David Lintern embarks on a voyage of discovery to 3 of the smaller ‘sacred’ isles.
“Your body is a boat to lay aside when you reach the far shore” – William Burroughs
There’s something about islands, an irresistible draw. They loom large in our imagination… or at least they do in mine. In particular, there are countless ‘holy’ islands, dotted along the west coast and festooning the lochs that are particularly beguiling, not least because they play a huge part in our cultural history.
My first visit was to an A-lister – Isle Maree, situated in the wooded archipelago that adorns Loch Maree. And when better to visit an isle of graves than on All Hallows Eve? Our visit was atmospheric and eerie, but despite (or because of) our surroundings we slept like the dead! The isle has a fascinating and layered history.
Loch Maree is possibly named after an Irish Christian monk, St. Maelrubha, who established a monastery at Applecross around 671AD. Isle Maree was likely chosen as the site for his refuge cell because it had religious significance for those he needed to convert. For pre Christains it was a sacred place dedicated to the earth goddess, symbolised by the moon. Next to the ruin of the monk’s cell, there stands a wishing tree with hundreds of coins pressed into it. And next to this tree stood a well, the waters of which were said to cure luna(cy). Those interested in comparative religious studies might draw further comparisons here to the yoni and lingam of the Hindu faith. The well is well gone now, but the remains of an old stone circle, dated to around 100BC, are clear to see. It’s been suggested that the circle was the site of ritual marriage between sky and earth – between the ‘High King’ (aka Lugh, known locally as Mhor Ri) and the Earth Goddess. Early travel writers who visited make mention of an old oak of Mhor Ri, decorated with nails and ribbons, possibly the precursor of the wishing tree. Similarly, it’s likely that the lunacy rituals were designed to usurp the much older practise of sacrificing bulls on the island, associated with the Festival of the Sun God (Lughnasa) in early August.
The presence of a well was significant in the Celt’s understanding of seasonal change. Cailleach, the spirit of earth and nature, who drinks from this well and is reborn, deserves an article all of her own – so if she’ll do me the honour I’ll return with her in the future – but it’s clear that for the Celts, Isle Maree was part of a sacred landscape by and through which they navigated, both literally and metaphysically.
In the meantime, there’s another layer of story to add to this tale of gods, witches and wishing wells. After the Christian Saints, the Vikings came, and Isle Maree was significant for them also. Within the stone circle, there are what appear to be 2 Viking graves. A Viking burial on land (rather than sea) was unusual and denotes dishonour, possibly through suicide… Prince Olaf was a Norwegian warrior with a restless temperament, not unlike another High King from another time and place we will meet later. He and his bride lived in a tower on Isle Maree, but eventually he was called to sea. He is said to have returned from expedition and been tested in love by his princess, who feigned death to see how he would react. Seeing her lying in state, the prince took his own life, and filled with remorse, she took his blade and responded in kind.
My second pilgrimage to the underworld by boat was to Eilean Fhianain on Loch Shiel. The isle is situated in the narrows, and has a peculiarly uniform hillock or peak close by on the mainland, something I’ve noticed more than once where there is a sacred isle. This is one of many known also as ‘the green isle’. It was also the island refuge of St. Finnan, a 6th century monk trained at Iona and with connection to Lindisfarne, two of the bigger and better known holy islands (and ones you don’t need your own boat to get to!). Apparently, he may have been a leper, in which case an island refuge would make practical sense. Only a scourge of ticks plagued our visit, but it is a poignant and moving place to wander, and situated in beautiful country. The isle is still used for burials, and services are still conducted in the remains of a Catholic chapel. There is an intriguing bronze bell that sits on the altar, which has allegedly disappeared many times but has always returned. I rang the bell, but thankfully the residents slept on.
My third and most recent voyage was to somewhere more local to me. Loch Awe has it’s own isle of graves, called Inishail. In my own personal triptych, this last was also my first, because I originally visited this particular green isle on my 17th birthday, when a storm blew up and my family rowed in soggy panic to the shore. There is another ruined chapel here, probably 13th century and dedicated to St. Fyndoca, apparently a female Catholic saint, and several gravestones – some new and many older, with several pre-dating the Reformation. It has links with the Macarthur and later the Campbell clans, who policed the area using Kilchurn Castle at the north end of the loch as their main fortification.
