in the UK. from Donkey Quiz 

A mule – see the ‘wither’ bump in the shoulder area. Donkeys have flatter backs

So, riding on a donkey means being humble, or what?

In the prologue to his ‘Canterbury Tales’ (stories about some of the earliest pilgrims), Chaucer writes that ‘a humble beast exalts the rider’, making reference to the Bible (again) and stressing the state of mind needed to ride on one. Some imply that riding a donkey, in this context, implies a lack of concern for smart clothes, the opposite of making an imprression of being rich and lording it over everyone (Chaucer’s ‘General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales: An Anotated Bibliography 1900-1982’ by Caroline D Eckhardt and Dorothy E Smith). Others suggest that the donkey represents the Jews (Wikipedia), and yet others that riding thus, signifies a coming in peace because if he had been on a horse it would have  denoted war. (William David Davies and Dale C Allison 2004).

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Orkney donkeys, spotted while making the St Magnus pilgrimage

Looking at the roots of the Hebrew words (I used this source Mony Almalech 2014 accessed Jan 2020) used to enquire into the meaning of ‘colt of the she-ass’ which Christ sat upon on Easter day, one can start to understand that a he-ass (male, related to the root of the word ‘red’ (of wine and fire) and ‘clay’) implies being base, ie of the earth, material; whereas the she-ass was more to do with ‘white’ (think about her milk) and her tendency to walk with small steps: a he-ass is not related to a she-ass. While we in the West have been led to believe (perhaps as a result of sloppy translations or misunderstanding of cutural references) that the donkey represents humility or peace, Jews of the time (who the bible was written for) will have understood the subtleties of these words and therefore known that Christs’ choice of a colt (son of a she-ass, not a he-ass) was clearly a mount for a King. (The Sathya Sai Sanctuary Trust for Nature knows this too.)

King Midas with his donkey’s ears from the British Library Catalogue

Midas, the man with a donkey’s ears

Midas (the one whose touch turned things to gold – see Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ book XI 85-145) was deemed to have ‘undiscriminating ears’ and therefore given a new, elongated pair, those of a slow-moving ass. These donkey’s ones were ‘covered with shaggy hair and flexible at the base’ all the better to hear with.

In his account of walking the Camino de Santiago, ‘Spanish Steps – My Walk with a Donkey’, Tim Moore describes the swivelling ears, noting how alert they are. He starts to realise that when they are raised and rotating (I get an image of a submarine’s periscope), something is about to go amiss.

In Chaucer’s version of the Midas’ myth (a jolly rendition can be found in ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’), the woman in question couldn’t bear to keep quiet about her husband’s special lugholes (well who could, what a story!) so she told the water in a lake. In Ovid’s original, though, it was a ‘servant’ who gave the game away: to the earth from which grew reeds which in turn whispered it to the winds. (I used A. S. Kline’s translation of Ovid for these quotes.)

Newpoint Players Canterbury Tales poster, Newry, Northern Ireland

‘You may have seen a housefly … but I bet you aint never seen a donkey fly.’ The fast-talking (Eddie Murphy voiced) donkey in the film, Shrek

A donkey to carry your stuff

It is now possible for long-distance walkers to have a company transport their luggage from one hostel to another along the Camino de Santiago de Compostella (properly kown as the Camino Francais or French Camino) by car or van, allowing many to make that trek who had previously not been able to. Then there are a few pilgrims who take a mule to carry their bags, but the majority carry their own. I started my long-distance walking habit in Spain with a rucksack on my back (containing what I needed for a 3-month stay: summer, autumn and winter), rather than having a donkey carry it for me, hence my blog is entitled, ‘Walking Without a Donkey’.

Donkeys from the Pays Basques region

Lou Monte sings (in ‘Dominick the Donkey’) about the reason Santa has a donkey: ‘Because the reindeer cannot climb the hills of Italy. ‘

Finally, here is a recipe for ‘tired donkey’, Galician soup called sopa de burro cansado. It consists of hard bread (100-150g) soaked in red wine (500ml) with sugar (3 or 4 tablespoons)!

Even though no-one carries my luggage but me, I am not an ass

Robert Louis Stevenson (best known as the writer of Treasure island) ‘Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes’

Chemin Stevenson / The Stevenson Trail, France GR70 (Grande Randonee ie a long walk) starts in Monastier sur Gazeille in the Haute Loire (Velay area) to Saint Jean du Gard or Ales in the land of the Camisards. It takes about 2 weeks. There is a little film with images of Stevenson on this page.

The Donkey Sanctuary (UK)

Stories About My Ass is a podcast on itunes about, among other things, being a miniature donkey owner.

