Isle of Erraid

Having voyaged into the Scottish wilds my pilgrimage was almost complete. Standing on a jetty I took in my first sight of Erraid across the narrow causeway between the Ross of Mull and the island. The sun cast a clear light that illuminated the landscape’s blues and greens into sharp contrast. Beneath the sea crashing against the shore and the wind rushing over the bay, there was an overwhelming silence. There was nothing here; no pylons, no pavements, no adverts, only the desolate island with its swathes of purple heather, granite escarpments and craggy outcrops. A dome of sky stretched above, and as far as the eye could see lay the Atlantic extending all the way past the top of Ireland to North America. Here was escape- I’d found it.

I would never have known about Erraid, an island lying off Mull in the Inner Scottish Hebrides, if I hadn’t spoken to a family friend. We were sitting outside a deli in Somerset when I said that I needed a retreat. Anthony  had  recently spent six months with a small spiritual and eco-conscious community living on Erraid, part of the larger ‘Findhorn Foundation’ set up on the mainland back in the swinging sixties. ‘Go’ he told me. ‘I think you’ll really like it’.

A few guests bundled into the boat and Paul, a member of the community, manoeuvred us across the choppy waters. The causeway’s tidal flux dictates the lives of the commune. At low tide the sea recedes between Mull and Erraid leaving only an expanse of traversable wet sand and at any time between high and low tide you are marooned. A German woman, Theresa, and her young son were also in the boat. I asked her why she had come and she said in broken English that they were in search of a new home. They had left an Irish commune which hadn’t suited them and now they hoped Erraid might be the place for them. There was sadness behind her arresting gaze and I only later found out that her husband had recently died of cancer. ‘Jasper, he doesn’t speak any English’, Theresa explained, ‘only German. So, it’s….hard for him’.

Britta, our host for the week, strode down to the harbour and greeted us with a smile. She was in her early thirties wearing a chunky cardigan with a colourful scarf wrapped around her neck. It was August but everyone here was clobbered up in multiple layers of clothing- mere seasons can’t prevent the whipping sea winds that sweep across these exposed islands. Hens pecked around us as we headed through a farmyard cluttered with evidence of island life: an ancient red tractor, a wood shed with a wall of chopped logs and strung up garlic, odd bits of boat tackle and colourful buoys. Two curved whale jaw bones, found on a beach on the north west of the island, were fixed above the doorway of a stone tool shed.

We emerged by a row of one-storey cottages, each with a different coloured door and a spray of flowers on every windowsill. A rosy-cheeked man with an uncanny resemblance to Prince Charles lurched out of door no.4 to shake my hand. ‘Are you Catherine?’ he asked eagerly, ‘Then you’ll be staying with me’. In a community where everyone contributes, Roger, formerly a park-warden with the National Trust, now fulfils his role caring for the livestock and carrying out general farmyard duties. I stepped out of the sun into Roger’s home where I would spend the coming evenings huddled by the wood-burning stove, imagining the lives of the hardy families who filled these walls in the nineteenth century, their husbands away manning the lighthouse at Dubh Artach just visible fifteen miles off the coast of Erraid.

The island still resounds with the shouts and squeals of the commune children, and the walkway fronting the cottages is strewn with toys.  Membership here is on gradual rotation with a continual influx of new residents. At the moment there are two families living on Erraid, and plenty more guest children during my stay. Wild tribes of these children surged through the farmyard and in and out of each other’s cottages high on fresh air and freedom.

Although I came to Erraid on retreat a timetable of ‘Daily Rhythms’ was pinned to the back of Roger’s front door. I wasn’t sure what this meant until the next morning when I heard someone swinging a brass school bell past my bedroom window. A dozen or so guests, along with the residents, padded wearily to the common room at door no.2. A candle glowed in the centre of a circle of blankets and cushions. Britta explained that these daily rhythms- morning meetings, communal lunch, afternoon tea-break, and meditation at 4 o’clock- allow space for reflection and gratitude in a world where our lives have become increasingly chaotic. Between these times we are invited to help the residents with various jobs. I put myself forward to assist in the candle-making studio.

The rain fell against the tin roof of the former farm outbuilding and Orlando placed an array of brightly dyed rainbow candles before me. He was a small, bearded man who I had seen patiently shrimping in the causeway at dusk, waist deep in water and pushing a cast net against the receding tide. The children were wary of Orlando, but couldn’t resist gathering close to him to peer over the edge of his bucket at the hundreds of twitching, magically see-through shrimp. He instructed me on how to polish the candles that would be sold for a small profit on Mull. It was methodical work, and we began to talk. It emerged that Orlando grew up in a family of Austrian mountain farmers, lived with a primitive African tribe for a time, but worked as a chocolatier in Brighton before moving to Erraid. ‘I think there is something similar between making chocolates and making candles’ he said, admiring the candle in his hand, deep blue spreading out to purple on one side.

The commune’s emphasis on self-sufficiency, coupled with the swell of late summer harvest- mountains of potatoes and nearly expiring broccoli- resulted in a week of wholesome but increasingly stodgy vegetarian curries, stews and soups. The dining room was the centre of community life and before every meal we would ‘be present in the moment’, ‘join hands’ and give thanks. I was initially sceptical of these New Age philosophies. As, albeit in a different way, was Ezigbo, a Nigerian pastor who rocked at meal times, muttering prayers, or curses, under her breath. One day when we gathered as usual to hold hands and give strictly secular thanks, she brusquely informed us, ‘I will take the prayer today’, and broke into evangelical praise of an explicitly Christian and fear-invoking Lord above. I never saw Ezigbo at 4 o’clock meditation.

It was after meditation on my last day that Zadie urged me to visit the island’s labyrinth. Zadie had a passion for labyrinths and had flown from Minnesota to experience Erraid’s. ‘I don’t know what it is’ she told me, ‘some people find it’s like meditation, they lose themselves, but for me, it opens me up to my most creative thoughts.’ She smiled. ‘I’m hooked!’ I walked away from the summerhouse with its little shrine of pebbles, unable to resist discovering this mysterious spiral amidst the crevices of Erraid.

I clambered up through a thatch of gorse and ferns, following snaking little paths formed by the island sheep, and eventually reached the peak of Cnoc Mor marked by the ‘Wishing Stone’. It is said that Robert Louis Stevenson, member of the Stevenson dynasty who engineered the lighthouse, visited the island as a young man and stood on this stone where he first wished for his dream of becoming a writer to come true. I looked down to the scattering of islets on the southern edge of Erraid. The ocean was stilled like a sheet pulled taut, providing a shimmering mirror for the setting sun which silhouetted these blackened whale humps rising from the sea surface. I trudged down grassy bogs which squelched beneath me, the ground immediately springing back leaving no trace of where I’d been. I hung back when I spotted seals basking in the bay, their round stomachs pointing to the sky and their flippers languidly flopping about them as if they might be waving hello.

Soon I could see the labyrinth. On a plateau of land lay a complicated maze spiral marked out by rocks, with two upright stones signifying the entrance. I remembered that during our first tour of the island Britta had said that years ago a resident on Erraid had found a precious stone and decided to bury it in the centre and construct the labyrinth around it. I self-consciously checked around me before removing my shoes and socks as Zadie had recommended. I stood at the entrance and rolled up my jeans. My feet sunk into a deep wadding of cold peat and prickly heather and I felt the evening dew wet my soles as I slowly treaded the path towards the centre. I might have imagined it but I’m sure that I sensed the gentle throb of the island vibrating through the layers of granite beneath me.