Into the West: an island off an island off an island
Conde Nast Traveller magazine, May 2008
The boat shuddered down the length of its hull. As the darkness thickened, the sea grew stronger and higher. Each time we crested the waves there was an ever-increasing volume of sea-water breaking across our bows. The weather was coming straight at us from the north-west and our course, up the narrow strait between the islands of Jura and Islay, was further concentrating its power. In the background one of our crew was being sick. This was all so much better than I had hoped for.
It was good to be reminded of the magic of the Hebrides. On a map, this scattered archipelago of islands on the far western edge of Europe looks romantic enough but it is only when you enter this landscape, that you are also reminded of its extreme nature. For it remains a place where mankind is tolerated but can never claim mastery. In the Hebrides you make plans, but then also learn to adapt them to the weather, to the tides, to the mountains, moors and seasons.
I had made some detailed plans of a highly personal nature, but then I was not dealing with any normal old travel agent. I was testing out a destination expert, Dream Escapes for Conde Nast Traveller. David Tobin of Dream Escapes had promised to show me a Scotland that could take its rank with the world's most exotic and luxurious destinations - as well as casually mentioning some Russian billionaire clients and the castles they had rented. I warned him that he was very unlikely to work his magic on me. I was no longer interested in treating Scotland as a killing field for grouse, deer or salmon, nor was I capable of hitting a gold ball without damaging my ankles. It was true that I liked getting my knee under a hospitable Scottish table, but I very much doubted there was anywhere which would outdo the parties thrown by my friends, Andrew and Helen Murray-Threipland at Fingask castle. And if he was thinking of giving me an eye-opening tour of the country, I should warn him that I had already written one guide-book to Scotland and every summer for the last twenty-five years had spent a month in the Hebrides.
However if he felt like rising to the challenge I had a powerful longing to plant my feet in the footsteps of St Columba; to walk where this prince-scholar had first waded ashore to bring Christianity to Scotland, to sit in his secret island hermitage where he escaped the crowds that would flock to his monastic settlement on Iona. It was a highly personal quest, for I have written a couple of books on early Islam and by a bizarre incident his remote monastery was also where the first Christian description of Muslim Jerusalem had been written. A mother of all storms had driven the pilgrim bishop Arculf into the Hebrides, where he was shipwrecked and nursed back to life by the monks of Iona who then wrote down his description of the Holy Land.
Translated into practical details this meant that I wanted to visit Colonsay and from this island be taken by boat to the rock-girt shore of the Garvellach isles to find this hermitage and then sail through the notorious tidal stream of the Gulf of Corryvrekan on my way home.
"That sounds interesting", he said, "give me a week or more to set this up". I admired his pluck but nevertheless felt that I should tighten up the wager. "I have only got three days spare and I don't want to have anything to do with helicopters. I want to sit in an ancient Celtic monastic cell with the sea dripping from my feet…" He grinned in an irritatingly confident way. So I asked if he could find me a man from the Hebrides called Barnaby, after whom I am apparently named. I liked him all the more, when he replied, "No, that you should do for yourself".
I had left all the practical details in his hands. So I was intrigued to find myself flying into the island of Islay in a light aircraft which was landed with bravura in a brisk wind. As we came down to land banks of cloud had suddenly parted to reveal a rocky shore, pure white beaches and a wild-looking herd of ponies galloping across a peat bog. Islay airport is well-used to foreign visitors, for the island's malt whisky distilleries have long been on the map for anyone with a nose and an eye for the good things of life. A boat was waiting for me off a distillery pier, alongside the manager of the distillery burdened with an armful of bottles. These we sampled in the lee of a ruined chapel on the island of Tekla. Here I learned about double-aged malts, where the distinctive peat-tang from the malted barley of Islay is further deepened by being moved into new casks that are redolent with bourbon and sherry flavoured oak. The manager had also brought out a little picnic hamper of spiced scotch eggs and chocolate truffles whose richness lined your mouth perfectly, waiting to be burnt off by the next malt waiting in line to be tasted.
An hour later and we were on our way to Colonsay, floundering our way up the high seas in the strait between Jura and Islay. I was glad that the skipper was sober and had refused my increasingly cheerful invitations to join in the whisky sampling. Fortunately once we cleared the strait, the waves began to settle back down, and we were able to make a dramatic but not life-threatening landing. Suitcases were passed up the vertical metal ladder in the dark, for the tide was low and we sat a long way beneath the rubber fenders that had been set out for the ferry. As I clambered up the wet rungs a figure came out of the dark and formally bade me welcome to the island whilst assuring me that the hotel kitchen had been kept open. The Colonsay Hotel proved as good as its manager's word. Clean-painted wooden floors, fires ablaze, a local bar in full merriment and upstairs a double row of snug comfortable bedrooms off a wide landing. There was even time to change before dinner.
