Inchmahome is a tiny island in the Lake of Menteith, which lies about halfway between Aberfoyle and Callander at the edge of the Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park. The island is covered with trees and has a remarkable Forest Walk, but it also houses the ruins of an old 13th-century priory that sits in the center of the island.
Inchmahome, though small and only one of the scores of monastic communities that were scattered around Scotland, had some famous visitors. Robert the Bruce visited in the 1500s as did King Robert II. The most romantic visitor tales are center around Mary Queen of Scots, her mother, Marie deGuise and the “Four Marys” who served as Princess Mary’s ladies in waiting. Marie deGuise sought refuge at the Inchmahome Priory for five-year-old Mary Queen of Scots during military conflicts between Scotland and England that put the little princess’s life in danger. Old legends say that child Princess planted the Spanish Chestnuts and that those majestic trees can conjure the spirit of Mary Queen of Scots onto the island from time to time.
There are many species of trees – perhaps the most famous are the Spanish Chestnuts, which are said to date back to the 1500s. They’re not easy to miss. They are the royalty of this forest and exude an energy that one can almost hear in the wind. If you relax your eyes and gently stare at these chestnuts, their aura is soon visible – gold, radiant.
It’s interesting how fairy tales and folklore set the scariest stories in forests. Why are forests so scary? Perhaps it isn’t the forest that is scary. Perhaps it’s that our own minds that become keenly sensitive to otherworldly things when we are completely surrounded – above, below and besides – by nature, uninterrupted by development or the outside world. Something happens to our senses when we are immersed into that fury of elemental life. In fairy tales, the trees sometimes come alive – have faces – arms – and attack the forest walker… or worse.
I’ve noticed that when I walk in some forests quietly alone, after about 20 minutes I notice the details I couldn’t see before. The shapes of the branches, the colors, the textures…. and in some forests, the trees come alive with faces and human characteristics. Such was my experience at Inchmahome.
The forest became Otherworldly. It’s places like these where we can absorb the energy, the healing, the insight that comes with walking in thin places.
This little forest is worth visiting even if it’s the only thing you see in Scotland.
Our friends own the Lake Hotel on the shores of the Lake of Menteith and the boats that go out to Inchmahome are a short walk from that Hotel. This is where we stay during this leg of our Scotland tours because guests can savor that sense of “a thin place” for a while.
A few miles southwest of Cashel in County Tipperary lies the ruins of Athassel Priory, a 13th century monastery on about 4 acres of land. The ruins are haunting when viewed from the road. It’s a very thin place.
The Lonely Planet Guide to Ireland refers to Athassal Priory as “…the atmospheric – and deliciously creepy at dusk – ruins.”
The ruins are set in a large field one must access by climbing over a wall from the roadside (at least this was true the last time I was there). It’s a massive ruin, but it’s interesting that Lonely planet called it “creepy.”
Athassel is one of the few places I have visited (and I’ve visited hundreds of monastery ruins) where I got an overwhelming sense of foreboding. Can’t say why. The place was beautiful but in this one spot I started to feel frightened, almost terrified. I turned the corner and saw this statue carved out of the ruined wall – St. Joseph and the boy Jesus… but Jesus’ head was removed. I moved away from that section and continued through the ruin. The intense fear subsided, but felt like I was being watched the whole time.
Strange. A very thin place.
The original buildings date back to 1205, and was founded by the Augustinians. Later it was occupied by the Cistercians. It’s original size alone denotes that it was a source of great wealth and a significant monastery in Ireland and it would have been surrounded by a large town – none of which remains. Still surviving within the ruin are an arched stone bridge approaching a portcullis gateway and gatehouse.
It’s easy to lose track of time at Athassel. One could wander for hours. The priory is a stop on our Thin Places Mystical Tour of Ireland scheduled for May 2011. Interested in attending? Check out the itinerary and book your spot.
One of the most scenic drives in Europe is the Dingle drive around Slea Head – the western tip of the Dingle Peninsula where glimpses of Slea Head and the Blasket Islands provide stunning sea views.
My favorite part of the drive is just past the Great Blasket Center. Across the water on sees the “Sleeping Giant” – an off-shore island that looks remarkably like a giant stretched out on his back with hands resting across his stomach.
Nearby on the hilly ground on the land-side of the road are abandoned potato farms, left when the blight hit, never to be reclaimed. Whether sunny, cloudy or pouring rain, the Slea Head drive offers the traveler or pilgrim a peaceful, scenic look that has been relatively unchanged for centuries.
Slea Head is marked by a life-size white crucifix with Mary and St. John standing by. It appears incredibly stark in contrast to the gray rock and earth behind it and the blue / white surf below it. The white statues stand out, identifying Slea Head to the fisherman, and on a clear day- even some islanders can catch a glimpse.
The Pre-Christian and Celtic people of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England had a keen sense for thin places. The landscape in these countries is littered with man-made markings and ruins that remind the passer-by that this is holy ground. The rocks, trees and landscape hold the memories of spiritual exercises here long ago and present.
Cashel is a thin place.
The very ground itself seems to call out, “Come here and be transformed.” In a quiet moment, the pilgrim today can sense a connection with the souls that have marked these spots with their spirits. Cashel is a vivid reminder that we are all joined inside and outside of time.
