Two Weeks in Scotland: 3-17 September 2005

Edinburgh isn’t far from Amsterdam — a 75-minute flight — but it’s a very different world: a more northern light, not at all the flatland that is Holland, and where a form of English is spoken that takes some getting used to.

Via the web we had booked ourselves into a bed-and-breakfast southwest of the city center. As it happened, the house was on a canal that led nearly to the heart of Edinburgh, a refreshing half-hour walk that seemed to place us in the rural countryside rather that the middle of a city. So pleasant was the route that, more often than not, we walked back and forth rather than take the bus. (Walking back at night, I felt obliged to warn Nancy about the dreaded Edinburgh Ripper, who often frequents the canal, and takes special pleasure in carving up naive tourists who dare to walk this path in the dark. In reality the greatest danger we encountered were ducks and swans.)

The guest house, the proprietor told us, wasn’t far from the home of J.K. Rowling, but we saw no sign of her, nor did we meet Harry Potter. Our host complained of the wall Rowling had put up to safeguard her privacy.

Having read in guide books about Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, with the castle at one end and Holyrood Palace at the other, we started off by exploring this most ancient of the city’s streets, but were at first put off by the density of tourists and tourist shops. We had hoped to find an Edinburgh that was less like the center of Amsterdam, which also can barely hold all its visitors. In fact the crowds were mainly concentrated at the castle end of the Royal Mile, and neither they nor the shops that target them were unpleasant.

Need exercise? Edinburgh is hillier than either Rome or San Francisco. Exploring the city day by day, we gradually rehabilitated many long neglected muscles.

The city has beautiful parks, most of all a long green strip running through the heart of the city, below the castle. The day we arrived it has a site of preparation for a concert and fireworks display scheduled for the following evening, the final event in the annual Edinburgh Festival, but we were so walked out the following night that we missed the fireworks.

We were also among the small percentage of visitors who failed to visit the castle, striking though it is perched on it high rocky base overlooking the city, possibly the most impressive castle in Britain. If we had stayed longer perhaps we would have gotten around to it, but we focused more on walks and museum visits.

In the latter category, there was an outstanding Gauguin exhibition at the Royal Scottish Academy. We were at the RSA and the adjacent Royal Gallery much of two days. There was also a major exhibition of the work of one of my favorite photographers, Henri Cartier-Bresson, at the Dean Gallery. The other museum where we spent many hours was the Museum of Scotland. It collection begins with the geology of Scotland and reaches into modern times. (See the Edinburgh photos)

Sunday morning we walked to the Liturgy at Orthodox Church of St. Andrew on Meadow Lane. The priest is Fr John Maitland Moir, now well into his 80s yet still in good health. We had last seen him during a brief visit to Edinburgh about 15 years ago. It was a striking to see how much the parish has grown — now there are many young families.

We enjoyed various pubs and pub meals though the place we returned to most often for supper was an Italian restaurant, Zizzi’s, on at the east end of the canal we so often walked. Inspiring cooking.
After five days in Edinburgh, we were off by train to Oban, a port town on the west coast of Scotland, a point of departure for ferries serving the Hebridean islands. (The Oban photos are included in the set of Iona pictures.)

The two days at Oban were the most restful part of our holiday. We had nothing to do, no museums to visit, no meetings, no appointments. It was cool enough to inspire Nancy to get a wool sweater and me to buy a fall jacket. Our one major exercise, beyond walking the harbor, was to climb the steep hill above the Oban Brewery to reach the “Tower,” the town’s one folly, a coliseum-like stone building that had been built a century ago by a local man who wanted to create employment.

We happened to meet my god-son Silouan in a local cafe and saw a good deal of him. He too was on his way to Mull to take part in the retreat/pilgrimage organized by Friends of Orthodoxy of Iona.

One of the highlights of Oban was the Catholic cathedral of St. Columba, a large, simple stone building which seemed to be open day and night. It is one of those churches that fills the visitor with a longing to pray. It was a blessing to be there.

Our good luck with the weather held up while in Oban. The first night there were treated to a sunset worthy of Tahiti — see the Oban photos — and, though less dramatic, we had another light show the second night.

On Saturday the 10th, along with others bound for the Iona pilgrimage, we took the ferry to Mull, then an hour-long bus ride across the island, east to west, to the village of Fionnphort, which put us on the wharf in sight of the island of Iona. Our retreat was to be centered in the Fionnphort village hall while the participants were lodged either in dormitories of the village hall or at guest houses in the neighborhood.

Once on Mull, the traveler crosses an visible border, entering a world so thinly populated and of such minor commercial interest that there is no McDonalds, no Burger King, no Pizza Hut, not even a Starbucks. The only chain, such as it is, is Spar: the vest-pocket grocery store in each town or village. But more impressive than the exodus from interchangeable fast- food outlets is the massive quiet, the Eden-like air, and — at night — skies much darker and immense than seen in most of Europe in the past hundred years.

The retreat/pilgrimage started Saturday and finished the following Friday evening.

There were a few lectures, but not so many that one felt over-loaded with talk.

