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TRAVEL WRITING: Holy Island, Scotland

Holy island, where the devil is it? Right up until I was at Kings Cross Station I was convinced it was off the coast of Northumberland and called Lindisfarne. It was only the cursory glance at the directions I’d been sent and a then slightly panicky look at an atlas in WHSmith that alerted me to the fact that there were TWO Holy Islands and the one I wanted was actually on the West Coast of Scotland, off the Isle of Arran.

It had all started as I planned a trip to San Francisco to visit Ann Maurice, my co-worker on “House Doctor”. I was sitting in the park after a morning run, running through the cost and stress factors of the trip in my mind. Did I really want to travel for 12 hours, spend hundreds of pounds to be in another First World city so I could sip Starbucks Coffee and eat seared tuna in a slightly warmer climate? All through my 20s I’d been almost obsessively city-hopping: popping over to New York because Aveda products were that much cheaper and I needed to buy some more CK underwear; spending 2 months in Sydney but never once leaving the city limits; flying down to Cape Town but never venturing beyond the same testosterone circuit of bar-gym-beach. What was the point of doing all that again?

That was when the word “Holy Island” flashed into my head. A girlfriend had been thinking of going on retreat there a few months earlier and the idea had snagged in my brain. Now it came back with vivifying freshness. Why not? 10 days away from it all in the lung-stretching sea air, thinking, walking, doing a bit of gardening perhaps. A couple of weeks earlier I’d started some basic meditation so I thought it would be a good idea.

After some internet research and the purchase of Stafford Whittaker’s excellent “Good Retreat Guide”, I tracked down the website of the Holy Island Project which, I was suprised to learn, was run by a Buddhist Monastery in Scotland. To my relief, I also learnt that I wouldn’t have to chant mantras all day long because they offered 10-day courses in – among other things – Alexander Technique, Homeopathy and Tai Chi. I enrolled for the latter. There was the guest house option – which cost about £200 – or the cheaper rate for camping (£120) and, feeling the adventurous side of me rising, I decided to sleep under canvas.

So I borrowed a tent and sleeping bag and slightly nervous set off one May morning for Scotland. Having discovered which Holy Island I was headed for at the last moment I got on the train to Glasgow.

To suddenly be off camping on your own in your 30s is extremely exciting. I felt all sorts of forgotten sensations creep around my body as we sped up the country to Scotland. Memories of school camping trips, cycling holidays to France when I was a teenager and generally excitement about doing something completely new. This feeling grew and grew as the journey unwound.

It’s a bit of a trek. You take the train to Glasgow and then a local train westwards to the port of Ardrossan. From this desolate pocket of Scotland you then take a big ferry across the water to Arran which takes about an hour. Then there’s a bus ride across the island to the blustery coastal village of Lamlash and finally a single boat across the water to Holy Island. Each step of this journey was more sparsely populated than the last and by the time I was standing on the jetty at Lamlash I was alone and ABSURDLY excited. Clutching my sleeping bag and enjoying the spray, I was ferried across the water by the surly and suitably salt-lashed boatman Tom and hopped apprehensive but happy onto the peaty pebbles of Holy Island.

It’s essentially a gentle mountain rising out of the Firth of Clyde about 2 miles long and a mile across. At the north end is an old farm house converted into guest rooms. This is where the courses take place. And at the tip of the south end is a pair of lighthouses and a complex of buildings for the former lighthousekeepers. The south is now used as a women’s retreat centre for Buddhist nuns.

To cut a long history short the island was bought by the Samye Ling Tibetan monastery as its retreat centre 10 years ago and since then the monks and nuns of the monastery have been living on the island and husbanding it. During a brief spell as an experimental ecology site for the University of Glasgow it was populated with wild horses, goats and sheep and these animals and their offspring live on the island still. Alongside the more than 10 thousand trees planted by people from Samye Ling.

As I stepped ashore all this was unknown to me. All I knew was that there was no one there to greet me and so I marched – smiling foolishly – up to the whitewashed farmhouse.

If you’re expecting luxury then Holy Island is not the place for you. The buildings all exude that slightly ferral odor of the real farm. Nothing is finished properly (except the rather posh guest rooms) and the life of the building centres round the tearoom and kitchen on either side of the ramshackle yard. The tea room, heated by a woodburning stove, is filled with treetrunks planed down and nailed together as benches, odd bits of donated or found furniture, bunches of drying herbs, dusty old photos of Tibetan holy sites and that’s where group of residents met with the course participants.

Arriving in a group is always a rather unsettling experience. Shades of our first day at school rustle in the background and no matter how grown-up one feels that first step into a room of people is always a difficult one. That said, I felt at completely at home on Holy Island.The buildings reminded me powerfully of the farmlike home of my favorite aunt and uncle from childhood and the residents – the monks and laypeople living at the North End – were far from intimidating.

The leader of the North End was a rather dishy South African monk called Zangpo. No more than 30 and exuding a interstellar calm, I immediately developed a prepubescent crush on him. Then there was the fleshy Brummie called Kunleg and a stick thin Mancunian called Andy. Leading the course was the truely wonderful Rinchen Khandro, a Buddhist nun in her late 40s with cropped grey hair and startlingly blue eyes and a wavering Manchester accent. During the week one of my more inquisitive course mates found out that she used to date George Best in her wilder years. The other two women were Nat, the Earth-loving and possibly Zangpo-loving cook and Karen, Zangpo’s sister who worked the vegetable garden.