The Tipperary Plain also known as the Golden Vale, spreads like a quilt of green and gold velvet patchwork, delineated by hedgerows, lines of trees and occasional roadway, and framed by distant Slieve Bloom Mountains. It’s called the Golden Vale because of the rich, fertile soil which brought prosperity to those who farmed it. Out of the center of the Vale, rising some 200 feet is the Rock of Cashel.
Crowned with the ruins of 11th and 12th century buildings, the Rock is woven into a series of legends, all associated with power and dominance that span nearly two thousand years. The Rock is also referred to as “the Devils Bit.” According to Irish legend, the devil was flying home (presumably to England) when in a fit of anger he bit off a piece of the Slieve Bloom Mountains and spewed it out into the middle of the Tipperary Plain, creating the Rock of Cashel. There is a unique “vacancy” in the hills around Cashel that looks decidedly like a bite. But the Slieve Bloom are comprised of sandstone and the Rock of Cashel of limestone, so the Devil’s Bit theory is unlikely.
Legend states that St. Patrick preached here in the fifth century. He came to convert King Aengus and baptized the King around 450 AD. Patrick later made Cashel a bishopric claiming it as a seat of power long before it was the seat of the high kings of all Ireland.
In the twelfth century, a high cross, now known as “St. Patrick’s Cross,” was erected at Cashel to commemorate 800 years since St. Patrick’s visit. The original cross is quite weathered, but the image of the crucified Christ on the west face and the image of a man (possibly St. Patrick) on the east face can still be made out. The cross rests on a massive base repudiated to be the coronation stone of the Kings of Muenster. A replica of the cross and base greets visitors as they enter the enclosure on the Rock. The original cross and base are in the museum – also known as the Hall of Vicars, which also serves as the Visitor’s Center.
The Rock, called Cashel of the Kings – Cashel is Irish for stronghold – dominates the surrounding landscape, its drama unparalleled in Ireland, and its history is every bit as dramatic. For one thousand years it was the seat of power for Irish kings and bishops, ruling the surrounding country, and for a time, the entire country. For 400 years it rivaled Tara as the seat of power for all of Ireland. The kings of Munster were crowned here and ruled from Cashel. In 978, Brian Boru declared himself High King of Ireland and was crown on the Rock of Cashel. He made Cashel his capital. Brian Boru was the first to unite all of Ireland with its centuries-long history of warring clans and tribes. He was also the last to unite all of Ireland, for since his death in 1014, no one person has unified the populations in all four provinces.
Boru’s descendants ruled from Cashel for one hundred years after his death when Murtagh O’Brien in 1101 gave the Rock of Cashel to the Catholic Church and it began to thrive as a Cathedral.
In 1647 the Earl Inchquin (under Cromwell’s influence) plundered the city. The townspeople fled to the Rock for safety and barricaded themselves in the Cathedral. Inchquin’s army piled turf around the cathedral and set it afire. All inside were burned to death. Over 800 people perished under that attack. The Rock was later abandoned, left to fall further into ruin. Finally, in 1874 it was declared a national monument and since then has been lovingly restored.
At 10:00 a.m. we came down the Tipperary Road into Cashel. Seeing the Rock emerge from the landscape stirred childhood memories of seeing Emerald City rise up at the end of the yellow brick road in the Wizard of Oz. It was a moment when time stood still, burned in my memory like a trauma or birth.
That day we climbed the Rock of Cashel and wandered through the Cathedral ruins and cemetery. I knew nothing then about the history, who lived there, who ruled from there, what events took place there, but I knew it was a thin place. There was something exhilarating about Cashel, an excitement, a sense of power.
Cashel has long been linked with power. Warriors, chieftains, kings, princes, saints and bishops have all come here to mark the Rock as the seat of power, and blood has been spilled in that struggle for power. The Rock is not a peaceful place – as its legacy is riddled with memories of those who fought for power, stole power, ran to take refuge under the mantle of the powerful, and those who gloriously won the power.
The thinness is palpable. Your spirit is awake at Cashel.
I have returned to the Rock of Cashel with every visit to Ireland. I have seen the Rock lit up at night, covered in rain and mist, set against the frigid winter landscape and lingering through the long days of summer where the sun barely sets before rising again.
The Rock of Cashel, though in ruin, has a constancy; a historic brilliance that defies the modernization that grows around it with new homes, buildings and roadways. Cashel boldly claims her history, memories of kings, chieftains, warriors, bards, and holy men – thrusting them before us, urging us to enter in to her ancient legacy – and to return, and return and return.
So many people ask me, “What should I see on my visit to Ireland?”
I always say, “Don’t miss the Rock of Cashel.” Sadly, only a few heed my suggestion.
What a pity.
They’ll never know what I know… that Cashel will seduce you like a lover and cling to your spirit, planting some small charm that draws you back to her, creating a hunger for reunion. With each visit your are strengthened and sustained … until the next time. Cashel is like a first love. Though time, distance and life experience may stand between you – you never forget her, and you will return to her over and over in your imagination. You are changed forever for having known her.