IONA is often referred to as "the cradle of Christianity in
Scotland". It was on this island, off the south-west coast of Mull,
in the Inner Hebrides, that the Irish missionary monk St Columba
landed in his coracle in AD 563, before establishing a monastery
Today, parts of Columba's monastery complex, laid waste in a
Viking raid in 802, can still be seen. It is also the site of the
now restored Iona Abbey.
The permanent population is about 120, but an estimated 130,000
people visit every year. Accommodation includes a hostel, two
hotels, B&Bs, self-catering cottages, and a campsite.
Retreatants can book to stay at Bishop's House, owned by the
Scottish Episcopal Church diocese of Argyll & The Isles.
The retreat house offers some led retreats and open weeks
throughout the year, but otherwise provides services and meals for
groups organising their own retreat. Guests can attend regular
daily services in the chapel and at Iona Abbey.
Alternatively, it is possible to stay on a programmed retreat
week with the Iona community at the refurbished abbey: in dorms for
two to five people (March to December), or in the MacLeod Centre,
in rooms accommodating five to seven (April to September).
Iona is a ten-minute ferry ride with Caledonian MacBrayne from
Fionnphort, on the Isle of Mull. Caledonian MacBrayne
(www.calmac.co.uk) also operates the 46-minute ferry line from the
Scottish mainland (Oban) to Craignure (Mull), which connects with
buses and trains to Glasgow and elsewhere. Visitors cannot take
cars on to Iona unless a permit has been obtained from Argyll and
Bute Council (phone 01631 569160). For the Iona community's 2015
programme visit www.iona.org.com.
For Bishop's House (open March to October for full-board guests,
or available to self-catering groups of up to 23 from November to
February), phone 01681 700111, or visit
ACROSS the water from Largs, on the Ayrshire coast in western
Scotland, is the Isle of Cumbrae. It has just one town, Millport.
It is home to the smallest cathedral in Britain, the Cathedral of
In about AD 710, the Irish monk and missionary St Mirin is said
to have arrived, and rid the island of snakes. Today, modern-day
saints can flock to the College of the Holy Spirit, a retreat house
belonging to the diocese of Argyll & The Isles.
The College is a VisitScotland three-star-rated B&B, and
offers 16 rooms, including five en suites (one with disabled
access), a library, and two lounges. The Cathedral of The Isles is
open every day for services and reflection, and the shared college
and cathedral grounds offer eight acres for added
Cumbrae has a circumference road that is popular with cyclists
(bikes can be hired on the island). Other natural attractions
include a resident seal colony at the Eileans (two islands in the
bay), and occasional sightings of dolphins, porpoises, and basking
The College of the Holy Spirit runs a programme of retreats; and
also welcomes bookings for individual and group retreats.
Cumbrae is one hour from Glasgow by train (Glasgow to Largs),
and is served by two international airports (Glasgow and
Prestwick). A bus runs to within 500 yards of the College of the
Holy Spirit from the ferry. For more details, phone the college on
01475 530353, or visit www.island-retreats.org/cumbrae.
BARDSEY ISLAND (Ynys Enlli), off the coast of the Llŷn
Peninsula, in north-west Wales, has been a place of pilgrimage and
retreat since the Breton nobleman St Cadfan came here on retreat
and founded a monastery in the sixth century.
This tiny island - it is only 0.6 miles long and one mile wide -
became a focal point for the Celtic Church in Wales; and drew many
monks here to seek a life of prayer.
In about 1200, the monks of Enlli joined the Augustinian Canons
Order, who built the 13th-century Augustinian abbey of St Mary's.
The abbey remained in use until the dissolution of the monasteries,
and today, its roofless tower is the oldest standing building on
the island, and is available for informal open-air services. A
chapel (built in 1875) is also open to retreatants and groups for
worship and meditation.
Those wanting to use Bardsey as a base for retreat can book to
stay in one of ten self-catering cottages owned by the Bardsey
Island Trust (which bought the island in 1979). And clergy on
retreat who are willing to act as island chaplain for their week or
two's stay can book Llofft Carreg Fawr, a former hermitage (a
maximum of two people per stay).
