I took a trip into the wilderness of Argyll at the weekend. Along with some friends I canoed along Loch Striven, camping on the shoreline amongst the birch trees and the bluebells. The air was alive with spring- birds stuffing last years grass into cracks being watched carefully by all those noisy cuckoos. The sea loch still enough to carry the tell tale ripples made by porpoise or the eager seals or the arrow like dive of the gannets. A huge moon rising over the hills bright enough to cast shadows.

On days like this it is impossible not to be aware of the new season- winter is over and everything is coming alive (even though it was VERY cold at night!) However, our connection to these things is increasingly distanced by the way we live. Our air conditioned centrally heated living spaces remain the same temperature the year long, the food we eat is available no matter what the growing season and the lengthening days serve only to facilitate our leisure pursuits.

It was not always like this. Many of the festivals we celebrate have their roots in ancient ways of marking the changing of the seasons. We humans have a way of ritualising and celebrating boundaries and transitions- particularly the ones that matter- the ones that might be the difference between life and death. So, the coming of milk to the fist pregnant ewe came to be called Imbolc in these parts, and the first blossom on the apple trees brought about the riotous dancing of Beltane. Then there was the celebration of the very last of the harvest- Lughnasadh. 

This connection to the natural world is one that many of us still crave, without always being clear why. It is something we only really experience when in the vulnerability of being in wild places. By watching the progression of the year from the sleep of winter to the wilt of late summer and the last blaze of Autumn it becomes possible to see once again this world for what it is, and our small place within it all.

Then the season becomes like a song. It finds its way inside us.

Wilderness retreat pictures…

We are back after a wonderful few days out in the wild.

This year the Aoradh wilderness trip did not venture out to one of the islands- a few people dropped out and so the boat charter would have just been too expensive. We decided that we would stay more local, so I scouted out a location half way up one of our lovely lochs- Loch Striven.  Five of us walked/canoed in from the road end and spent two days and nights in silence, in community and preparing lavish outdoor meals.

This time we managed to bake bread in a biscuit tin oven, bake potatoes and apples, cook mussels harvested from the shore in front of the tent, and spend hours sitting round the campfire talking and laughing.

Even though the weather was mostly lovely it was unusually cold, which was a shame as I took advantage of the trees to use my camping hammock/tarp set up- which turned out to be rather chilly.

This trip was very different to our other wilderness retreats but still really great- it made us appreciate again the wild places right on our doorstep here in Argyll. We also wondered whether it might be a chance to offer people short taster sessions of what wilderness and spirituality together can offer.

I also got to do some canoeing too, for the first time for a while. Andy and I clocked up around 18 miles of paddling. In the process of which we saw seals, porpoise and countless sea birds. Today we canoed to the head of the Loch and Michaela came to collect us. Lovely!

The Edge of the World…

I have been really busy this week making a bedroom for William out of one of our scruffy box rooms. This always involves far more work than you think- particularly when you want to make the most out of a small space. He is delighted with his new room, and this means that his old room, with amazing views out over the Clyde, can start it’s transformation into a B and B room.

In the middle of all the chaos I sat down with a cup of tea and flicked on the TV, and a film was showing that I had heard about, but never seen- an old Michael Powell  film, made in 1937 called ‘The Edge of the World‘.

The film was Powell’s first feature film and grew out of his fascination with the changes happening out on the edge of the British Isles- the depopulation of St Kilda in 1930 in particular. He wanted to film there but it just was not practical, so he made his film on another wild wonderful island- Foula, 20 miles West of the Shetland Islands. The cast and crew lived there for several months, even having to build their own dwellings.

I think this film, dated as it is, contains fascinating glimpses of a life now gone in our far flung islands. A time before air travel or fast ferries and mobile telephones. A time of the corncrake at the edge of hand harvested fields and hands twisted from hard work.

