We are just back from a trip out to the MacCormaig Islands with a group of friends along with their kids. The idea for the trip arose from discussions about taking young people out to experience wild places, away from electricity, screens, amenities.
The island we chose was one that offered some protection from the elements (and as it happens, the midges) as it had a well maintained bothy. It is also a little less wild than some- having generally less severe terrain. It is not without interest though- having an ancient chapel, a hermits cave and a beautiful cove ideal for swimming. We were accompanied by a pair of otters, seals and countless sea birds.
It worked. All out kids, ranging in age from 6 to 14 seemed captivated by the place, despite the challenges of weather, wet boots and of course the midges.
I will reflect on this some more in the future, but for now, here are some photos;
I am back after a wonderful trip to Garbh Eileach, largest island of the Garvellachs which lie in the Sound of Mull. It was a real contrast to our last trip to Eileach an Naoimh, just a couple of miles away- Garbh Eileach is wooded and alive with birdsong and the skittering of red deer. Unfortunately this means lots of ticks, but no paradise is perfect this side of eternity.
11 of us went this time- mostly old friends now, and at times I laughed so much I thought I would tear something. There was lots of stillness and prayer too however as well as Golden Eagles and glorious seascapes. The weather was mixed but you get what you get in these parts and still feel grateful.
I had a conversation with Will last night about camping. He was wanting to go to a small island, by canoe, in February. I suggested that the canoe was probably not a safe means of transport to get to the islands in question (right out to sea in some fast tidal waters) and also February might be a bit cold. As I said these things, I felt like I was damaging something precious- some kind of freedom, adventure, companionship that might easily be stolen by time, or the internet.
It started a discussion between Will and I about what we would like to do- as well as planning some camping trips ourselves, we revived an old idea of organising a trip for adult/child pairings along the lines of one of our wilderness retreats.
Today I was reading something George Monbiot wrote on a similar theme. He was writing about the way that our relative freedom from oppression, slavery, poverty, war has seemed to lead us towards LESS freedom- we become obsessed with a kind of freedom to consume, to shop. We talk about our consumer rights as if they are laws of the universe, a bit like gravity.
A couple of quotes that rather hit home;
Almost universally we now seem content to lead a proxy life, a counter life, of vicarious, illusory relationships, of secondhand pleasures, of atomisation without individuation. Those who possess some disposable income are extraordinarily free, by comparison to almost all our great-grandparents, but we tend to act as if we have been placed under house arrest…
…Had our ancestors been asked to predict what would happen in an age of widespread prosperity in which most religious and cultural proscriptions had lost their power, how many would have guessed that our favourite activities would not be fiery political meetings, masked orgies, philosophical debates, hunting wild boar or surfing monstrous waves but shopping and watching other people pretending to enjoy themselves? How many would have foreseen a national conversation – in public and in private – that revolves around the three Rs: renovation, recipes and resorts? How many would have guessed that people possessed of unimaginable wealth and leisure and liberty would spend their time shopping for onion goggles and wheatgrass juicers? Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chainstores…
Returning to my discussion with Will- how might we start to raise the eyes of our kids above Monbiot’s three R’s? I suppose we might start with the big W. (Wilderness.) Here is Monbiot again;
Could it be this – the immediate satisfaction of desire, the readiness with which we can find comfort – that deprives us of greater freedoms? Does extreme comfort deaden the will to be free?
If so, it is a habit learnt early and learnt hard. When children are housebound, we cannot expect them to develop an instinct for freedom that is intimately associated with being outdoors. We cannot expect them to reach for more challenging freedoms if they have no experience of fear and cold and hunger and exhaustion. Perhaps freedom from want has paradoxically deprived us of other freedoms. The freedom which makes so many new pleasures available vitiates the desire to enjoy them.
I am not sure Will and I are quite ready for ‘fear and cold and hunger and exhaustion’, but there does seem to me a real need to get out of our digital comfort zones.
To leave behind the wide screens and look instead to the wide horizon.
We are planning another wilderness retreat Friday 20th – Sunday 22nd September, for a group of blokes from Garioch Church, Aberdeen. They are particularly interested in finding a way to explore what we might understand to be ‘male spirituality’.
We will be heading out to the Garvellachs again, weather permitting! The last time we tried to get there (in May) the rising swell meant that landing was too big a risk, and so we ended up on Scarba- which was brilliant too.
At present there are 6-7 of us, so room for a few more if anyone wants to join us? Expect costs to be around £50-60, depending on how many actually come (due to fixed costs of boat.)
If you want to come, let me know soon, as there are a few folk interested.
It is time for our annual Aoradh wilderness retreat. Each May bank holiday weekend, usually with old friends and invited guests, we hire a boat to drop us off for a couple of nights camping wild on an uninhabited island. This year we are returning to Eileach an Naoimh, one of the Garvellachs in the Ross of Mull, Inner Hebrides. The photo above was taken looking north at the other islands in the chain a few years ago, in less than ideal weather. The forecast for this weekend is better thankfully.