The Shrek donkey on Atlas Obscura

Paris 1, France

April 27 – 30 2017

Walk 1: Gare de Lyon to Villa Sainte Croix. 7kms 27.4.17

I arrived in Paris in the late afternoon after a soothing flight direct from Edinburgh. The security there was very trying: I rarely fly and so every time I do the rules have changed. It became apparent that you now have to fit all your fluids into one tiny plastic bag which has to be sealed. This meant I had to ditch several newly-purchased items, and if I ever have to hear that woman calling out to us ‘guys’ about these frustrating rules again, I think I might scream!

At Charles de Gaules, I was reminded how silly it is to change money at the airport because of the dreadful exchange rate, but I liked the clean, pink toilets – much better than any public ones in the UK.

After much deliberation, and a pleasantly warm sunbathe (yes, I am sorry reader, I rolled up my trousers although I drew the line at stripping down to my bra), I took the bus to Gare de Lyon (€18), and started my first walk across the city to the north.

There is a gorgeously lush clock tower at Gare de Lyon (67m high) with its pale blue clock face, smooth, grey-domed top part, and decorated within an inch of its life (no photo).

I love the Paris architecture in the evening sunshine.  Colonne de Juillet, Place de la Bastille

Remember to look left before I step out onto the cycle paths, I told myself, as I automatically looked right and only narrowly avoided a fleet of commuter bikes.

There are massive statues standing at the junction between each step of this walk: Places des République and Bastille, for example.

Place de la République

The corner cafés, familiar from so many movies, were filling up with after-work drinkers. It was becoming a fine evening – large groups of men were playing boules; fashionable guys riding mopeds were zooming in and out of the traffic and sliding to conspicuous halts in front of giggly groups of girls; stylish kids were streaming out of school in the weak sunshine; and of course there were traffic hold-ups contributing to the poor city air condition.

I particularly enjoyed walking along Avenue Deaumesnil, with its charming under-arches embroidery and fabric boutiques, art school, and book shops.

Walking on, I was surprised that I was not struggling at all with my large back pack after 5 months break from carrying it.

I came to the Place de la République with open-air table tennis and gangs of scateboarders extraordinaire. They performed their tricks with a nonchalant air, as soon as they knew I was watching, eager for an audience.

My tummy was rumbling as I approached Gare de L’est, so I tried out my French by buying that lovely sort of bread which is cool in your mouth and has air holes. I had to open the cheese packet with my teeth because of course you can not bring a knife to France on the plane.

At Barbés there were peanuts for sale, fresh garlic, and limes. The people sharing the pavements with me looked as if they might well have been doing dodgy deals. There were potentially dangerous disputes erupting at every turn. 

A wonderful array of restaurants from around the world lined the streets, and I could have very easily exchanged all sorts of things or bought a cheap phone or a yam, or got hair extensions.

And then, a few paces on, I segue into a new area and I am amongst a different type of pedestrian. It is now quiet, no excitable voices, the women wear red lipstick, and their heels clack on the tarmac.

 Great art deco-type decoration on this Louxor Palais du Cinéma, Boulevard de Magenta.

At Monmartre there’s a man living in a tent on a roundabout. The sweet odours of May 1st holiday posies, lillies of the valley,  are everywhere, as are the police and their guns – presumably as a result of all the recent terrorist troubles.

Time is passing and it was starting to get dark.  My frequent photo stops, memo writing, and Google map consulting has somehow extended the predicted 1.5 hours to 5, and I am grateful that my hosts are understanding when I roll up really late. There’s a meal waiting, wine on the table, and much kindness directed my way.

Walking without a donkey 14: Camino Frances, San Juan to Burgos

29.10.16 San Juan de Ortega to Burgos, on foot

San Juan de Ortega

Why did I come back to the Camino? I think I had already fallen in love! Walking out into a day like this, who would not?


Certainly the world had that glow about it.

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The simplicity of walking out at dawn with only the immediate to think about. Holding hands with the landscape, falling into step with the climate, walking alongside the smells and tastes of each region as I passed through. Sharing only the necessary things of life: food, sleep, moving forwards.


Kissing the colours of Autumn, embracing the opportunities that waited for me; arriving in a new place, and exploring the unfamiliar streets, churches, shops and cafes; resting on my bunk simultaneously listening to music; exchanging stories in unfamiliar tongues. The looked-for love affair that took me out of myself, and at the same time dropped me right into the essence of my being.


As well as resting places, the many crosses and cairns (the Scottish word for a pile of stones often found in the hills and along paths), serve as locations for carefully selected rocks, placed by walkers to mark the spot. We give thanks for what has come to us. That we are still on our feet and continuing to walk the beautiful Camino.


In Scotland, in summer, we often say to each other how lovely that the warmth brings people out of their houses, out of their thick, protective clothing, and liberates their chatter and laughter. Here I was in a seemingly perpetual summer, sun on my bare arms and legs, with the energy flowing up from the ground I was pacing, liberating me, and lightening my heart.

