I have just returned from a holiday with friends on the very beautiful Inner Hebridean Island of Islay. It was the first time I had been to Islay, but certainly won’t be the last. I have visited Scotland quite a few times, and the west coast and its islands is one of my favourite areas in the UK (or in the world, should Scotland choose to leave us at some point!).
Islay is amazing. It is so remote, and yet I felt immediately at home. It has a sense of peace and of being close to God.
To get to Islay is a bit of a traipse. First we headed towards Glasgow and stayed for a night with a wonderful Quaker Friend and their ginormous dog, Rueben, to break our long journey. It took us seven hours to get this far, not the five predicted by a certain brand of internet mapping. The next day entailed a further three hours of driving, followed by a two hour ferry journey. This was a special part of the holiday in its own right – bright sunshine accompanying us along Loch Fyne, then standing at the bow of the ferry watching for porpoises with the Saltire flying before us.
Once we were on the island there were provisions to find and a cottage to locate. It did not disappoint. The most amazing ‘surround-sound’ views, with sea in two directions, hills and moorland in the others, and sunsets to enjoy – when the sun deigned to appear – from a bank of sofas next to a very welcome log burner.
The first day, and several others, was wet. What do you do on a wet Scottish island that just so happens to have eight distilleries? Go on a whiskey tour and tasting, of course! But first we headed out along the coastline to a ruined chapel that had a beautiful Celtic cross in its grounds. What a special place, and what a strong sense of those who had gone before. Monks and pilgrims, the stone carvers from the Iona school, people taking sea journeys in search of peace and God.
The coastline and its atmosphere reminded me of the Isle of Whithorn in Dumfries and Galloway, with its ruined chapel on the headland and St Ninian’s Cave. A place of pilgrimage. The sense of the sacred was tangible. It fed into my bones and stayed with me for the whole duration of my time on the island. It felt like the air was thin there and we were somehow closer to spirit. My friend felt this too. Surveys often show that people feel closer to God in nature, and can have strong spiritual experiences when visiting beautiful places. For me the experience on Islay was deeper than this – I felt so drawn to it and did not want to leave.
On the ferry, heading home, I stayed on deck until I could no longer see the island. Back on bigger roads again, with traffic and people, Islay immediately felt like a memory and very far away. Somehow you can’t hold the experience fully once you’ve left. I found myself missing my Quaker meetings and craving the depth of worship. I wanted to find a way back to that feeling.
But these things do stay with us. The peace has fed into my soul and the Islay spirit is part of my fabric now. There will be other beautiful places, and even a wild flower making headway in a concrete car park can be a joy. So I am sitting with what I have taken away and cherishing it for as long as I can.
Actually trusting the weather forecast and ending up painting the outside of my back door in the rain.
Lunch in the garden with my new carer friend. The joys of mutual carer support.
© Anne de Gruchy