After such an exhilarating arrival, any sort of supper would have been welcome. But the Colonsay has risen above the ham and cheese toastie and a pint that I have learned to associate with Inns beside a ferry head. The oysters seemed so exceptionally fresh that I quizzed the waitress where they might have come from - perhaps nearby Loch Fyne? They came from the island's very own tidal shore, which gave the description "native" a new level of intimacy. After dinner I fell in with another sort of native. He defied stereotypes - a mountain of a Scotsman who was building a library on the island and had never touched whisky or entered a Kirk but had a great capacity for vodka.
The weather was frightful the next day, but we took the boat out so that I could visit the old Abbey ruins of Oronsay in style. This was to be a mere warm-up for the Garvellach isles. On our way we passed a bleak looking offshore islet and a herd of plump grey seals plopped themselves back into their element. A pair of seagulls tore savagely at something on the shore. An island, off an island, off an island - the recipe for monastic peace and quiet. Was this what brought me back time and time again, to sample these wild places on the edge of the great Ocean, a search for tranquillity in the bosom of nature? Then it was time to be landed on the lone shore of the once sacred island of Oronsay. The white beach was littered with wave-eroded shells and drift wood. It looked totally desolate and uninhabited, or so I foolishly thought. But then, like some odd sequence from a Bergmann film, I came across the island of Oronsay's one resident farmer -filling up empty whisky bottles from a beach-side spring, "because the water tastes better from here".
By the time I had walked across the cattle-grazed dunes to the ruins of Oronsay Abbey, the wind had begun to shriek in from the south-west. The slender high cross stood like a stone banner, all wrapped in the mysterious stone-carved foliage of the Celtic West. Like a pilgrim of old, I was forced to take shelter in the Abbey ruins, and squatting behind the free-standing altar in the roofless chapel I found myself staring at a couple of skulls. Medieval pilgrims? Possibly, though not definitely, for the ground all around the Abbey is littered with thousands of burials, having been a sacred burial place long, long before my hero St Columba arrived. The great bulging eyes that protruded from the grey carvings looked more powerful than any stage-set from Lord of the Rings. Oronsay is the only abbey in Scotland to have been left untouched by either Protestant iconoclasts in the 16th-century or an over-enthusiastic modern restoration. Here the old pre-Reformation world-order remains unblemished, a perfect piece of late medieval Christendom.
In the gathering dusk I walked back to Colonsay across the mile wide sands that connect it to Oronsay. The tide was already threatening to turn the vast basin of glittering white sand into a blue-green gulf overlooked by desolate wind-swept hills. Here you can be certain to be following the footsteps of St Columba, and of every pilgrim over the last millennia and a half, though twice a day the tide washes away all evidence. This was all part of the Dream Escape itinerary as was my reception on the other shore. For there was Kevin Byrne, a wild-haired gaelic scholar waiting to conduct me up through the moor to the site of an ancient fortress. He was a well-chosen guide, and I was delighted to find that like myself he was both a writer, publisher, history-guide and book-seller, amongst his other multiple professions. There was no path from the shore to the grassy knoll, but blocks of masonry strewn above a cliff-face confirmed that Kevin Byrne and I were standing in what had once been the court of a Dark Age chieftain. Within these walls, in times of danger, the real coin of these lands would have milled, the precious herds of black cattle and native horse. To mark the four great pagan festivals this mobile wealth would be driven through sacred bonfires or bathed in the sea. And annually the ritual of the royal marriage was performed, where the reigning king proved his virility with a sacred mare, which was then eaten by the pagan community as a symbol of their strength and unity with nature, a hot stew equivalent of a communion wafer.
I settled for tea with the current laird in Colonsay House. He was not a Dark Age lord but had something of the modern-day Viking about him nonetheless, for Alex Howard had served as a helicopter pilot in the Royal Navy - and continues to commute in and out of the island in his own aeroplane. His airport looked satisfyingly low-tech, tripling-up as it does as both a cow pasture and the islands golf course. In the ancient woodland garden that shelters his handsome Palladian house there is a small Viking standing-stone overlooking a spring. Looked from one side it is a stylized Crucifixion, on the other it is an unmistakable phallus. Cultural fusion, or camouflage for the old ways? Under the lawns of Colonsay House I was told there are hundreds of Viking graves. As the rain came down with tropical ferocity it was clear that even the dead were going to get a soaking tonight. About his Uncle Barnaby, Alex Howard was politely evasive apart from informing that his charm and enthusiasm for life remained undiminished.
That night after dinner, when the piles of oyster shells had once more been cleared from the hospitable tables of the Colonsay Hotel, I was told that if it was anything more than a force eight it would be quite impossible to land anywhere on the Garvellachs…and the radio was giving out storm warnings for tomorrow. The Garvellachs are a group of small cliff-girt islands to the north of Colonsay, and halfway between Mull and Jura. I felt both relief - for I would have won my challenge with Dream Escapes - but also deep frustration. The chance of getting this close again with a boat and crew at my disposal (complete with chilled champagne, a silver tea service and a stream of Scottish delicacies) seemed most unlikely. But it is never possible to second-guess the weather in the Hebrides, for it can show you all four seasons within the space of twenty-four hours. I determined to wake early and climb the central hill of the island to make my own assessment.
