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.
Forests and Woodlands tend to scare us. If they don’t evoke fear they at least elevate our senses. The edge is defined. We feel it as soon as we cross from the open world into a woodland. The energy shifts – changes.
My friend, Wendy Mews leads tours to sacred sites in Brittany. Wendy led me through a forest near her home in Huelgoat and talked about “walking meditation.” She said that she will tell her tour guests to walk in the forest as a group – but in total silence. And she instructs her guests to notice details in that silence, to be mindful of what the forest tells them. “What do you hear in your heart? What do you feel? What does the forest tell you?”
It’s funny how a chance conversation can you change one’s life. Since that conversation with Wendy, I’ve been unable to walk into a forest and not be mindful of what its telling me. I try to walk in silence…to notice details… to see what reveals itself.
In the Glenariff Woodland, there is a defined path that easy to walk. It winds into a gorge with rushing water, waterfalls, mist coming off of the rocks, all the mystical plants – ferns, ivy, holly, and a rare woodland plant known as “St. Patrick’s Cabbage.” The path is lined with oak, ash, willow and hazel trees.
This forest was a stop on our Discover the North tour. I led my tour guests into this woodland and let them roam.
I stayed behind and then walked in silence…waiting for the woodland to speak to me.
There was a holy well along the path that had a few clooties tied to branches in the rock face.
As my guests passed by me, they seemed to walk in silence too, though I hadn’t instructed them or encouraged them to do so. They were all so happy in that woodland. I stopped for a moment where the gorge wall rose steeply above the path – almost perpendicular to where we stood. In that time of reflection waiting for the woodland to “speak to me” I started to see faces – hidden in the rocks, moss, ferns and the watery surface of the gorge – – many faces. Faces made from the natural elements.
I pointed this out to my guests when they passed, and they saw them, but weren’t moved by them – not like I was anyway.
Glenariff Waterfall Nature Reserve is in the Glens of Antrim. Glenariff the largest of the nine Glens and many think it’s the most scenic. This entrance to this woodland path is located behind Large Lodge, a seasonal restaurant that has a wonderful ambiance and good food. You can park in the Lodge’s lot, have a bite to eat and then amble along the gorge path. The complete walk is about 1.5 miles and has steps and gets steep at times. But those who can’t negotiate the stairs can still enjoy the beginning of the trail.
The waterfalls and woodland are magical. Maybe you’ll see the faces.
The Glenariff Woodland Walk is on the Discover the North tour of Ireland.