To reach Holy Isle off the Isle of Arran, I had travelled by train from Central Station Glasgow to Ardrossan on Scotland’s west coast. The Caledonian MacBrayne ferry, Caledonia Isles, was already berthed, allowing time for passengers walking the short distance from the station platform to come aboard.
The crossing to Arran takes around fifty minutes. It’s generally so comfortable that some passengers take the opportunity to sit back, close their eyes and nap. But should you go up on deck, keep those binoculars at the ready. There’s a chance of spotting porpoise and even a passing whale.
As the ferry is docking at Brodick, Arran’s main village, local buses draw into the parking bays behind the ferry terminal. From there, it takes only a few minutes to reach Lamlash, where you can then board the small ferry, weather permitting, for the ten minute trip to Holy Isle. With each stage of the journey it will seem as if your usual cares are being left further behind.
Saint Molaise, a Celtic Christian who made his way to Holy Isle from Ireland in the 6th century possibly also noticed this effect. Molaise was the son of Cairell, an Irish king of what is now called Ulster. It’s believed he was much loved by his own people and was offered the throne of Ulster when he came of age. Instead, he chose to live for a time, in a cave on the west coast of Holy Isle. Perhaps he was aware of the island’s reputation, that it had long been considered a ‘holy place’.
The island is only about two miles long and half a mile wide. From Lamlash, it looks vaguely like two weathered extinct volcanoes floating on the sea. The unseen east side is rocky with steep cliffs. The west side is flatter in places with some productive land.
When visitors step from the small ferry onto Holy Isle’s pier, they may be surprised to be welcomed by a Buddhist nun or monk wearing traditional dress (and sometimes, incongruously, a matching warm fleece jacket, waterproof anorak and woollen hat). This will be one of the volunteers from the island’s Centre for World Peace and Health. Visitors are then given a little guidance on where they can wander to enjoy the best of Holy Isle.
The next unusual sight is a line of brightly coloured Tibetan prayer flags, each a few yards apart, fluttering in the breeze. Sited between each pair of flags is a stupa, a white ornamental structure that for some people holds great symbolic meaning. Past the flags and behind a dry stone wall stands the Centre for World Peace and Health which until a few years ago was a very run- down farmhouse.
On the day I visited, I was invited in to meet Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche the driving force behind Holy Isle’s Centre for World Peace and Health. As we sat in the Centre’s cosy library I asked how he had found Holy Isle. He explained that he had not been looking but that the last owners of Holy Isle found him and had offered him the island at a much discounted price as they ‘felt its future would be best taken care of by the Buddhists from Samye Ling monastery in Dumfriesshire’.
Though people travel there from all over the world, Lama Rinpoche the Abbot of Samye Ling monastery told me his vision for Holy Isle was quite different. He explained that the Holy Isle Centre is not a Buddhist monastery but is open to everyone whether they are believers, non-believers, or are completely non-religious.
‘When I was offered Holy Isle,’ he said ‘it was fresh and unpolluted.’ In the past, local shepherds from Arran had ferried their sheep over for the grazing and previous owners had kept a small herd of highland cattle which have since been taken away. But for many years, no one lived there, so the island has remained ‘unspoiled’.
Lama Rinpoche envisaged an ecologically sustainable environment where individuals could develop and experience inner peace, regardless of their background or spiritual tradition.
The emphasis now is very much on people’s wellbeing and health. The once run down farmhouse is now very comfortable and a new building has been added where people live while participating in various courses including yoga and meditation.
The Centre is run completely by volunteers. Some stay for a short time, others for longer periods while they work at various jobs for which they receive board and lodgings.
In one of the polythene tunnels, I met a professional gardener from Germany who was planning the layout of new, sheltered vegetable plots. Eventually it is hoped enough vegetables can be grown under polythene and in outside plots to meet most of the Centre’s needs. With seaweed constantly being washed up on the stony beach there’s a readily available free source of fertilizer.
Sid, one of the other gardeners, is happiest when he is working in the flower beds. He left his wheelbarrow long enough to suggest I make time for a sensual meditative walk through the garden. His instructions involved me stopping, taking time to touch leaves, stalks and petals and smell the flowers. He said I should look carefully at the different textures and colours around me and notice the way leaves on the trees moved in the wind. While sitting on a bench with my eyes closed, trying to concentrate only on the birdsong, I really was in another world.
The peace garden is delightful with painted rocks placed amongst the plants. Notice boards carrying poems add to the interest. In one separate area named the Children’s Garden, a number of little fairy dolls and toy animals have been hidden, awaiting discovery amongst the flowers and branches of bushes.
When you leave the Peace Garden, you may opt to hike up the rough rocky path leading to the top of Mullach Beag (beag meaning small in Gaelic) then carry on to the top of Mullach Mor (mor meaning big ) the highest point of Holy Isle at 1026 feet above sea level.
Most visitors choose the coastal path which starts fairly close to the sea. The small flock of dark brown Soay sheep wandering around are used to visitors. Unperturbed, they hardly bother to look. A few white Saanen goats can be spotted further up the hillside seeking out whatever is edible. Hardy Eriskay ponies hidden by shoulder high ferns occasionally make an appearance as if to watch the passing strangers who are watching them.
Every few hundred yards there are representations of Buddhist deities painted on large rocks on the hillside.
The cave where Molaise lived is easily spotted just off the path. Step inside. Mind your head. Look for the Viking graffiti and a cross scratched into the rock. Unless Holy Isle’s weather was very different in his day he must have experienced great physical hardship here.
Near the cave a spring of water known as the Healing Well flows into a pool. Pilgrims once journeyed here to drink the water believing it had curative properties. Now a small information board lets us know that the water, for drinking at least, doesn’t meet European Union standards.
Further along, higher up the hillside, there are a few glass fronted buildings, known as pods, fronted by another piece of ground being developed as a vegetable garden. This part of the island is closed to the public and is kept for those on long retreats.
Volunteers may be working further along, scything overgrown vegetation, or planting a few more of the 30,000 native trees that will soon attract wildlife.
The path ends at an unusual square lighthouse known as Pillar Rock- a lovely spot to enjoy a picnic.
From parts of the path there are expansive views across the water to Lamlash and from some points, to Goatfell, the highest peak on Arran.
On the short sail back to Lamlash the rain was pouring down from the blackness above. When the clouds passed, blown further east, a brilliantly coloured rainbow arced across the sky. One end seemed to be touching Holy Isle.
First published in The People’s Friend 02.11.2013