As we drove towards Inishail a few weeks ago, fellow traveller Bill Young mentioned a much older story that cast new light on this ongoing relationship I, and we, have with islands. Bill is something of a gonzo antiquarian (hey – that’s a compliment in my world!) and a real fountain of knowledge on all things prehistory. He recounted the sorry saga of Gilgamesh, which has a legitimate claim to being the oldest known story in the world.
According to tablets dated around 2000BC, that were discovered buried in what is now modern day Iraq in the 19th century, Gilgamesh was a warrior king who found himself at an existential crossroads after the death of his partner in crime, Enkidu. Concerned for his own skin, he seeks an immortal called Utnapishtim, who dwells ‘insulated’ (from the latin island) from our earthly plane in a faraway place. This ancient poem from thousands of miles away is stuffed full of archetypes later co-opted into other, more familiar belief systems. Our hero must cross deadly waters which require navigation by a ferryman, and Utnapishtim is a rare survivor of a great flood, entrusted to build an ark. He even releases a dove when his boat runs aground on a mountaintop…
On his journey to meet the ferryman, Gilgamesh travels under mountains and along the ‘road of the sun’. Later, Celtic royalty are transported along coffin roads and west over water to the isles of the afterlife. The sacred islands, from Eilean Munde on Loch Leven – shared burial ground of 3 clans and where fairy lights are said to be seen – to Skye, home of Sga Thach, a female wraith acting as mentor of war to Cu Chulainn, the son of (Sun god) Lugh – to Lundy, the Scilly isles, the Isle of Man and hundreds more – all were seen by the Celts as gateways to the underworld. When Columba landed on Iona, he found Bronze Age burial grounds and denounced the incumbent druids as false bishops.
Remember Avalon? It’s fiendishly close to the Iraqi isle of immortality transported to the Celtic dreamtime – a place where King Arthur is taken to recover from his wounds, a land of eternal youth. It’s name in Middle Welsh, old Irish and Celtic languages is close to ‘apple’ – Avalon was literally the ‘isle of apples’, a paradise or Garden of Eden – the green isle. Apples? Could Adam’s earlier incarnation be understood as Enkidu, Gilgamesh’s wildling foe, whom he later befriends and seeks adventure, fame and fortune with? Near the end of the saga, a serpent scotches Gilgamesh’s final chance at immortality. The parallels go on and on….
On our visits the islands feel pensive, in waiting. For heaven’s sake, waiting for what? There is – however one might interpret it, however secular we might be, with our plastic boats and smart ass phones – an atmosphere about these places. It may just be history we sense, a feeling that for our ancestors these were significant places.
The islands may not be the literal place of the immortals anymore, yet still we venture forth seeking insight. And when we start to look, we see analogies everywhere. But like Gilgamesh and Prince Olaf, we also quest in vain. There are no absolutes to be traced back to source. Just a web of possibilities, more layers to peel away, more trans dimensional threads drawn between myth, people and place. Maybe what we sense is motion sickness. Adrift in time, dancing blind, the instability of our ways of making meaning from the world.
Maybe we’re just the same as our predecessors, and go to face our own mortality? Earlier in the saga, Gilgamesh and Enkidu embark on a wilderness rampage, killing the monster-guardian of a vast Cedar forest and cutting down swathes of trees in the aftermath. By vanquishing nature, Gilgamesh’s prowess is temporarily confirmed, but Enkidu is cursed in the process and later dies. Eden is cut down, and therein lays the seed of Gilgamesh’s downfall. It’s ironic that Black Duncan – Chief of the Campbells – felled trees on the shores of loch Awe to fuel the machinery of his own temporary Empire. Now these once sacred isles are cherished in a new way, and on Loch Maree are even protected for their wildlife. For us on Inishail and neighbouring Fraoch Eilean, where the late autumn quiet overwhelmed and the foliage choked gravestones, chapel walls and castle battlements, we are merely guests, mute and powerless observers of the wet, weedy wilderness gobbling up man’s vainglorious stonework. Nature has a claim here older than any story we can confidently tell, and is asserting it, inch-by-inch and year-by-year. Eden is voracious. The Cailleach is coming for us all.