As a retreat getaway, Bardsey will not disappoint. Declared a
National Nature Reserve in 1986, mainly owing to its location on
migration routes for many birds, Bardsey has no street lamps,
roads, or cars to distract, and has more than 400 types of lichen,
as well as seals, dolphins, porpoises, and whales in its
Ferry services to Bardsey Island are operated from Porth Meudwy,
depending on the weather. Visit Barsey Island Trust's website for
details (www.bardsey.org). Bursaries for clergy retreats are
available from the Carreg Trust, which also administers bookings of
Llofft Carreg Fawr on behalf of the Bardsey Island Trust. For
details phone 0151 608 4236, or email
VARIOUS orders of monks lived on Caldey Island, in
Pembrokeshire, from Celtic times until the dissolution of the
monasteries. But, in 1906, Anglican Benedictines bought Caldey, and
built the island's beautiful Italianate monastery, now Grade II
Today, the little village that grew up around the monastery has
a post office, and a religious-book and gift shop.
There are a few self-catering facilities available on the
island. But individuals and groups on retreat can book to stay at
St Philomena's retreat house, which offers full-board stays from
Easter to the end of October on a donation basis.
Alternatively, up to six men at a time can book to stay at the
monastic guest-house, sharing meals with the monks and the abbey
church's seven short daily services.
Other religious buildings of note on the island include the Old
Priory, and St David's, with its Norman architecture, Celtic
foundations, watchtower chapel, and sea view.
Caldey is a haven for seabirds. It also has Priory Beach - one
of the best beaches in Pembrokeshire.
A fleet of boats runs to Caldey Island from Tenby harbour
(Monday to Friday, Easter to end of October; Saturday, May to
September). Crossings are weather-dependent
uk.com/caldey-island.htm). For retreat accommodation, phone the
Guestmaster on 07511 392658, or email
Lindisfarne (Holy Island)
LYING just off the Northumberland coast is the island of
Lindisfarne. Three miles long and 1½ mile wide, it is linked to the
mainland by a causeway, and is cut off from the rest of the world
twice a day by tidal water.
St Aidan, an Irish monk from Columba's monastery on Iona,
established a monastery here in AD 635, at the invitation of the
Northumbrian king, Oswald. It became the base for the conversion of
the northern kingdoms, and a great centre of learning.
It was St Cuthbert, however, who joined the monastery some time
in the 670s, who became the most famous bishop-monk of Lindisfarne,
and sealed the island's fate as a centre of pilgrimage. Today, the
parish church of St Mary's is believed to stand on the site of St
Aidan's original monastery.
Lindisfarne Priory, which was re-established in Norman times,
and is now located to the east of St Mary's, is a miniature version
of the Romanesque Durham Cathedral.
Pilgrims flock to the island, particularly in summer. For those
who stay, there are several retreat houses. One of them, Marygate
House, welcomes up to 25 people in 14 rooms, in two Georgian
properties on the island (retreatants stay on a donation basis). It
is also possible to volunteer to help out at the houses, staying
from two weeks to a year.
The Open Gate, run by the Community of Aidan and Hilda, offers
organised retreats as well as accommodating individuals and
The island, its tidal mudflats, salt marshes, and dunes, form
the Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve, and attract visiting birds
from thousands of miles away.
Just offshore is St Cuthbert's Isle, the site of the
seventh-century hermitage used by Cuthbert and his successors as a
Within one mile of leaving the A1 at Beal, Northumberland, the
narrow road to Holy Island reaches the start of the causeway. There
are tide tables at the side of the road, and a small car-park. For
Holy Island crossing times, visit www.northumberland.gov.uk. By
rail, the nearest station is Berwick-upon-Tweed, on the London
(King's Cross) to Edinburgh GNER line. A bus service operates from
the station to the island, as do several taxi services.
For more information about Marygate retreats, phone 01289
389246, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For information about the Open Gate, phone 01289 389222, or