The yellow arrows and the scallop shell vie with each other for the honour of most recognisable symbol of the Camino and I think every perigrino’s heart has lightened on seeing them on those rare occasions when we’ve gone off the beaten track. While the shell has a long association with the Camino, the yellow arrow is a modern innovation. It was the brainchild of Don Elias Valiña Sampedroto in the 1970s, a priest now buried at one of the oldest churches on the Camino, Santa María la Real, at O’Cebreiro (Galicia). Don Elias was a historian as well as a priest and instrumental in reviving the Camino, through the judicious application of yellow paint on walls, rocks, trees and roads. A story goes that at one time he was in eastern Navarre with his bucket and brush when his suspicious behaviour drew the attention of the Guardia Civil (one of Spain’s police forces). What was he doing so near the border they asked? To which he replied magnificently, “Preparing a great invasion from France!”
The shell as a symbol dates back to the middle ages (see my History of the Camino), and the modern abstract version has a stellar quality, as befits something guiding the way to Compostela (‘Field of the Star’). I’ve heard it said that the direction of the rays of the shell points toward Compostela but that some of Spain’s autonomous regions orientate the symbol the other way around, with all the rays converging in the direction of the Compostela. To be honest, in my experience there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason and the arrows are a safer bet, but as long as you’re heading roughly west (sun to your left) you’re ok. However, the star-like quality of the shell symbol has another significance, one that complements the colour scheme and speaks to the future as much as the past.
It is no coincidence that the colour scheme of the shell symbol — yellow markings on a blue background — matches the yellow stars on a blue background of the European Union flag. By the mid-1970s dictatorships like that of Franco in Spain or the Regime of the Colonels in Greece were increasingly anachronistic and incompatible with evolving EU ideals, and after Franco’s death in 1975 and the subsequent transition to democracy, post-Franco Spain increasingly sought to locate itself within a modern Europe. The Camino became a means of promoting Spain’s place in Europe — after all the road to Compostela had once been one of Europe’s most travelled highways and a magnet for people from all over northern Europe. In 1986 Spain joined the EU (then EEC), and the following year the Camino was designated the first Cultural Route of the Council of Europe, in recognition that:
For centuries, pilgrims could discover new traditions, languages and ways of life and return home with a rich cultural background that was rare at a time when long-distance travel exposed the traveller to considerable danger. Thus the Santiago Routes serve both as a symbol, reflecting ever one thousand years of European history, and as a model of cultural co-operation for Europe as a whole.
If you’re from the UK and you voted for Brexit, you might want to think twice about getting that scallop shell tattoo!
 Anxo Saco, ‘Who was Elías Valiña? Follow the yellow arrow!’, https://caminotravelcenter.com/who-was-elias-valina-follow-the-yellow-arrow
 Council of Europe, ‘Santiago de Compostela Pilgrim Routes’, https://www.coe.int/en/web/cultural-routes/the-santiago-de-compostela-pilgrim-routes