Island Adventure, West Highlands of Scotland

Scotland 1991. “I collect islands” Cynthia wrote for the local magazine “and have just been island-hopping in Scotland’s Western Isles.”

“We travelled by minibus or island ferry and one evening chartered a small fishing boat to visit the tiny Isle of St. Finnan; too small to appear on any map that I have ever seen, where we held a short service in the ruined Chapel…”

The evening was still and warm. The little boat from Dalilea House, a quiet baronial place on the shore of the loch, took all of us, twelve and all ages, past the fishing nets and out to the island.

With the help of John, the boatman, a curly haired lad in his early twenties who fluttered the hearts of at least half his passengers; we cleared a way through the brambles and bracken to the Chapel – this was a ways off the usual tourist run.

Among the ruins the famous bronze bell, circa a long time ago, stood on the Altar. Josie raised the ancient treasure, its gentle toll naturally summoning us to worship as it reached skyward and then descended with the swing of her arm. But it was difficult to stand and pray for long, the midges, always present on a Highland summers evening, were very definitely on a mission of their own that evening! One by one and silently, we made our way back to the boat, aware that St. Finnan would have perhaps stayed and toughed it out – those Celtic saints were made of heroic stuff. And as we walked, the sun set and the sky reddened. Here, among all this, it wasn’t difficult to feel closeness to God, to the land, to the saint.

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“Wherever we went,” Cynthia records, “the waters of the lochs were calm and clear and the narrow roads by the loch side were a mass of wild flowers; bluebells, foxgloves, pinks, heather, primroses, orchids, gorse and rhododendrons… and sheep. One evening we saw some deer.”

“One day, after an early start, we travelled across Mull and took the ferry to the Holy Isle of Iona…”

Iona, ‘a sparkling jewel in the Atlantic’… a million miles from tiny, ‘off the beaten track’ Eilean Fhianain; but scratch the surface, just a little, and the similarities are there. These are ‘thin places with only a tissue breadth between heaven and earth’; places where people have come for centuries to ask questions and look for meaning; places where people have felt especially close to God… and the tolling of St Finnans bell, and the wonder of Iona… we journey with these memories.

That evening, back at Resipol camp on the banks of beautiful Loch Sunart, but I’ll let Cynthia tell the story… “We stood in the customary circle on the shore, on the night of the full moon, reiterating our constant desire for a quiet night and a perfect end. A moon of huge and astonishing proportions suddenly appeared, filling the whole sky with its presence and painting a blinding path across the sunset-coloured loch from the mountains on the horizon to the waters gently lapping at our feet. It was an awesome sight and the total silence and stillness created a magical scene that was quite uncanny. As our prayers ended, we were constrained to creep noiselessly away so as not to break the spell.”

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On the hottest day so far, we reluctantly said goodbye to Resipol and set out for the Corran ferry and the road to the isles.

Not far from Arisaig, somewhere along the spectacular Sunset coast, the minibus turned off the road onto a single track leading to a solitary house, a ribbon of closely cropped grass and rocky outcrops running all the way to the sea. Mr. MacDonald came out of the house in his shirt sleeves and greeted us, saying we should camp where we pleased – a welcome gesture that straight away made us feel at home. Horses, rabbits and the occasional sheep roamed freely among the tents and vans. Ginny the white horse, soon became a favourite, as did those inquisitive rabbits that popped up at odd moments anywhere and everywhere. Out to sea the Wee Isles: Rhum, Eigg and Muck twinkled in the sunlight… and in the evening bathed in a sumptuous array of reds and gold. Sunset coast? Oh yes!

The following day and a walk from camp along the rocky coastline and across the silvery white sands of Morar, shimmering in the heat, to the small settlement of Morar. On the hillside, high above Morar, a large cross – a reminder of an earlier mission – stood out in the hazy sunlight.

The day was very warm. It took five hours to walk four miles… and the cross had been visible for the last two…

I met the wilting group at the Morar Hotel – yes, I had driven (had to drive!) the route on this particular day. I must confess, I for one felt much better after a tray of cooling drinks arrived – “guilt, even when one is blameless, can play havoc with the conscience!” to quote if only loosely, George MacLeod, founder of the Iona Community and master of pithy sayings.

We had arranged to hold an afternoon service in the Roman Catholic Church on the shore of Loch Morar, just across the way, but on this glorious day it seemed more in keeping to take Church to the water’s edge. We gathered in the afternoon sun with blue sky above and the softly shimmering water of the loch before us, a wonderful harmony, echoed in the words of our reading; ‘Creator God…’

The Priest, an early middle-aged man, dressed mostly in black – I felt for him on this particular summer’s day – met us afterwards on the well-kept lawn surrounding the Church and Manse and explained how he had only recently moved here from Fort William – I think we were all just a little envious of his new surroundings.

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Friday and a change of plan, we would sail over the sea to Skye! “Another first for me,” recalls Cynthia, “where I was able to sit and gaze my fill at the far Cuillin, which still call to many a homesick Scot.”

A half hour journey on board the Lord of the Isles carried us smoothly over the sea and right into the heart of Macdonald country. The ancestral home of the Clan Chief, Lord Macdonald of Macdonald, was a stone’s throw away at Armadale Castle. Thankfully there were no Campbell’s in our group!

Having looked at maps and possible destinations the night before, our plan for the day was to drive through the Red and Black Cuillin to the crofting village of Elgol on loch Scavaig, and what a good choice that was! Approaching the ‘hills’ (that’s what folk call the Cuillin mountains – for mountains are surely what they are) along the unmarked moorland road; the towering peaks pushing their way into an almost cloudless blue sky as they grew in fairy tale splendour the nearer we drew, was a drive as if towards heaven’s gate. But beware, should you ever travel this way, pause awhile before the final half mile and test your brakes! Descending the incredibly steep hill that takes the road away from the high ground and down to Elgol Jetty in a single track, is a real test of brakes and nerve!

It was fete day in the village. What a welcome we gave the local primary schools fund raising Tea Trolley, when we eventually drew to a halt at the jetty!

The stunning vista of the Cuillin across Loch Scavaig was everything we heard it might be – powerful mountains rising out of the water in a series of magnificent peaks, enchanting and romantic… here was creation in all its glory. We felt privileged to stand on the shore on that perfect day… and gaze.

Back home in Portishead Cynthia closed her diary with these words, “I wrote these notes under difficulties. We were housed in tents, on long wet grass, and I had to write in the tent by torch light, in rocking buses, perched on windy walls whilst waiting for ferries…”

“It was an exhausting trip, covering a lot of territory, much of it on foot, and it took me a week to recover. But it was a great adventure, and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”

David Gleed (Leader)