Isle of St Brendan’s monastery…

Eileach an Naoimh in the distance- the island we did not manage to land on

I am doing some work to plan elements of an up and coming wilderness retreat next weekend. I am really looking forward to spending some time with David, meeting his mates from Aberdeen, and also returning (weather permitting!) to Eileach an Naoimh.

I have written before about this place- a wild place of high cliffs on one side and folding grass lands to the other. It is the site of a 5th C monastery thought to have been founded by St Brendan, and one of the places thought to be the island that St Columba knew as Hinba.

The monastery is still visible, scratched out in the thin soil. Some of the ancient bee-hive cells are almost intact. There is a medieval chapel, that stands roofless and I hope we can use it with the stars as a ceiling.

monastery, eileach an naoimh

I am reminded too that the last time I was there I wrote a poem or two based on the experience. This one was my favourite;

St Brendan

Lord stain me with salt

Brine me with the badge of the deep sea sailor

I have spent too long

On concrete ground.

If hope raises up these tattered sails

Will you send for me

A fair and steady wind?

view from eileach an naoimh towards ross of mull

Thoughts on retreats in wild places…

The Garvellachs

I am going here again in a couple of days.

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.[5][6]

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.[7] The monastic ruins are the oldest ecclesiastical buildings in Scotland and the site is in the care of Historic Scotland.[8][9]

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.

After the island.

Casting bread on the waters…

sea weed circles

Each year, over the May bank holiday, I go off with some friends to a wild place for a few days to make what we call a ‘wilderness retreat’. Our favourite locations are usually small uninhabited Hebridean islands- we are fortunate to be in reach of many.

Last year, after many years of our community (Aoradh) running these for ourselves and invited guests, a few of us made an attempt to offer them on a more ‘commercial’ basis to people looking to escape into the wild places for contemplation, meditation and companionship. We had some interest, but not enough to make a trip viable- mainly because of the charter cost of a boat to get us out to the islands.

In the end, we invited these folk to join our ‘comminity retreat’ which be going to Eileach an Naoimh, a tiny island that is part of the Garvellachs in the Ross of Mull. It is the site of a monastery founded by St Brendan- the nautical adventurer thought to have visited the Americas hundreds of years before Columbus.

One of the guys who is coming, I discovered, was from Nottinghamshire- my home county. I inquired further, and found out he lives very close to where I grew up, and where some of my family still live.

I then found out that he is the current minister of the church that I grew up in- St Thomas, Kirkby-in-Ashfield.

I have many mixed memories of this time- complicated by the fact that childhood was a rather difficult for reasons I will not go into here. Also, back in the 70s and 80s St Thomas’s was part of a Charismatic revival movement sweeping through the Anglican church in the UK, led by people like David Watson, Colin Urquart, David Pawson. I look back with complex mixed emotions- in many ways I long for the simplicity of the faith I had then but I also remember some rather difficult and damaging experiences.

I have lots of very good memories too however- a lot of it about music, and good people. It was the place my spiritual journey began, and for this I am very grateful.

The connection back to these times has been a surprise however. I am suddenly small again.

It feels like a cricling back- in a good way- to something that has been adrift on the waters for a while…

To emphasise the point- here I am, in a picture from the website archive. The blond haired boy in the middle with the great big smile;