Eileach an Naoimh, even by west coast of Scotland standards, is a stunning place. It has soaring cliffs full of nesting birds on one side, and a rising green slope the other. It is also the site of an ancient Celtic monastery;
About 542, St. Brendan the Navigator founded a monastery on Eilach, presumed to be the island, possibly because of the combination of its isolation and good grazing. This may make the remains the oldest extant church buildings in Britain, although the earliest written record of its existence dates from the late 9th century. Columba is believed to have visited the island and it is one of the proposed locations of the Columban retreat isle of Hinba. Eileach an Naoimh may be the burial site of Columba’s mother Eithne.
Remains of a chapel on Eileach an Naoimh
The monastery was destroyed by – or, at least, may have become excessively vulnerable to – Viking raiders, from about 800. The island has probably seen only intermittent occupation since, which has contributed to the survival of the ruins of many of the monastic buildings, including two chapels, beehive cells, and a graveyard with three crosses and another circular grave. The cells are contained in a pentagonal enclosure overlooking the rocky landing place on the south, which is guarded by various skerries. Beyond the enclosure there is another cell with two rooms. The oldest chapel is rectangular and may date from the 11th or 12th centuries. The monastic ruins are the oldest ecclesiastical buildings in Scotland and the site is in the care of Historic Scotland.
One of the lovely things about our retreats has been the chance to share the experience with others- friends and friends of friends – people who sometimes have never camped before, and certainly have never experienced that ‘noisy silence’ that is a Hebridean evening.
In case this sounds a little bit too idylic and romantic- there are many challenges of such journeys. It can be cold, very wet, and uncomfortable. There are no toilets, no tap water, no shelter apart from that which we make for ourselves. If the weather is kind, it is easy, but the weather changes so much even over a couple of days- this is one of the joys of being in such places; you see the weather coming, and you see it go. Sometimes it hits you right between the eyes.
I have been having lots of conversations with my friends about what we do, how we prepare, what we take etc. There are all the practical details- how much kit, what to leave out etc.
Then there have been discussions about what makes this a retreat, rather than a group of daft folk who like to get down with wilderness (which is worth doing in its own right after all.) Our trips evolved from friends being fools to friends trying to be more deliberate in our engagement with the God of wild places. These days we have simplified what we do considerably- we divide time into silent and communal, and gather round a fire in the evening using simple rituals to reflect on the day. This time we intend to use one of the chapel buildings to follow a days monastic pattern.
Finally I have had lots of discussions about how we best use our time, and what to bring that might help. I usually suggest that less is more- the fewer things we have between us and the nakedness of a wilderness experience the better. All sorts of things that in their own right can be good- books, cameras, art stuff etc, can become like static clutter: flotsam that chokes the pristine shore line.
What I always find most powerful is the combination of immersion in beauty alone, and then sharing this with times of companionship, laughter- making our individual experience communal.
One discussion with Sam surrounded what to take to write on. I have always taken notebooks and pens, but despite my conviction that (for me at least) writing is a primary spiritual discipline and practice, I usually write very little- in fact, when I try, what I write tends to feel forced and false- like I am doing it more for someone else rather than for me (or God.) I have felt a little guilty about this in the past- almost as if I am not doing it right- that I am playing at something.
I was reminded about this when listening to one of my favourite poets speak. Norman MacCaig’s work is saturated with wild Scotland- in particular the area called Assynt. He spent each summer there walking fishing, meeting friends and sharing a dram or two. What he did not do over these summers was to write- this belonged to the darker times- when the wilderness came back to him- sometimes all in a rush- his famous ‘two fag’ poems. MacCaig had no religion- he was a avowed athiest – but his words have a life in them that I love.
Here he is speaking, and I find myself startlingly in agreement with much of what he says about the creative process- my love of free verse, and music, and my love/hate with imagery, which I feel like an addiction. I do not smoke, but my poems also usually drop out in no time at all, as if from nowhere. Or perhaps from seeds sown in the wilderness.
But I am getting technical again- there is time for all this writing later.
Here are some photos taken from Taynuilt today on my way round to Oban. As far as I could gather from the locals the fire has been burning for two days and looked spectacular last night as the flames lit up the hill. Someone told me she thought that the fire started over the other side of the mountain, and had spread- fortunately only slowly towards the houses this side as the wind was pushing the flames away.
Despite heavy snow falls in parts of Argyll (Campbeltown was cut off for three days over the weekend with no power) the hills are incredibly dry at the moment. What little moisture there is has been held in the form of ice.
As I was driving back from Lochgilphead the other day, I passed a bus stop.
It was not like an ordinary bus stop, as it was on a stretch of road with no visible signs of occupation for miles around.
Standing on the ground next to the bus stop was a red mug.
The mug stuck in my mind somehow. So much so that it formed part of some writing I was doing elsewhere- some fiction. Here is an extract;
The bus was virtually empty. Tourists in these parts mostly travelled in cars or big white land barge camper vans. The only people who used the heavily subsidised service were school kids (the early morning and mid-afternoon service buses were ordeals best avoided) and a hardened group of locals whose incomes had no headroom for petrol money.
