Make your own pilgrim shell

A few weeks ago I decided to kickbike a few thousand kilometers on the Camino to Santiago de Compostella. The traditional symbol of Camino pilgrims is the scallop shell. I decided not to buy one, but to craft my own.

My scallop shell

I had the great luck to find scallops 12 years ago, when I was still living in Dublin. We were visiting a small town north of Dublin with friends. When we got to the harbour it was low tide and the muddy harbour basin laid dry, with a few dozen half scallop shells around. A fisherman must have thrown them in at the last high tide.
The only thing between me and the shells were eight meter deep, steep, narrow, non-railed, slightly algae overgrown and slippy stairs down the quay. It took some courage to get down there – but these big, nice shells were just too tempting.

And now finally, more than a decade later, one of the shells is used for something decent: to be my pilgrim shell.

The edges of shell were a bit unevenly broken and partly sharp. So I gave them a quick grind with a rotating grinding pin.

Historically, German pilgrims may rarely have had shells from Ireland. But the species Pecten Maximus is correct, it appears in the Atlantic along Spain and Ireland.

The string

Two holes in the shell appendices are simplest to produce and probably therefore the historical standard. But they allow movement along the string, unless sophisticatedly knotted. But nice knotting seemed difficult for me, so I gave it four holes.

Maybe in medieval times, the holes were not drilled with dentist’s diamond drill bits and a Dremel – but it certainly makes it easier.
If you want to do that at home: do not use a steel drill, it can split your shell badly. A diamond bit is great, but any cheap grinding bit will do as well. Cool with water! With a flexible shaft you can work under a tap, otherwise dip your shell and your drill in a bowl of water often and do not get electrocuted, please.

The string is kangaroo leather from Dictum (in black and saddle tan). Not deer, but dear. My crafting time is too precious to use cheap material. 😉

It took a while to figure out a knot that is both practical and aesthetically pleasing. And I added a length adjustable string knot.

Kangaroo leather strings in medieval times were only produced 10000 miles away from Spain. Well, even nowadays it’s produced there, however, a few meters luckily resided with me – just because it is so nice to work with.

The cross

Obviously it should be an original cross of Saint James. So the main part symbolizes some sword from the times of the James Order. The side parts are Fleur-de-lis – heraldically called lilies, but botanically actually Iris, the cousins of lilies.

I painted the cross in Zoo Red / Dyrehaven Rot / Tiergarten Rot. It is one of various iron and copper oxide based linseed oil paints, mainly known from Scandinavian houses – this one is named after the Danish Dyrehaven Deer Park’s buildings. Just for that fact I should visit this Park. 🙂

I happened to have a small amount from painting my bird house three years ago. (Here at Dictum.) It’s a linseed oil based color, so it takes a couple of days to dry for each layer.

Using a practice shell, I figured out to use as little paint as possible to avoid the paint from spreading uncontrollably with the surface structure. Paintbrush size 4 was too big, so I used a toothpick in the end to apply the color.

Iron and copper oxide colors have been known for 4000 years and linseed oil paint is also ancient. More authentic would be to apply linseed oil paints with boar bristle paint brushes – while I admit that I do seem to have a lot of crafting tools at home … but such a thing still not. 😉

The end result

This is how my pilgrim shell looked in the end.

I am quite happy with the result!

Background: a Moroccan black fossil marble plate, found in the Casablanca restaurant/shop in Smidstrup, Denmark, during a serendipitous caffeine refill.

Last but not least: ancient pilgrims got their shell in Santiago and carried it on the way back, rather than the other way round! But in modern times – as a negligible amount of pilgrims walks the way back – most seem to use it as a sign where they are going to. This certainly is historically ludicrously incorrect and I am not yet sure how to sufficiently cope with it.
Suggestions and/or emotional support is welcome.

If you went the Camino as well, I would be interested in your shell story.

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