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Island-hopping, on purpose

25 January 2013

Forget Holy Island: there are plenty of other possible island pilgrimages, says Dixe Wills


Island escape: the Welsh island of Cribinau, with St Cwyfan's Church in the Sea

Island escape: the Welsh island of Cribinau, with St Cwyfan's Church in the Sea

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 islands.

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 missionaries.

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 experience.

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 each summer.

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 where

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 810209.)

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.

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