My colleagues on the course were a varied bunch. A social worker from across the water in Ardrossan; a massage therapist; a graphic designer from London; two girlfriends away on a break and myself. At first the chat in the tea room all centred on the perennial questions of what do you do, where are you from? Then I noticed that the residents – who anyway were moving more slowly and talking more slowly – showed absolutely no interest in what we did off the island or anything beyond what was happening in the tearoom that afternoon… So conversation slowly faded…

Zangpo gave a few welcoming words… and then outlined the routine. Basically we were following the monks’ timetable. There was an hours silent meditation at 6 in the morning followed by breakfast. Then we’d do our T’ai chi for an hour with Rinchen and then be allotted jobs around the house. There’d be lunch, some more work, some tai chi, soup and then evening meditation. Tucked up in bed before 10pm.

It’s not Club Med, so don’t come if if you fancy a lie-in and sun loungers. There are also some distinctly non-hedonist rules on the island including, no alcohol, no smoking, no drugs and – if you were thinking of coming with a loved one – no sexual activity. That said, if you can stomach it, I’d would urge everyone to try and do it. Especially if – like me – you live in a big frantic city.

There’s no better place for realising that you’ve become wound up to breaking point without noticing. The air, the atmosphere, the routine and most importantly the people all show this up with blinding clarity.

After a weird nights sleep in my tent, wet and damp and disorientated, I sat meditation and limped in for breakfast. Zangpo gave out the tasks and asked me to collect firewood from the beach, chop it and stack it in the woodshed.

So off I raced with my wheelbarrow, my brain spinning with ideas of proving my worth, impressing Zangpo and fulfilling my quota. I sped along the beautiful pebbly beach crashing around nesting gulls and filling my barrow. Then I sped back to the house and ostentatiously chopped wood without stopping for tea, everything at Oxford Street speed. After doing this a couple of time and noticing how cramped and uncomfortable I felt and how oddly the residents were looking at this hectic display of industry, I slowly realised that there would always be driftwood, that there would always be people to chop it and the purpose of being on the island was not speed but awareness.

Once that penny dropped the island opened up for me… All the meditation, the tai chi, the talks and the walks all deepened this insight. It’s not about rushing from one activity to another, collecting them like shiny coins, but rather about savoring everything as it happens. It’s not about results, it’s all about awareness. Whether it was standing in a circle on the shore sheepishly “collecting chi” into our solar plexuses, or battling with the bracken with a sickle, or playing fiendlish rubbers of bridge with the monks in the evenings – everything became equally important, because everything was savoured with awareness.

In short, afer a couple of days I began to open up to the island.

It’s exquisitely beautiful. Walking down South for a special Buddhist ceremony on the first evening, we padded along the coast path. The wooded slopes start to become huge walls of scree and then cliffs, full with circling, endlessly cawing gulls anxiously patrolling their nests. Halfway along is the cave and spring of St. Molaise, the medieval Christian hermit who gives the island its holy moniker and pausing in the luminous evening light, we all stopped and drank from the spring before continuing south. Over the last 10 years, the monks and nuns have carved and painted various Tibetan Buddhist images in the rockface along the coast: Green and White Tara; the Tibetan scholar, Marpa; the mystic, Milarepa and the Buddha, of course. It all seemed odd and exotic amongst the dramtic Scottish rock and grey-green water and that is characteristic of the experience.

That strange hybrid of Tibetan mysticism and Scottish natural beauty becomes oddly fruitful. The hour-long sessions of meditation and the constant presence of Tibetan ritual heightens your perception of the surrounding landscape.

A short walk from the farm house takes you along a rocky beach where seals laze around on the shore. Climbing up the island you come to sudden plateaus studded with wild goats who look at you with their weird yellow extraterrestrial eyes. And one evening walking out of the tea room into the twilight, I heard the rumbling of hooves and turned to see a herd of 8 or 9 wild horses galloping across the garden towards me, ghostly grey in the summer moonlight. They stopped and stared and for a exhilarating instant we had a little moment of mutual surprise.

Regardless of your take on Buddhism, meditation or tai chi, I recoommend Holy Island alone for its natural beauty. But there’s also something more potent.

After a few days you can’t help yourself, you catch yourself talking about positive energy and vibrations. There doesn’t seem to be any other way of explaining the enormous waves of peace that the place and the people generate. However you regard Tibetan ritual (and I for one regard it with a great deal of wariness), you cannot deny the effect it has on its practionioners and those that work with them. They are lovely people and after awhile their loveliness rubs off on you.

On the last day, after a beautifully sunny and 5-hr-long circumnabulation of the whole island, Rinchen, the tai chi teacher and I sat in St. Molaise’s cave and meditated in the syrupy, midge-infested sunset. The evening meditation is called Chenrezi and is an evocation of the Tibetan deity of compassion as a way of creating good, compassionate energy. Which is what it does. Somehow, I didn’t quite know how, the whole island is filled with that kind, relaxed, big-hearted energy and 24 hours later, back in London, as I heaved my bags through the cacophonous rancour of King’s Cross, I still held some of it with me.

Don’t go to Holy Island for less than a week and I strongly advise doing one of the working week-long course rather than the purely course-filled weekends. Working with the residents is the real joy. I went back later that year to just do a weekend course and felt disappointed to not be more integrated. Also make sure you don’t have to get back too urgently. It’s a island and you depend very much on the weather to get on or off it. Be prepared to be stranded on the island for a few extra days if the water’s too choppy to cross. (Though if you were like me, you’ll be glad of every extra day island-bound.)

I believe that camping is no longer an option now that the guesthouse is all finished and functional and there are also no courses in the summer of 2001 because they’re building two new wings to the farmhouse. But contact the Holy Island office at Samye Ling if you want details, they’re terribly friendly. (Tel : 01387 373232)

Check to make sure which Holy Island you’re going to but go there if you can. It beats city breaks hands down. It may also change the way you view holidays completely. Om mani padme hung. as the Tibetans say…

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