Geoff Dalglish escapes to the remote Scottish island of Erraid to sample life in a tiny community that seems almost untouched by time.
Allow Erraid to work its magic and it is a place where you can slow the pace, quieten the mind and examine a feast of fresh possibilities as you explore inner and outer landscapes.
Favourite places on this remote Hebridean island, which measures just a mile across, include the postcard-perfect Balfour Bay where a white sandy beach meets shimmering blue waters; the Wishing Stone with panoramic views towards distant horizons; and the modest building known as the Sanctuary where one can go within to the accompaniment of bird calls and the occasional sounds of grazing cattle, sheep or even a vociferous goose.
Time seems to stand still and it is easy to imagine that it was much like this in the 1800s when Erraid featured in the novel Kidnapped by acclaimed Scottish author, poet and travel writer Robert Louis Stevenson, whose family of lighthouse designers and engineers lived in the row of stone cottages that is now home to a tiny working community and handful of guests.
Today that lighthouse tradition continues, metaphorically at least, as Erraid enjoys close links to the Findhorn Foundation and nearby sacred island of Iona that form part of a network of light shining out into the wider world and raising consciousness around issues of spirituality and the urgent need to protect our fragile Earth.
It is not a place you arrive at by accident, most visitors undertaking an extensive road journey through breathtaking scenery followed by at least one major ferry crossing to the Isle of Mull, before catching their first glimpse of the island. Then it’s a short boat ride or even a gentle stroll at low tide. But although Erraid is an end-destination it can also be a transformational starting point, many devoting their time on the island to a personal retreat, while others choose to explore community life or simply savour the outstanding natural beauty of the rugged Hebridean landscape.
It is also an ideal setting for a family eco-holiday that allows children to explore in safety while developing their sense of freedom and adventure.
Many who have come to live here, have done so after succeeding in big city professional careers that left them questioning value systems and the ego-driven world of materialism and rampant consumerism. Instead they have found a reconnection with Nature and the rhythms of land and sea.
The island is owned by a Dutch family who holiday here for a month each year, entrusting it for the remainder of the year to members of the Foundation who cherish their role as custodians and count themselves incredibly blessed to live simply in harmony with this natural world. Their daily rhythms include tending the organic vegetable gardens, caring for the animals, preparing healthy meals and periodically engaging in the meditative manufacture of magnificent rainbow-hued candles that supplement the community’s modest earnings.
“It is a gift to be the custodians of so precious a place,” former electronics engineer Chris Marshall says. “I see our main role as ensuring that Erraid remains accessible to others who also wish to enjoy its peace and beauty.”
Heather Walley, a former university lecturer in multi-media and website design, has just completed a six-year stay and knows she’ll miss walks on the island and on neighbouring Mull, from where all guests arrive. “It has been such a privilege to live this life, she says. “I loved living near the sea, while working with the animals has been a wonderful experience that has taught me such a lot.”
Celia Compton and Philip Yielder are raising their young children Isaac and Bea on Erraid, and believe they have more freedom than children their age elsewhere, also enjoying the unusual adventure of commuting to and from school in a small boat.
Chat to any Foundation member who has tasted a significant slice of Erraid island life and there is a love and longing to return. “It is a place where you can not only have dreams, but live them,” says Paul Johnson, who shared nine wonderful years with his partner Debbie and the latter years with their son Josh. “We hadn’t planned to have a child but after living on Erraid for a year couldn’t imagine anywhere on Earth better to raise one. Josh loved being there.”
Today the youngest resident is one-year-old Finley, the cheery son of Paul Adams and Tina Steinberg, who constantly delights community members and visitors alike; his lively presence reinforcing the feeling of being one big family, especially at mealtimes.
If there is a challenge for residents it is to find quiet personal time, as they not only live in close community but often share their cottages with guests who usually arrive and depart on a Saturday.
Although I’d already tasted communal living in both Foundation campuses at The Park and Cluny Hill College, this proved to be an even deeper immersion and a wonderful opportunity to get closer to the land while helping to tend the vegetable gardens and put the finishing touches to a new polytunnel.
I’d signed up for a working week but equally compelling would be the option of enjoying a personal get-away-from-it-all retreat in the self-contained Pier Cottage. This would be the place to write that novel, or simply escape the stresses of everyday life.
Among the many highlights of my week-long stay was a morning visit to Staffa, a spectacular uninhabited island famous for its basalt rock columns, seabirds and legend of the Gaelic giant Fingal, followed by an afternoon walking around the sacred island of Iona, which is a place of pilgrimage where St Columba first brought Christianity to Scotland and ultimately much of mainland Europe. An ideal place to spend a few quiet days is the Traigh Bhan retreat house run by the Foundation, with its peaceful garden and proximity to the beach.
On my final morning the sun shone brightly and I celebrated with an icy swim at Balfour Bay before paying a last visit to the Wishing Stone, which according to local legend has the power to make dreams come true. Mine was to return soon, spending time both on Erraid and Iona.