The next morning, to my utter amazement, there was not a cloud in the sky. Although it was autumn, the Hebrides was looking like the Caribbean. Though here the white coral sand beaches, the cliffs, the green-haze of island sanctuaries was completely empty of hotel strips, day-glo tourists disgorged from vast cruise-liners and gated package-holiday resorts. I had heard from a local that living here was sharing your life with a beautiful woman, who gave you hell eleven times out of twelve, but when she smiled upon you, made you understand how you could never leave her. In these perfect weather conditions, we set sail at once.
Even in the most perfect weather the Garvellach islands have a threatening mood about them. The most-southerly of the Garvellach island chain (known as the island of the monks) was my destination, guarded by an ochre-tinted cliff on its west face, and by a series of indented black rocks on the east -which look like a child's drawing of a dragon's jaw. Once we had passed these outlying rocks, you could still feel the suck and surge of the tidal currents. The skipper told me why it is such a difficult island to approach - gale or no gale - for the sea floor here is a bed of granite polished by the glaciers of the ice-age so it is a quite impossible to anchor. Keeping the engines running he held our position, whilst the small boat was lowered to take me ashore.
As we motored into the shore, a tiny T-shaped harbour emerged from out of the forbidding rocks, seemingly designed by to take just two small rowing boats. Above this natural harbour, I found the tell-tale droppings of a sea-otter, while above the other a fresh-water spring gurgled over a small-stone wall. Just uphill was the monastery enclosure, a chapel, some storerooms and another well, all of which, in their heyday, would have been enclosed by a boundary wall. The whole site was overlooked by rising ground leading upto the cliff face.
Outside this ritual centre, tucked between a windbreaker of a rock and a natural standing stone, was the object of my quest: a humble looking pair of half-ruined, dry-stone, circular huts. I crept inside and sat for a few minutes in silence against the outer wall that dates back to the Dark Ages. The thick walls, the gentle, curving arc of the dome, the two tiny slit windows, were like a cocoon against the outside world. I imagined the dark space full of the chants of oral story-tellers, of gospels and tales remembered not just read. My mind flickered back to similar monasteries that I had visited on the edge of the desert in Egypt, Ethiopia and Arabia. This felt part of the same pattern, a place where libraries were held as much in the mind of a man, as in the hush of a book-stacked gallery. When a traveller paid for his keep by telling new stories and old histories. I was literally enchanted and found myself thrown back to an old memory of that tiny windowless monastery cell where St John of the Cross had been imprisoned in Spain and in which he had created all his passionate mystical poetry. This felt the same.
I celebrated with a swim in the cold sea. The first two minutes threaten both heart and lung but five minutes later I was chuckling with the joy of feeling like a merman. St Columba was in the habit of meditating whilst in the waters of the North Atlantic becoming so much part of the landscape that even the otters befriended him. I had reached the island off the island off the island, but it no longer seemed to be an eccentric hermitage off the shore of sacred Britain. I drank from the holy well and dived down to the seabed to extract a gleaming quartz stone as a souvenir. I might not be willing to give it all up and live the monastic life, but it seemed a great gift to be able to touch the sacred in this overcrowded world.
Later that day, we headed east, through a network of island-mountains and desolate headlands, passed inaccessible cliff fringed beaches and wild cascading streams, that leads to the almost mythical waters of the Corryvrekan. Here the tidal streams pour in from every direction, creating a disturbed body of water that froths, bubbles and threatens. The sea-water moans as if some vast submarine monster lies chained to the sea-floor and has been struggling for a thousand years to break free. Here a surprise lay in wait for me. On the edge of the Corryvrekan an incredibly elegant, yacht came alongside. It had been built in the Edwardian heyday of fast-boats and remained a taut miracle of wood, rope and canvas - with not so much as a flicker of automated plastic and steel about her. Ropes were thrown, and in a minute I was asked aboard and bundled my way across. It was like being transferred from the body of a goose to a hawk. The wind had picked up and we flew, cutting our way down the inner coast of Jura, passing the lone bothy in which George Orwell had written 1984. My job on board this racing boat was to now and then duck and take slugs of the pure malt whisky of Jura.
We landed just before dusk at Crinan Loch, overlooked by the Crinan Hotel. My bedroom looked north towards the rock where the ancient Kings of Dalriada were crowned standing in a druidic footprint. A piper played on the terrace outside as I prepared myself for dinner with some more Jura. I needed all the spiritual help I could borrow to do justice to my banquet of seafood. I had to confess to the young travel agent that night that he had not just won, he had swept the board.
The islands, off the island of Britain, that face the vastness of the Atlantic have always been my personal yard-stick as a traveller and a writer. Does Chitral of the North-West frontier match Loch Coruisk in grandeur, can the Tuareg grazing grounds of the Air mountains of the central Saharan match the machair-meadows of South Uist in enchantment? Does this Coptic monastery in the Western Desert of Egypt not remind me of the island-hermitages of the Celtic Saints?
The quartz stone that I had dived down to collect from the old monks harbour at the now Garvellach, now props open the office door of my publishing company, and reminds me everyday of some of this enchantment.
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by Barnaby Rogerson