‘..the call of the great outdoors…the need to provoke…transgressions, to give substance at last to folly and dreams’. p.5 A Philosophy of Walking, Frederic Gros.


(Such a contrast to walking in Edinburgh in January! No-one smiles or gives a cheery ‘Buen Camino’ as I stride past. My nostrils are full of exhaust fumes so I can barely notice the smells of the hedges and herbs in the gardens I walk past. If it wasn’t for last night’s snow highlighting the fields and hills of Fife over the water, which I can thankfully see through the skeleton trees at the end of the road, there would only be cars and rushing people.)

As I have seen Burgos, which is today’s destination, twice already, I walk through and out towards the other side. This way I avoid the crowds in the centre, and sashay along the glorious river bank, discovering the outskirts later that evening.


Walking without a donkey 13: Camino Francés

Days 5 and 6. 28-29 October 2016. Nájera (Camino Francés) – Burgos – Cortiguera – Madrid – Aranjuez – San Juan de Ortega (back on the Camino)

Pantano Reservoir, Logroño on the way to Najera 28 October 2016

I made a promise to visit Gill (who had already put me in touch with so many lovely Shiatsu people to stay with) in Aranjuez, which is 50km south of Madrid, before the end of October. So I left the Camino at Nájera, after only 5 days of walking (blog posts 9, 10, 11), and went there via Burgos (90km, 1.5 hours by bus), Cortiguera (blog post 12, 70km north of Burgos), and Madrid (250km, 2.5 hours back down south) – a very long way round!


River Arlanzon, Burgos

I only spent a little time in Burgos this time, but the sun shone and the bus station is central, so I was able to walk across the river, into Cathedral Square where I sat and ate my sandwiches, walked around the adjoining streets, visited a cafe for a green tea and wifi, and photographed the famous pilgrim statue.




Afterwards I returned to get my link to Cortiguera to see Dirk and Charo.

This was where I saw a group of vultures circling at eye level in front of majestic rocks above the slit of river far below.

On the way to Cortiguera

I wrote in my diary on the bus: ‘This time the ‘bird’ I see as I approach the city is a silver plane rising in the blue sky. After the outdoorsy life I’ve been living in the country and small villages, I’m nervous about entering the capital city for the first time.’

I was right, it was a serious contrast, and I found travelling across Madrid a terrible strain. After calmly walking through the regions of La Rioja and Cantabria, with their expansive silence and disinterested wildlife, the thoughtful travellers at a regular pace, the noise, the numbers of people, the difficulty in negotiating the ticket machines at the underground stations – it was all an onslaught to my system – and I couldn’t take any photos.

On arrival at Aranjuez, I partook of a glass of wine and settled myself. Later I was treated to a pizza (urban food!), and taken to Gill’s amazing kitchen garden. Here she grows fruit and vegetables, and bakes delicious bread in an open oven which she shares with her neighbour. Alongside giving and teaching Shiatsu, hosting visiting tutors, leading chi gung classes, and generally keeping a large sector of the Spanish Shiatsu community connected, she delivers this fresh produce to people in the local area.

I had not bargained for the power of the Camino, and the next morning I overturned my plans to stay south for 5 days, and returned to the north, via Madrid and the bus station I was getting to know and love, back to Burgos and the Way. Thank you Gill and Jorge for being so understanding.

Hostel at San Juan de Ortega

It turns out that getting to San Juan de Ortega in the evening is tricky. It was hard to get information and a taxi would have been extortionate, so I waited 4 hours (witnessing drunken fisticuffs in the street), before joining a local bus service which several people had told me would go there and for which I had a ticket. Needless to say I was the only foreigner. The large family group which made up the majority of the other passengers, were friendly and interested in me and why I was there. They chattered loudly, not seeming bothered by my pigeon Spanish, offering to share their snacks with me, and laughing hilariously at my escapades up and down the country.

When I was the only one left, and we were driving through the pitch dark (by now three quarters of an hour late), the driver asked me where I was going and ‘Si, si’, he pointed into the distance. He told me all about his wife and kids, and where he was going on holiday, and eventually deposited me in front of the former monastery, where I was met by a kind, but rather worried, fellow walker. He had been told that the bus usually drops folk off at the previous village and was ready to come out and escort me in case I met wolves walking through the night forest. Apparently the bus had made a detour especially for me. Being so late meant there were no beds left, but this same kind man had negotiated an alternative – in the library – as well as having supper waiting for me. I always knew I would get there safely, but those around me were not so sure until I actually arrived!

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San Juan church

The next day we walked to Burgos!

Last 2 photos courtesy of A. Bec

Walking without a donkey 11: Camino Francés

Days 3 – 5. 23 – 25 October 2016

Sometimes I walk to get from a to b, sometimes because I am in training for a trip (eg when I was preparing to walk in the alps), and sometimes simply because the day is beautiful and I need to be outside.