Bruce Clark, chairman of Friends of Orthodox on Iona these past five years, spoke about the ways monasteries (understood as fortresses of spiritual life) have often hung on despite the most difficult political environments. St. Catherine’s on the Sinai has co-existed with the Muslim world since the time of Muhammed! One was reminded that monks are often as gentle as doves but wise as serpents, with their communities often managing to survive the rise and fall of kingdoms and empires.

Michail Neamatu, a young Romanian theologian, spoke insightfully about the Holy Cross, as did Bishop Kallistos two days later. As we celebrated the feast of the Holy Cross on Wednesday, the lectures and the Liturgy were in perfect alignment. (There were two Eucharistic liturgies during our days together, both held next to the abbey at St. Oran’s Chapel on Iona, the oldest building in that region of Scotland.)
Dr. David Winfield presented slides of the fresco restoration work he had led at the church of the Holy Wisdom in northeastern Turkey, now a museum church as the Greek population was forced to flee many years ago.

I gave a talk on “the essence of sin is fear of the Other.”

Apart from talks and liturgies and a delightful party the last night, our time together was a mixture of walks, boat rides and quiet time that could be used as we pleased.

Parts of three days were spent on Iona, the small island that St. Columba landed on after sailing from Ireland in 563. Not many missionary efforts have had so profound an effect on world history. The community was eventually destroyed by Viking raids, with many martyrdoms, but lasted four hundred years before retreating back to Ireland in the tenth century. (One of the surviving monuments of the community’s early years is the Book of Kells, now in the Trinity University Library in Dublin.)

Iona is often described as “a thin place” and truly it is that. I can hardly imagine someone visiting the island without thoughts of God. It’s not simply the rare beauty of Iona. In fact it’s an almost treeless island, quite austere, with a permanent population of about eighty people. No doubt it’s partly the abbey church, originally the main church of a Benedictine community founded early in the 13th century, along with a nearby nunnery. In the 17th century, however, the abbey properties in Britain were confiscated and the communities disbursed, after which the church buildings on Iona gradually fell into ruin. The abbey church was reroofed and partially restored more than a century ago. Then in 1938 George Macleod, a Glasgow pastor of the Church of Scotland, had the idea of rebuilding the abbey as a joint work for unemployed stone masons and seminarians — a means not only to restore ancient buildings but to repair the breach between the Church and the working class. Now the church, its cloister and the adjacent buildings look much as they did eight hundred years ago.

One of the special aspects of Iona is that it’s one of the oldest places on earth, much of it being composed of Lewisian Gneiss, extremely hard rock formed not quite three billion years ago. Lewisian Gneiss contains no fossils — there was as yet no biological life on earth. Iona belongs to the first day of creation.

Iona is also well known for its pale green marble. Few visitors leave with island without at least one green pebble. Several beaches are carpeted with smooth stones of various sizes, among which one occasional finds a “greenie.” (See the Iona photos.)

Not far from Iona is the still smaller island of Staffa, the end point of “the Giant’s Causeway,” an avenue of volcanic basalt columns that begins on the north coast of Ireland. Most of the highway is under the waves, but when it rears up at Staffa it’s an astonishing sight. We went there by boat on a day when the sea was calm enough to land, then followed a pathway that brought us into Fingal’s Cave, a cathedral-like opening amid the upright pillars of basalt, then later climbed up to the grassy fields above.

Nancy and I were not among those on the pilgrimage who managed to get to Inch Kenneth, a tiny island that in ancient times had been St. Kenneth’s home. Celtic monastic fragments still exist in the island. The day the sailboat was to take us there, as it had taken other pilgrims two days before, the weather was such that we went south instead of north, sailing round the southwest corner of Mull, close to many seals, at last coming to a remote beach. Along the way we passed by Erraid Island, the place where David Balfour landed after shipwreck in Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, “Kidnapped.” The one beach on Erraid is now named in honor of Balfour.

On this particular day Nancy and I took separate trips. I joined the group on the sailboat and Nancy went with four other pilgrims by car to Castle Duart on the other side of Mull, a fully restored twelfth-century castle owned by the McClean clan, filled with artefacts, reconstructed dungeons, kitchens and ballrooms, clothing and weapons, and lots of McClean family photos. The family still live there.

To see southwestern Mull from the sea, at close range, is to be confronted with one of the great deserts of the northern world, a dramatic, barren landscape not unlike the landscape often seen in icons. This was the desert of the Celtic monks, still a dangerous place to be even in the 21st century. Many have drowned in these waters, while those who worked the land had a day-by-day struggle to survive. Now the local population is mainly sheep.

Pilgrimage, Bishop Kallistos pointed out at the beginning of the retreat, is the Moses-like discovery that one stands on holy ground and that creation itself is a burning bush. He had encouraged us to try to spend time alone on Iona, to give ourselves time to simply be pilgrims on the island, and to pray. Most of the pilgrims we spoke with took his advice. The pilgrimage was not so tightly organized that there was no time for such solitary wandering.

— Jim Forest
22 September 2005

See more Edinburgh photos and Oban, Mull, Iona and Staffa photos.