Anyone who has spent time in any of these isolated wild places will know that they can have the capacity to change you inside. Powell went back to Foula in 1978, thankfully still with a thriving community, and made another film for the BBC. He too had been shaped and changed by the islands.

This is one of the reasons why I take my own pilgrimages out into the Hebrides whenever I can. We will be heading out again in a couple of weeks.

Hmmm- I feel another plug coming on; if anyone wants to join one of our wilderness pilgrimages you may like to check out some of the photo’s and info on our Facebook page.

Visit Cowal gives us a plug…

The lovely Visit Cowal website has given our Wilderness Retreats a plug on their news section. Very charitable of them considering the retreats will not actually be held in Cowal, beautiful as this part of the world really is.

If you do not believe me- check out the site.

Incidentally, if you are considering a trip up north, then please consider our holiday accommodation. It can be booked through a whole host of online agencies- including the Guardian website, country cottages etc. It is also worth dropping me a line as we have a few owner bookings that we can use (particularly for loyal blog readers!)

We are moving towards our mixed-economy kind of way of making a living. Last night we had the first firing of the pottery kiln in our cellar. The house did not burn down! It is always a little bit scary to see the temperature gauge reach 1000 degrees centigrade inside something close to the floor of your house. We are still waiting for the contents to cool down to see what the firing will be like- watch this space!

Nature deficit disorder?


Even the National Trust are doing it now- inventing classifications of mental illness.

In fact it was a US based writer Richard Louv who first began to use the words ‘nature deficit disorder’ to describe a growing dislocation between children and nature.

The NT are quoting findings from a Natural Childhood Report by naturalist and author Steven Moss, who suggests that a steady stream of surveys have highlighted how a generation of children are losing touch with the natural world.  The NT are planning to launch a consultation into what we all think about this.

The trust argues that the growing dissociation of children from the natural world and the growth of what it calls the “cotton wool culture” of indoor parental guidance impairs the capacity of children to learn through experience.

It cites evidence showing that:

  • children learn more and behave better when lessons are conducted outdoors
  • symptoms of children diagnosed with ADHD improve when they are exposed to nature
  • children say their happiness depends more on having things to do outdoors more than owning technology.

Yet British parents feel more pressure to provide gadgets for their children than in other European countries. This from here;

The statistics reveal that things have changed dramatically in just one generation:

  • Fewer than ten per cent of kids play in wild places; down from 50 per cent a generation ago
  • The roaming radius for kids has declined by 90 per cent in one generation (thirty years)
  • Three times as many children are taken to hospital each year after falling out of bed, as from falling out of trees
  • A 2008 study showed that half of all kids had been stopped from climbing trees, 20 per cent had been banned from playing conkers or games of tag

Authority figures and layers of bureaucracy have combined with a climate of ‘don’t do that’ to create an environment where fewer and fewer children play in the outdoors. This has led to a situation where kids having fun in the outdoors are painted as showing signs of anti social behaviour.

The research shows that capturing children before they enter the teenage years is crucial with the research clearly showing if you get kids hooked before they reach twelve years old, you’ll create a lifelong passion for the environment.

It has to be said that there are sceptics. Some see the NT study as nothing more than a slightly sensationalist money raising campaign, aimed at adding another layer of guilt/concern on to middle class parenting.  Others have questioned the science- writing in the Guardian, Aleks Krotosk had this to say;

…public discourse needs to be balanced and critical. Using emotive language such as “electronic addictions” and “the extinction of experience”, as this report does, undermines the so-called “science” that the National Trust is presenting in this document. Scientific claims are backed up by evidence. Preferably primary sources – not press releases.

Researchers have spent more than two decades untangling the web’s effects on our lives, and have discovered where it disrupts our existing social practices, and where it doesn’t. This is indeed an important issue for public scrutiny, but the method of wrapping up a half-truth in a lab coat and presenting it as an evidence-based review of the literature is as insidious as a PR company commissioning an academic researcher to find a predetermined outcome.

