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

A few more reflections on our wilderness retreat…

Looking down on our camp site

Regular readers of this blog will know that one of the things I really love to do is to immerse myself in wild places and for many years (along with some old friends) I have been taking time each year to make what we call ‘wilderness retreats’.  These usually involve camping on small uninhabited islands and following a deliberate rhythm of silence and community- with a lot of laughter in between.

Increasingly we have enjoyed being hosts and have been joined by friends, friends of friends and contacts from the assortment of church contacts and networks we are connected to.

This year, Crawford (a friend who has been coming for a few years now ans our go-to source for all things avian) described how it was usually only quite a while after we had left the island that its full impact was felt- almost as if we take a little of it away with us.

This year I felt very privileged to take some people who had never camped before and certainly never managed to get out to a wild west island. I always worry about the shock to the system that camping wild can be to those who have never done it before- particularly when (as happened this year) the weather is bad. It requires a methodical stoicism and can result in real lows as well as highs.

Half way through for example, I was convinced that my mate Graham was in some kind of stupour induced by wet waterproofs and fear of the poo-trowel. I would have taken odds on him chalking all of this camping in the wild stuff to experience and deciding that, if he were to survive, it was an experience he would never repeat.

Graham- "What have I done?"

Which just goes to show how wrong  I can be.

Graham is a blogger too, and his blog has had a series of reflections on the retreat- the last of which is here.  I loved this;

What I loved about retreat on that island was trying to discover a male spirituality that did not rely on dominance and aggression but had a measure of strength and vulnerability. It was ok to pray, share deeply, lose the mask of invulnerability and at the same time banter, fart, make toilet jokes, swear and build fires. Realising you are male, a Jesus follower and you don’t have to pretend/assume false piety is a very powerful thing.

I don’t claim to have discovered ‘a model’: there isn’t one, but the route of honesty is good for the journey…

It occured to me again that one of the most important spiritual disciplines is the attitude of vulnerability. We normally armour ourselves against this in a thousand ways, but in wilderness, on a tiny island, in silence, this armour falls away. For those like Graham who experience this for the first time, it falls with a loud clang.

There have been a couple of other lovely things that have been inspired by the retreat which I wanted to mention here- firstly Andrew wrote a lovely poem on his blog- which is here. A quick excerpt- but please go and read the whole thing;

Steel grey skies darken,
Hidden rock spires, deep depths, whirling, roaring tides and waves.
Wind and waves grow,
Deck lurching side to side,
A rocky shore, but his plan, not ours.
Safe upon a new shore, an unknown glen, not known for generations passed.
Rocks, prayers,
The rough-hewn blackness sinking into waves,
Rocks, prayers,
Held, carried, prayed over
Are you there?
Finally, Andy- who has been a friend of mine for about 25 years, and a companion on many of these trips, wrote a song. More than that, he recorded the song, and made a video using clips and photos taken on quite a few of our trips- I recognised Scarba (x2) Jura, Coll, Eilleach an Naiomh, The McCormaigs and man more. It is quite lovely, and so here it is;

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;



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.

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.

Wilderness retreats 2012…

Here’s a bit of advance notice of a new thing we are doing next year. I would appreciate any help getting the message out there…

For many years now, along with a group of old friends, I have been escaping to wild places in order to recharge. Nothing unusual about that I suppose- but over the past few years, we have been ever more deliberate about the spiritual practice of retreat that can be experienced in wild places.

We have gathered ideas and activites, as well as developing lots of our own ideas, usually taking specific locations- caves, rivers, abseils down cliffs, mountain tops- and shaping thoughts, prayers and actions to the surroundings. We wanted to find ways to worship, and to wonder, and to share the depth of our experiences.

At least once a year we have tried to escape to a small deserted island- there is such a wonderful selection within reach of where we live in Argyll. Each one seems to have a different character and a different history. Many have ruins and remains left behind by the monastic gatherings of the Celtic missionary saints. We in Aoradh have been keen to share these experiences, and have already hosted a number of weekends with invited guests.

You can read about some of our previous trips here here and here.

However, in the spirit of seeking simple collaborative means to making a living, some of us are planning to organise a number of 3 day retreats on a slightly more commercial basis.

Two of these will be based at Sgath an Tighe– one of which will be more ‘adventure’ based, and the other for those of us who appreciate wild places in a more restful way.

The other two will involve wild camping on uninhabited inner Hebridean islands-  in one of the most beautiful places in the world. This kind of camping allows us to appreciate wild places in a much purer way, and also allows us to be in places that few people ever visit, let alone linger.

Over the next few weeks we will be working on final destinations, costs and dates. For the camping trips we will provide boat charter, organisation, activities and leadership.

So- next year, ditch the package tour to the Costa’s. Go somewhere where few people have been before.

If you are interested, then we would love to hear from you…



Jura trip- Aoradh wilderness retreat, 2010…

We are back safe, if a little sore and stiff.

A wonderful couple of days, with showers giving way to sunshine and deep blue skies.

A camp site at the head of a bay ringed with cliffs and high hills, in direct line with the famous Corryvrecken whirlpool (the third largest in the world) which could be heard roaring at low tide from over a mile away.

Wildlife that you had to see to believe- sea eagles, wild goats, deer, cuckoos, seals, otters (and unfortunately, lots of ticks!)

Walks that scrambled from beach, shore caves and natural arches up to lofty vantage points where the views took in the whole world.

Good company, good conversation and camp fires to share.

Jura Whisky (Thanks Terry and Bonny!)

Times to pray, reflect, discuss- to recalibrate and allow something of God to seep into the soul.

If it is like this in heaven I’ll not be disapointed (perhaps minus the Ticks.)

So- some photos. Click to enlarge- it is worth it.

Wilderness trip, Jura- next weekend…

A few of us are heading out to do some wild camping on the west coast of Jura this coming weekend.

We try to use it as a ‘retreat’- and share some deliberately spiritual activities, as well as a lot of laughter and the odd campfire…

I chartered a couple of boat runs to take us out there from Ardfern- the boat will go out through the amazing Gulf of Correvrecken with it’s world famous whirlpool, and drop us off on the wild north west of Jura. This is utterly wild country, no roads, few paths. Lots of wildlife.

Because (as always happens with these trips it seems) a few people have had to drop out at the last moment, we are down to around 11 people, and this means that we only need one boat run.

If anyone else still fancies coming along- it is not too late! It would be a shame not to use the boat we have booked…

Drop me a line if interested…

Landfall, Scarba, 2009