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.

Scottishness and the search for self…

I read this lovely book recently;

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I will not go into any detail about what it is about, except to say that if you love poetry, landscape and humanity you will love this book. It is a beautifully written travelogue/memoir and obituary of the great poet Norman McCaig.

One of the things that resonated with me was how the book tried to grapple with Scottishness. Up here we are heading towards a referendum on whether Scotland should exist as an entirely separate country to the United Kingdom. The old confused profusion of ideas around history, identity, sense place in landscape, feelings of old injustices to be avenged, or old alliances to be celebrated- it is all there  just below the surface.

Andrew Greig talks with such eloquence about Norman McCaig’s generation- McCaig was a conscientious objector in the second world war and had a deep suspicion of nationalism wherever he saw it. I share this feeling. I have an outsider’s discomfort with borders and in-groups. I struggle to think of anything positive that came out of nationalism- it has so much power to bring out the worst of what we are, but rarely the best. It throws up statues of lots of dead people.

However, there is another kind of Scottish identity in Greig’s book- as he moves from city to mountainside there is a profound sense of place- a love of landscape. A sense of one-ness with the roll and curve of the land. A sense of understanding that others too have been here, and in some sense are here still. I have had plenty of glimpses of this in my own adventures. There is a generosity as well as a cruelty to mountains- they do not care about accent.

There is also this lovely piece of writing that I thought I would reproduce here- which is another image that stuck in my mind. Greig starts to think about his father;

…it began as a yarn about how he and his classmates, in the early years of the last century, would challenge each other to walk for as long as possible carrying a penny gripped between thumb and forefinger, the arm hanging down. It may seem an easy thing to do laddie but  no matter how hard you try sooner or later it will drop. Muscular fatigue, numbness, something like that. And I thought, what a fantastically futile thing to do, and how deep and Scottish a teaching it must have been, yoking together money, endurance and the inevitability of loss.

Then my father went on to say how, still carrying his penny, as a boy he once stopped in a gale under a Scots Pine. He stood against it, thrilled – not a word he had much use for – to feel bark shift against his back. He said he’d imaged the tree a mast, and yearned to be sailing where the wind was blowing…

I love this simple little story- of how we get caught up in futile loops, and imagine them to be significant.

But how there is a wind in the trees, and if we would let it, it has the power both to root us where we are, and also to call us to something far beyond.

How the two are related.

And so it is that we can be Scottish (even I) and still both bigger, and much smaller.