Evidence-based argument is the hallmark of the lively and informed debates we as a population have engaged in since the reformation, and is the cornerstone of an engaged and critical society. The 27-page press release published by the National Trust that describes a made-up disorder is only intended to inspire a reaction and fuel uncertainty. Rather than open up debate, this kind of thing serves to close it down. And that is just not scientific.

She has a point. People said listening to the wireless would make us deaf and watching TV would turn our brains to jelly, and all the changes brought about by the internet on the way we humans interact may indeed considerable but are also irreversible.  We are on the brink of one of those paradigm shifts and it is difficult to know where it will all lead, but there is no going back.

However, many of will read the words of the NT’s National Childhood Report and feel that it is saying something important. It may be rather difficult to scientifically quantify, but we instinctively feel that our disconnection with wild places might yet be a huge mistake.

It might be a huge mistake because in losing our place in the natural order of things, we lose something of ourselves.

It might also be a huge mistake because in losing our connection with the natural order of things, we might also be part of the destruction of everything.

When I was small, my mother took me camping. I found a dead squirrel and it was so lovely that I sneaked it into my tent, along with a lot of still alive fleas. I swam in a river for hours and ended up with stomach ache from something I swallowed. I climbed trees and had to be rescued.

We also joined a rambling club. I still remember those long trudges through Derbyshire, almost too tired to speak.

These experiences, good and bad, never left me. They became the platform for my own adventures as an adult. I hope for the same for my own children. And theirs.

I believe these are reasons for optimism.

Wilderness retreats- new FB page…

On a day when everyone seems to be talking about Google’s new (non) privacy policy, I have been trying to dip into the world of marketing. However, lacking the multi billion pound machine that Google can bring to bear on our consciousness, I settled for the creation of a new Facebook page all about our up and coming wilderness meditations.

If you are a user of FB, then I would be honoured if you would visit and give it a ‘like’. I think that this helps in some way, although I am not quite sure why!

Even better- why don’t you come along? There are lots of photos on the page to give some kind of flavour of how lovely these places are.

Canoeing the Congo…

Little mishaps aside, I love canoeing.

Since my accident a couple of years ago, I realise I have been much more cautious, particularly on the sea. Whilst caution might well be understandable, and even (particularly from Michaela’s point of view) a welcome corrective, I do not like it.

I do not like the shrinking of the far horizon, or the idea that adventure should be avoided. I do not like decisions to be dominated by anxiety/fear in relation to things I used to do with an easy smile.

This year, I intend to get out in the canoe a lot more.

Having said all that, I am not sure I am quite ready for this, no matter how much the idea of it excites me;

Here is a quote from here;

At night, in the absence of firm ground, my technique would be to paddle as hard as I could and ram myself into the thickest area of reeds I could find. I’d then try to somehow drag and push my way further through, until I was securely wedged in with little risk of capsizing. I figured that since I was surrounded by tightly packed reeds, I’d have to be pretty unlucky to get a surprise visit from anything big enough to fit my head in its mouth. On more than one occasion I was awoken in the middle of the night by crashing, splashing sounds, but after a while I got used to it. Crashing, splashing sounds are one thing – something horrible ripping your leg off is quite another.

Thankfully, there are no crocodiles in the West of Scotland.

The Midgies have eaten them all.


Blowing away the cobwebs…

This weekend our eldest nephew Josh and his girlfriend Alice are up to stay with us. It has been a great day- we took them over to Ostel Bay, wrapped up against the wild wind.

Rain hail and sleet came across a massive sky in horizontal sheets, curtaining off the island of Arran in the distance, then parting to give a tantalising glimpse through and beyond. You could lean into the wind like a cushion.


