MarySmith’sPlace – #HolyIsle #Arran

When we were on Arran recently, this was the view of Holy Isle from our rented accommodation in Lamlash.

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We couldn’t not go.

In spring and summer, a small ferry takes people on the ten-minute (if that) trip to Holy Isle from Lamlash. The timings of the crossings are dependent on tide and weather. When we were there, sailings were on the hour-ish.

We were met on Holy Isle by one of the volunteers who welcomed us, gave us a brief introduction to the island and asked us to keep to the pathways, to respect the privacy of the nuns who are on closed retreat in the south of the island and not to feed the animals. There are Eriskay ponies, Soay sheep and Saanen goats. The goats are believed to have been on the island for 700 years, possibly left there by the Vikings. The ponies and sheep were introduced by Universities Federation for Animal Welfare who at one time owned the island.

The DH and I decided to walk up the hills, Mullach Beag and Mullach Mor and walk back along the coastal path.

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I like the sign for the path up the mountain.

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Looking back to Arran and Goatfell – a climb for another day

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Ailsa Craig in the distance – home of the granite for making curling stones

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Coming down Mullach Mor looking down onto the closed retreat centre and the lighthouse

The earliest recorded name for Holy Isle was Inis Shroin, which is old Gaelic for Island of the Water Spirit. In the 6th century Molaise (later Saint Molaise) came to the island from Ireland. Despite being offered the throne of what is now called Ulster, he chose to live in a cave on Holy Isle, near a well whose water had healing properties. The island became known as Eilean Molaise, Gaelic for Molaise’s Island. Later, Molaise went to Rome to be ordained as a priest and back in Ireland he became abbot of the monastery in Leighlin.

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St Molaise’s Cave – sorry it’s a useless photo.

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Information boards at the cave.

In 1263 King Haakon of Norway brought a fleet of ships to the shelter of Lamlash Bay, before fighting the Scots at the Battle of Largs. Vigleikr, one of his marshals, went ashore at Holy Isle and cut runes with his name on the wall of St. Molaise’s cave. It’s also likely there was a monastery on the island in the 13th century or 14th century.

Lama Yeshe Rinpoche is the founder of the Holy Isle Project. He is a Tibetan Buddhist meditation master in the Kagyu tradition and is Abbot of Samye Ling Monastery in Dumfriesshire. Holy Isle is home to the Centre for World Peace and Health which runs a full programme of courses and retreats. Visitors are welcome to stay at the centre provided they accept the Five Golden Rules: To respect life and refrain from killing; to respect other people’s property and refrain from stealing; to speak the truth and refrain from lying; to encourage health and refrain from intoxicants including alcohol, cigarettes and drugs (have to admit I cheated and had my nicotine replacement mints with me); to respect others and refrain from sexual activity that causes harm.

Once safely back down from Mullach Mor, which is quite a tricky scramble in places followed by interesting roped off areas and warnings about crevasses, we walked back to the visitor centre. It was along here we found St Molaise’s cave and lots of beautiful art work on the rocks.

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Free tea or coffee, and biscuits, are served at the visitor centre (donation box available), which is also a shop selling books and crafts.

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These little lovelies were enjoying the sunshine near the visitor centre

There was no sign of the two-ish ferry arriving. The sign post at the jetty indicated something called Red Rock was 0.6 of a kilometre further along the path. As we could keep an eye out for the ferry approaching we wandered off. We saw gulls sitting on eggs on the rocky shore, eider ducks in the water but no sign of a red rock. We did come across this.

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Gorgeous display of rhododendrons – and a television?

We were debating whether to carry on or turn back when we noticed a figure in robes and hooded jacket standing with their back to us. On closer inspection we found the person was staring silently and pointedly at a sign respectfully asking visitors not to proceed beyond this point. We turned around immediately. When I looked back the figure was sitting in front of what looks to me like a small burial cairn.

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Perhaps they had come to meditate? Or, perhaps someone stands watch when visitors are about to ensure they don’t wander where they shouldn’t. It was clear the person was not going to speak – or I’d have asked about the meaning of the television.



MarySmith’sPlace – #The Giants’Graves #Arran

Graves where giants were buried or where giants buried their victims? Neither, it turns out, and I still haven’t discovered how these Neolithic burial cairns on Arran came to be associated with giants.

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These two chambered cairns (there are over twenty others on Arran) are in a clearing on Forestry land above Whiting Bay. Built around 5,700 – 5,000 years ago they’re of the Clyde type – so called because a separate group of burial cairns found in the Firth of Clyde region were identified. They are considered to be the earliest chambered cairn tombs in Scotland, and their construction technique was probably carried from Scotland to Ireland.

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Holy Isle in the background

The burial chamber was usually located at one end of a rectangular or trapezoidal cairn, while a roofless, semi-circular forecourt at the entrance provided access from the outside. Forecourts are typically fronted by large stones and it is thought the area in front of the cairn was used for public rituals. The chambers were created from large stones set on end, roofed with large flat stones and often sub-divided by slabs into small compartments. They were intended for the community’s ancestors and not for individuals – and it would have taken considerable community effort to construct them.

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Before being placed in the cairn, bodies would be left outside for ravens to strip away the flesh from the bones and different parts of the skeleton may have been placed in different parts of the chamber. The chambers were not permanently sealed and were used again and again over many years.

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It all looks a bit of a jumble and quite hard to picture how they would have looked over six thousand years ago. Many of the stones have been removed and incorporated into local buildings and dry stane dykes and many other stones lie below the turf. The Giant’s Grave (North) is the larger with the main axis north-south while the smaller grave (South) is at right angles to the northern cairn with its east-west axis. As I don’t know my right from my left never mind east west, I took these details from the information board on the site.

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Excavations in 1902 recovered pottery shards, flint knives, and leaf-shaped arrowheads in the larger cairn but only soil and stones in the smaller. During a later excavation in1961-2 nine shards of a round-based vessel and fragments of burnt bone were found.

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Much more information about Arran’s Neolithic chambered tombs can be found here which is also where I found this image of how the chambered cairn would have looked.