Despite their shared poverty, Millie often felt like a suburban Leylandii amongst pine trees; they had grown where they were planted; whereas she grew up in a plastic pot- artificial but surprisingly robust, despite the rough treatment.
The bus turned a corner and dropped a couple of gears for a steep hill, before lurching forward almost from a stand still past another empty bus stop. There was no visible sign of habitation for miles around and Millie wondered if anyone ever used it, but then noticed a bright red mug placed on the kerb next to the stop sign.
She found herself captivated by the mug in the middle of the wilderness. Who had left it there? Would they ever return? Which kitchen was it filled in? She found herself imaging all sorts of fantastical explanations involving two lovers thrown apart or last cups of tea before emigration to the Americas before settling on the mundane likelihood of a house hidden in some hollow of ground and a slightly eccentric morning routine.
The cup seemed to capture something about the contradictory nature of life in the Highlands; at once both expansive and claustrophobic. A tiny red dot in the middle of wilderness, swallowed up by towering trees and the sweep of the implacable mountains.
Millie smiled to herself at a sudden certainty that one of the other people on the bus would know exactly whose mug it was. She suspected that some would disapprove of the impropriety of such domestic revelation and that the red cup might yet be used as evidence of weakness of character.
Along with some friends, we spent the long weekend camping on the Ross of Mull, overlooking Iona- which is the most beautiful place I have ever been to.
And here is the evidence;
We walked a lot, swam, ate, cooked bread and baked spuds in makeshift ovens made of sand and driftwood fires.
Whilst there we heard of the mother of one of us having become seriously ill in hospital. The distance and ferries stopped any rush to her bedside- all that was possible was to stay and pray. To sit in such beauty with such a burden must have been an incredible rush of emotions- but it felt as though the place, and our community, was holding us.
We are delayed only by our hearts beating.
And each one beats with all the treasure of the universe.
Many of us who love wild places constantly will describe the transformational effect of being immersed in wilderness. We may consider many subjective benefits- the lowering of our stress levels, a deeper appreciation of our place within the ecology of life, our sense of the ageless beauty of natural things.
Measuring these benefits objectively is more difficult. There are of course clear physiological advantages to exercising in the outdoors, but what (if any) psychological benefits can we point towards?
Peter Kahn and his colleagues at University of Washington have been working on this for a while- in one simple experiment they installed plasma TV “windows” in workers’ otherwise windowless offices for a period of 16 weeks, and then took various measures of psychological function. They found that those with the “views” of parkland and mountain ranges had a greater sense of well-being, were clearer thinking, and a greater sense of connection to the natural world.
Next they compared office workers with plasma TV’s in their offices with people with real windows overlooking trees and grassland, and exposed them to mild stress- the sort that raises the heart beat- and waited to see how long it would take for them to calm down. What they found was that those with the real window calmed down quicker. The TV seemed to have no more benefit than a blank wall. If you are into reading academic papers, it is here.
What might be going on here? University of Michigan psychologist Marc Berman suggested that nature might actually shift our brain from one processing mode to another. In cities, we are constantly stimulated- so we use a more focussed analytical attention style. In this way we are able to deal with rush-hour traffic and sirens and all those other urban noises. Berman suggested that this is also the kind of attention we need to study for exams, make financial decisions, do business deals and so on.
It is also the kind of attention that we use up. It burns out, or burns us out. Berman’s theory is that being in wild places shifts the mind to a more relaxed and passive mode, allowing the more analytical powers to restore themselves. Berman too did some experiments to test his theory;
He gave a group of volunteers a very difficult mental reasoning test that measures the kind of focused attention needed for school and work. They were then given additional task to further deplete their normal ability to concentrate, to mirror a typical high pressure day at work. Then all the volunteers took a three-mile walk- half the volunteers took a leisurely stroll through a secluded park, while the others walked down a busy city street, after which the psychologists again measured their focus and concentration.
You can see what is coming- as reported in the journal Psychological Science, those who had been on the nature walk had significantly better focus and attention than those who had been required to negotiate the city streets. Being in nature does indeed appear to replenish our reserves of concentration and analytical attention capacity.
It also suggests that being in nature allows us to switch to a different kind of attentiveness- less focussed, more holistic and open.
There is also some interesting research about how this kind of attentiveness might affect irritability, even aggression. This from here;
The hypothesis laid out by Frances Kuo and William Sullivan of the University of Illinois was a marvel of logic and sequence: If fatigued attention is related to irritability, and irritability leads to aggression, then perhaps people deprived of nature’s restorative qualities would be overly aggressive (Kuo & Sullivan, 2001).
Kuo and Sullivan tested their premise on 145 female residents of a public housing complex in urban Chicago. The complex provided natural control and study groups: Some residents lived in buildings that overlooked “pockets of green,” while others had a view of only bleak concrete. The researchers reported significantly lower levels of aggression and violence in residents with apartments near nature than in those who looked onto barren lands. When handling disputes with their partners, women in the nature group used fewer “psychologically aggressive conflict tactics” and fewer “mildly violent conflict tactics” than those whose randomly assigned housing unit was denied exposure to nature.
So, the next time you need to undertake some kind of task think of this- if you need space, then find some.