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Travel: solitude and saints on holy islands

27 January 2023

In need of hermit spirituality, Nick Mayhew-Smith searched Britain’s lesser-known holy islands

Nick Mayhew-Smith

Inchcolm Abbey on Inchcolm Island

Inchcolm Abbey on Inchcolm Island

ISLANDS are the physical embodiment of what it means to go on retreat — or, indeed, to be on holiday: set apart from the mainland by natural design, limited in resources, and cut off from easy transport. The wealth of an island is found in realms other than the material, its elements more suited to artists and dreamers, writers, hermits, and solace seekers. As places of rest, inspiration, and renewal, islands are truly set apart.

Britain was converted to Christianity by islands. The three main early missionary centres were all bounded by the sea: Iona, Lindisfarne, and Caldey Island, ministering to Scottish, northern English, and Welsh tribes. The path to these remains well-trodden, or well-sailed, even today, but there are quieter islands that can draw the pilgrim, offering in some ways a more authentic experience than the main pilgrim destinations (Britain has about 7000 islands, fewer than 200 of which are permanently populated).

It wasn’t a coincidence that the first missionaries took themselves off to these outcrops. Bede alludes to the fact that tidal islands were the topographical embodiment of a monastery — withdrawn for half the time, connected back to the affairs of the world the other half. If landscape can be considered holy, islands are surely its saints.

As always, the pursuit of holiness comes with the risk of martyrdom; a point driven home to me last summer when I made a beeline for the most remote island I could find: Isle Maree, one of Loch Maree’s 65 islands in the western Highlands of Scotland, first used by the great Scottish missionary St Maelrubha (who converted Pictish tribes in the eighth century), before becoming a place of pilgrimage.

After a complicated year of church and family life, I wondered if the island might afford me some eighth-century sanctuary. Packing the modern equivalent of a coracle into my car — an inflatable kayak bought online — I drove to the loch’s rocky shore, and prepared myself for a watery pilgrimage across choppy waters, to a holy island like no other. It was with some alarm that I realised, however, halfway through my own crossing, that my kayak was slowly deflating.

istock The winding road to Loch Maree and its many islands

Feeling more like a cursed character from Pilgrim’s Progress than a devout Celtic pilgrim, I frantically rowed into the spray-flecked wind and prayed for the saint’s intercession. The crossing is about 1.5 miles, and I stayed as close as I could to the shores of the lake’s many other islands, until I rounded a headland and the shingle beach of Isle Maree hove into view. Dragging my damp figure and limp boat high above the waterline, I sat for an age out of time as this strangest of islands wrapped its arms around me.

Close to its shore, a sacred tree still attracts cultic activity, visitors wedging coins into the now dead and toppled trunk — including, perhaps, one left by Queen Victoria herself on a tour of the Highlands. Landscape lore protects this horde even today, legend saying that you must take nothing away from the island.

Moved by the minimalist spirit, I stripped and waded in to the pure waters to lose myself in timeless reflection, before emerging, renewed, as if from a font. I read afterwards that the waters around the island are said to cure madness.

It’s easy to dismiss the island’s complex sacred lore as superstition, until you realise that it is teeming with untouched native rainforest. All other islands on the lake were denuded to feed iron smelting in the 18th century, but not even a twig can be taken from Maree. The isle’s sacred status has saved an ecosystem, just as surely as it salved my pilgrim soul.

Being on an island collapses the separation between humans and nature, allows for healing to spread out and re-energise damaged relationships and emotions. One of the most powerful ways to alleviate stress and depression is nothing more than spending time surrounded by the natural world. The wave-ringed shores of a hermit’s island are the high watermark of such healing.

Nick Mayhew-Smith’s latest guide to holy places, Britain’s Pilgrim Places, co-authored with Guy Hayward, is published by the British Pilgrimage Trust at £19.99 (CT Bookshop £17.99), 978-0-95447-678-6.. It features about 20 holy islands.


Solitude seekers:

Isle Maree, Loch Maree, Highlands

The most reliable way to get here is by kayak from the shore near the Loch Maree Hotel, although the hotel itself should be able to organise a trip for you. Visit lochmareehotel.com.

Inchcolm Island, Fife

Lying just offshore from Scotland’s capital city, Inchcolm and its ruined abbey are a blessed spot for a daytrip from Edinburgh. Out of sight to the east lies the more remote Isle of May, another monastic outpost on the Firth of Forth. Maid of the Forth operates an Explore Inchcolm Island trip, with 1.5 hours ashore. Visit maidoftheforth.co.uk.

Deerness Chapel, Orkney

Not quite an actual island — yet — this sea stack on the east coast of Orkney looks the part of a hermit hideaway, and the crumbling cliff path deters all but the most determined pilgrims. Another holy island lies to the north of Orkney, but landing on Eynhallow is allowed just one day a year, via a trip organised by the Orkney Heritage Society each summer. To get to Deerness Chapel, park at Mull Head car park and walk about a mile north to the Brough of Deerness.

Holy Island, Anglesey

Anglesey is rich in holy islands, the largest of which is actually called Holy Island, with the healing St Gwenfaen’s Well on the wild west coast, and the church of St Cybi, in Holyhead town. The holy well, Ffynnon Santes Gwenfaen, is in the south Holy Island on the main coastal path, about one third of a mile west of the Rhoscolyn National Coastwatch Institution.

St Herbert’s Island, Derwentwater, Cumbria

The stuff of Celtic dreams, Bede records that St Herbert would “drink draughts of the heavenly life” while living here in seclusion, the charms of his island retreat unchanged even today. It is permitted to land on the island, and Keswick Launch Company rowing boats can be hired from the boathouse on Lake Road, Keswick. Visit keswick-launch.co.uk/explore/listing/st-herberts-island.

Worm’s Head, Rhossili, Gower peninsula

A winged serpent and a natural rock arch known as the Devil’s Bridge might not sound the most relaxing of destinations, but this spectacular tidal island also proved a haven for St Cenydd in the sixth century. Walk over to the island at low tide from the Worm’s Head car park in Rhossili, being sure to observe warnings about crossing times.

Minster, Isle of Sheppey, Kent

A large and relatively busy island, its church at Minster offers enough ancient spiritual heritage to evoke the glories of its status as a monastery outpost. It provides an interesting reminder of many of south-east England’s former monastic islands which have otherwise become landlocked (including another place called Minster, on the former island of Thanet to the east, as well as the mighty Ely Cathedral itself). Minster Abbey (St Mary and St Sexburga), Vicarage Road, Minster on Sea, ME12 2HE.

St Finnan’s Isle, Loch Shiel, Highlands

A world apart from the busy Glenfinnan viaduct, at the opposite end of Loch Shiel, hides one of the most perfectly secluded hermitage islands still to be found. St Finnan’s sits in the centre, with its ancient burial crosses offering almost untouched solitude — although a medieval handbell once chained to the altar was stolen in 2019. To get there, bring your own boat or hire from dalileafarm.co.uk.

Looe Island/St George’s Island, Looe, Cornwall

Judged too dangerous for pilgrims to reach in the 13th century, this rocky outcrop once had a chapel dedicated to St Michael on its summit, and was reputed to be the landing place of St Joseph of Arimathaea accompanied by the young Jesus. Today, the Cornwall Wildlife Trust will take you there in the comfort of a modern ferry. Visit cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk/explore/visit-looe-island.

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