Heather Conn Blogs

spoutin’ about by the sea

The Camino adopts the scallop and St. James as global brands

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A pilgrim’s walking stick with a gourd
and scallop bearing the St. James cross


Before walking the Camino, I knew nothing of Saint James. Excuse my ignorance, but I now know that he and his brother John were among Jesus’s first apostles; they were the fishermen to whom Jesus said “Come, let me make you fishers of men.”


A pagan at heart, I felt little affinity to this notable Christian, particularly since he tried to convert Druids in Spain. But when I learned of his beheading in Jerusalem by King Herod in 42 or 44 A.D. (official dates vary), he gained greater favour in my eyes; viewed as subversive, he had died for his beliefs, evoking my sympathy for the wronged rebel. He’s now the patron saint of Spain.



It seems fitting that the memory of someone who worked in the sea is now paired with an ocean emblem like the scallop. Different legends explain the origin of this connection. In one popular myth, a ship that transported St. James’ body from Jerusalem to northern Spain smashed on rocks during a storm; when his body was recovered, it was covered in scallop shells.

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This scallop image appeared as a repeated symbol on this Camino bridge.

Today, the scallop is to the Camino what the golden arches are to McDonald’s: a global brand and repeat motif that every Spanish village and town displays in myriad forms along the route. Just as in India, where the “Om” symbol graces hats, souvenirs, carved rocks and any meditation-related surface, you’ll find a scallop logo on the Camino embedded in bridges, sidewalks, roads, on manhole covers, in stone waymarkers—anywhere where pilgrims’ eyes and feet will pass.

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A yarn-bombed waymarker bearing a scallop shell


Each urban municipality along The Way presents its own version of a stylized scallop. Seeing such a variety of presentations, I assumed that some lucky graphic designers must have enjoyed healthy contracts to create such distinctive, professional-looking images.

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A scallop image embedded in a cobblestone street,
next to my bandaged toes


I bought my own souvenir scallop at the albergue in Roncesvalles on day two of my Camino journey. It’s a real shell, about four inches across, with a red St. James cross painted on it. A long loop of red cord makes it easy to attach this to a backpack. This scallop version is the one most commonly seen dangling from pilgrims’ packs. It’s an overt yet silent way of saying: “I’m part of this particular global walking tribe.”


As I walked along, my shell clinked or bobbed. Whenever I rested, I made sure to lean my pack down gently so that the shell wouldn’t smash. Once, just after I had stopped and written something in my journal critical of the Catholic church, the shell fell off my pack. A subtle message in response to my sacreligious sensibilities?

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One of the many representations of St. James along the Camino

Some pilgrims will wear an additional scallop, perhaps as a hat or lapel pin. I bought a beautiful one, about two inches wide, hand-carved by a young German from the remains of a church pew. Suspended on a suede cord around my neck, it became part of my daily pilgrim attire, much like a bolo tie.

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The German carver who created
my wooden scallop necklace


In medieval times, pilgrims attached a scallop shell to their hats or clothes and used it as a portable bowl or dish. They’d use it as a scoop to receive a scallop’s worth of food donated at churches or other pilgrim-oriented centres along the path.


On day 21 of my journey, in the small village of Reliegos, I met an 82-year-old Dutch man who was walking the Camino for the twentieth time. He told me that the Canadian regiment that had liberated his city in the Second World War had worn scallop shells on their hats. Based on subsequent internet research, this must have been the Lincoln and Welland regiment, based in St. Catharines and Welland, Ont., which liberated Arnhem under the leadership of General Sir Isaac Brock. I had no idea that scallops had been part of this wartime victory.

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The 82-year-old Dutch man
with U.S. pilgrim Michael Romo and I

Some of today’s European languages still draw a connection between St. James and scallops: in French, a scallop is coquille Saint Jacques and in German, scallops are Jakobsmuscheln (James mussels). In Dutch, Jacobsschelp means “shell of St. James.”


My constant viewing of scallop imagery along the Camino, combined with an assortment of life-size and smaller public statues of St. James, reminded me that walking this path plugged me into an archetypal history, one that valued his selfless service to others and the power of community.



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A statue of St. James


Although James has become a saint, I like that he was supposed to have been fiery and impetuous, blowing up at those who ran afoul of his visions. This makes him more accessible as a symbol of imperfect humanity rather than some beatific angel basking in the glow of his halo.


His heritage does give him saintly “street cred,” though. His mother Saint Mary Salome was at the foot of Jesus’ cross during his crucifixion and later brought herbs and spices to his tomb to anoint his body.

I had thought that James’ mom was the famous Salome of the dance of the seven veils; a Catholic-educated friend quickly corrected me on this (thanks, David M.). But I still like to think of James—dare I call him Jim?—with a soul of earthy rawness. Just think if he had become linked with oysters, instead of scallops . . .

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A depiction of St. James’ beheading
from a door panel in the cathedral at Santiago


By the time I got to Santiago, I didn’t care if the sacred relics of St. James in the cathedral were real, fake or nonexistent. I had made it—unlike him, with my head intact.


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November 5, 2013 at 11:11 am Comments (2)