Wilderness retreat trips, 2012…

Now that the New Year is with us, lots of us are looking forward into all sorts of busyness. It could be also that you are seeking to plan in some periods of retreat, and if so, you might like to consider this…

We are planning a new venture for this year- along with three of my friends from Aoradh, we are organising a series of ‘Wilderness Retreats’. These retreats form part of several micro enterprises that have grown out of what we do – a way of integrating faith with life which I am finding very exciting and hopeful. The ideas and activities have emerged from yearly retreats that we have been doing as a community for many years now – usually with invited ‘guests’ – and also from other forms of worship using wild locations that we have been experimenting with.

The retreats have been special experiences for us, for some of the following reasons-

  • The amazing locations- tiny Hebridean islands, part of a rich Celtic tradition of retreat
  • The ‘noisy’ silence- away from mobile signals, e mails, facebook
  • The wildlife- otters, eagles, seals, a thousand sea birds
  • The company- the lovely experience of sitting around a fire side and dreaming dreams together
  • And perhaps most of all the chance to find inner stillness

If the possibility of being part of something like this excites you, then please get in touch!

It might be possible to make this trip part of a bigger trip up to Scotland, or even part of a trip to the UK! If you want some advice as to options- again feel free to get in touch.

These retreats are not intended for hard core outdoor fitness types. You do not need to be ultra fit or prepared for the north face of the Eiger. If you can hop around rocks, and can cope with the possibility of being cold and wet with stoicism, then this is enough.

Here is some information from our publicity shot-

Do you love wild places?

Are you looking to find time to rest and reflect?

Are you hungry to make a deeper spiritual connection?

If so, we would like to invite you to come and be part of one of our wilderness retreats…

Wild places do something to the soul…

Here in Dunoon we are on the fringes of some of the most amazing wild places; lochs, mountains, forest, seascapes and small uninhabited islands. Opportunities for being immersed in wilderness – with all the glory and all the vulnerabilities of this – are everywhere.

Following an old Celtic tradition, we have been looking for ways to allow the shape of the landscape to become the means by which we might approach the divine; caves, rivers, mountain tops, small islands.

There is no better place to do this than here – the west coast of Scotland, and the small Argyll islands in particular, are marked everywhere by the passage of other pilgrims, for example the many monastic sites from the time of the missionary Celtic saints.

We invite you to journey with us into this generous tradition. All are welcome – from all faith backgrounds, or none.

There is information about some of our previous trips here-Jura, Eileach an Naoimh, Scarba, The McCormaig isles.

How does it work?

Our retreats typically take place over a long weekend – Saturday to Monday.  

They involve creating a small temporary community on one of the small uninhabited islands of the Inner Hebrides. These are stunningly beautiful places, rich in history, wildlife and the kind of peace that has to be experienced to be believed. All of our locations are well off the beaten track – they can only be reached by boat charter.

They are WILD places- exposed to the elements, with no amenities or comforts. Participants on these trips need to be prepared for this!  Please have a look at the kit list and general comments.

We will do the organisation, put together a programme and itinerary, charter a boat and provide spiritual exercises and activities to use together and alone. Each retreat will have at least two retreat leaders.

We will then lead you through the retreat, using a combination of times of sharing, times of silence and led meditations. Activities can be tailored to the needs and interests of the group- including varying degrees of challenge.

Retreat dates and costs

For the year ahead, we have two weekends fixed for retreats-

  • June the 22nd-25th  The Garvellachs. Cost £180 per person.
  • August the 17th-20th   The McCormaig Islands. Cost £150 per person.

(Deposit of £50 payable on booking. Full cost will be required if participant cancels later than four weeks prior to the event.)

If you are part of a group who are interested in another weekend, it may be possible to arrange a trip for you.

It is also possible to set up ‘mini expeditions’ for small groups/families. These would be typically for a day, or an evening. Contact us for details.

Pucks glen meditation trail…

Today we spent much of the day setting up things for this trail- which is Aoradh’s way of seeing in the New Year. If you are local we would love you to make use of it. It will be up for around a week.

We have not finished yet- all the notices and poetry will go up tomorrow. here are a few photos of the work so far though-