I have been taking walks here and there in Spain – between towns, along beaches, on plains, up hills, through forests – and now I am getting hooked on the Camino Francés (the best known) of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimages, The Way of St. James.

My day three takes me from Estella (Navarra) to Los Arcos; on day four I reach Logroño; and at the end of day five I sleep in Nájera (La Rioja), all in northern Spain, moving east to west.

For me the process of walking day-by-day engenders prosaic observations, deep thought, and empty mind. For example, it strikes me as I stride that once you have decided on your path you just have to keep going until you get there. And if you take a wrong turn you can either retrace your footsteps, or choose a new way. What you can’t do is make the end come sooner than it does. There just are that many miles between you and where you are going.

On the other hand, although walking along the flat is good, when there’s nothing for miles around it’s impossible to find somewhere to snuck down for a private pee.

Because it’s hard not to look at the ground when you walk, you do get to see the little things which live down there. Flowers, butterflies, bugs, and an iguana basking on the dry, bleached path. People who know the hedgerows of Britain, my mother being the best amongst them, and from whom I learned most of what I know about flora and fauna, will recognise many of the flowers and bushes along this section of the Way: fennel, brambles, vetch, ragwort to name a few.

Not far out of Estella we come to the Bodegas Irache with it’s free wine fountain from which, tradition has it, you fill a small bottle and carry it to Santiago de Compostella as an offering. Needless to say most people drink it there and then, and I share a laugh with the other peregrinos (pilgrims) at this alcoholic alternative.

Further along, outside the ancient Benedictine Capuchin monastery and church, there is a large group of all ages, from little ones who are carried on their father’s shoulders, to teenagers and parents, singing the old English folk song Greeensleeves. Apparently they are members of the same extended family who are doing part of the Camino every school holidays.

There’s a strong wind today and I have more contact with others from all over the world, perhaps to take my mind off it – 2 strong American women with lots of experience; a Polish priest; a Frenchman who started on 4 September in Paris and has had barely a drop of rain in 6 weeks; a cigar seller from Alabama (a giant of a man with an impressive beard and booming voice); and many other interesting people who are all walking for their own individual, personal, and spiritual reasons.

Advice: If you fancy trying this, do remember to bring walking sticks to take some of the weight off your feet, waterproof footwear, and a cover for your back pack. I didn’t!

Logroño, a Camino city.

Logroño with my magenta scarf.

Typical rural landscape of the Rioja region.

Los Arcos.

Los Arcos – you can see pilgrim murals like this all along the Camino Francés.

Albergue, Los Arcos where I gave an impromptu early morning Chi Gung class for about 8 people.

This blog is dedicated to my friend Liz (who I have worked with for many years, and who came into Edinburgh especially to lend me her book and share her Camino with me), and to Edie, who helped me keep the dream alive, although she was unable to accompany me.

The New Forest, England

Autumn 2016

I am taking a break from my regular life in Edinburgh to discover what I want to do with myself and my future. I’m walking my way into my next half century.

Ken and I were wandering together years ago by a river in Cardiff and he was telling me how walking helps the brain settle, how it gets the creative juices flowing. Simply setting one foot in front of another helps the thoughts to move along, and gets you from one place to another.

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Downton, England.

Luckily I am healthy; my beautiful daughters can now manage brilliantly without me, and so with lots of support from family and friends I have taken time off to explore. I intend to spend time sitting, resting, listening, watching, meeting new people, speaking another language, and of course, walking.

 ‘Man’s real home is not a house, but the Road, and (that) life itself is a journey to be walked on foot.’ Bruce Chatwin ‘Songlines’

I started my Autumn walks in the New Forest with Angela – snake stories, practicing Spanish verbs, annual acorn-eating pigs, and some donkeys.

Our excuse was to take Polly, Christinas’s dog, out for exercise, and we roamed along grassy paths with the smell of Autumn all around us. We tried to avoid any wildlife that might readily be chased.

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Donkey foal.

As we roamed along valleys beside meandering streams, and the bracken seemed to turn browner by the minute, we got to know each other and Polly explored. Inevitably she discovered the donkeys which are free to roam as part of the peoples’ rights to graze their livestock, pick holly, and cut peat.

I recommend this gentle part of the world for walking. It will deepen your appreciation of your surroundings, and moving side-by-side with someone is perfect for meaningful exchanges. 

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Detail on thatched ridge (blurred from a distance).

This is part of a travel blog entitled Walking Without a Donkey, a nod to Travels with a donkey in the Cevennes by Robert Louis Stevenson written in 1879

In Praise of the Donkey

The New Forest Walking Festival is between 12 – 27 August 2019

See also Downton and the New Forest, walks and history