MENTION to people that
you are going on pilgrimage to a holy island in Britain, and the
chances are that they will guess that you are off to the Holy
Island of Lindisfarne.
If they are au
fait with the inner Hebrides, they might come up with Iona as
well, but that would probably be the extent of their guess. And
that is a pity, because, magnificent though the homes of St Aidan's
former monastery and the Wild Goose community are, they represent
only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the nation's sacred
Take little-known Ynys
Llanddwyn, for instance. A tidal island off the south-west coast of
Anglesey, it is named after Dwynwen, a female saint who has become
the Welsh equivalent of St Valentine.
This hummocky isle was a
popular place of pilgrimage twice: first, when St Dwynwen
established her cell here in the fifth century, and set herself up
as an agony aunt for troubled couples; and, second, in the Middle
Ages, by which time an abbey drew the faithful from as far afield
as the Continent.
With its ruined medieval
church (a victim of the Dissolution) and two lonely St Dwynwen
crosses, there is an air of romance here that befits an island
adopted by the patron saint of lovers. The saint's well is still
here, although nowadays sadly bereft of the eels whose behaviour
could foretell whether a lover would remain faithful.
If you time your visit
right, you can combine it with an eel-free service on Cribinau, a
minute tidal island a few miles along the coast, whose church - the
mellifluously named Eglwys yn y Môr Cwyfan Sant ("St Cwyfan's
Church in the Sea") - still opens its doors for worship three times
a year, all of them in the summer.
IN SCOTLAND, the pilgrim
is confronted with a veritable archipelago of possibilities. These
include the Brough of Birsay, in Orkney, where a ruined monastery
is set among the remains of a Viking village; Inchcailloch, on Loch
Lomond, where St Kentigerna's nuns kept the faith for hundreds of
years; and the Isle of May, in the Firth of Forth, whose Christian
heritage can be traced back to some of the nation's very first
My favourite, however, is
Eilean Bàn ("white island"), an unheralded isle on Loch Morar.
Plunging to depths of 1000 feet (400 feet deeper than Loch Ness),
Loch Morar is the deepest loch in Scotland, and it is a wonder that
the clutch of diminutive islands at its northern end manage to poke
their heads above the surface at all.
There are no scheduled
trips to Eilean Bàn; so pilgrims must hire an open boat by the loch
shore, and ferry themselves out to it. Just by the jetty - the only
sign of modernity on the island - is the low wall of a short-lived
seminary, built around 1700.
Eilean Bàn has been left
untouched for the past 200 years, and as a consequence has become a
jungle, brimming with huge conifers, colossal bracket fungi, and
voluminous hollies, with bluebells and mosses filling every gap in
between. To explore beyond the ruins is to take a leap back into
Scotland's past - or, indeed, a leap forward into a future in which
human beings are no more. It is an awe-inspiring and humbling
IN ENGLAND, the isle of
Inner Farne is where St Aidan would repair when he needed to escape
the hurly-burly of life on Holy Island. It was St Cuthbert, who
lived on Inner Farne as a hermit, however, who turned it into one
of the world's first bird sanctuaries. Today, visitors share the
wonderful 14th-century chapel with countless Arctic terns, puffins,
eiders, shags, and cormorants, who make their own pilgrimage here
But it is the 1¼-mile
walk off the Cumbrian coast to Chapel Island that feels most like
the last stage of a pilgrimage. The eponymous chapel (now
disappeared) was built by monks in the 14th century to minister to
travellers who took the perilous short cut across the shifting
sands of the Leven estuary, from Cartmel to Conishead.
Today, those crossing to
the island are still at the mercy of the sand and the
lightning-fast tide, and thus experience the vulnerability that
every good pilgrim should taste on his or her journey.
And visitors should take
note that the island's picturesque "chapel ruins" are actually a
19th-century folly, built by a colonel to romanticise the view from
his country seat on the mainland. They have fooled many a gullible
traveller over the years, and serve as a timely reminder that
latter-day pilgrims should not only be as harmless as doves, but as
wise as serpents, too.
Tiny Islands, by Dixe
Wills, is published by AA Publishing on 1 May 2013.
IF WALKING to a tidal
island, always check the tide timetable, and seek local advice
Ynys Llanddwyn: from
Bodorgan station (arrivatrainswales.co.uk, 0870 900 0773) take the
bus to Newborough, alighting at Newborough Forest. Walk two miles
south-west through the forest to the coast. Phone the warden, Roy
Mearns, for information on services on Cribinau (01407
Eilean Bàn: from Morar
station (scotrail.co.uk, 0845 7550033), it is a 25-minute walk to
the Loch Morar jetty, where Ewan MacDonald hires out small
motorboats (£30 per morning or afternoon, £50 per day; 01687 462520
- phone in advance).
Chapel Island: from
Ulverston station (northernrail.co.uk, 0845 000 0125), walk or
cycle the 2½ miles to Canal Foot, where the crossing to the island
commences. Phone the Ulverston Tourist Information Centre (01229
587120) for advice before going.