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.
St. Gobnait (Irish for Deborah or Abigail), the patroness of Beekeepers and healers, is celebrated in Ballyvourney, a small town in West Cork. Her Feast Day is February 11th.
In the early 6th century when Gobnait fled her home in County Clare, she went to Inis Oírr (the smallest of the Aran Islands). We don’t know why she fled, only that she believed she would find refuge in the Aran Islands. Legend states that an angel appeared to her there and told her that her place was not on Inis Oírr, and instructed Gobnait to go on a journey – to seek her true place of resurrection. “Go until you find nine white deer grazing, ” the angel told her. “It is there that you will find your place of resurrection.” So Gobnait wandered about the southern coastal counties of Ireland – Waterford, Cor, and Kerry – searching.
She saw three white deer in Clondrohid and followed them to Ballymakeera where she saw six more. But it wasn’t until she came to Ballyvourney to a small rise overlooking the River Sullane that she saw the nine white deer all together – grazing … just as the angel from Inis Oírr had prophesied. She crossed the river and settled there. She founded a religious community for women, performed memorable – some say miraculous – works, and it was there she died and was buried.
St. Gobnait’s journey from Inis Oirr to the towns in West Cork including sites in Ballyvourney – her monastic settlement, tomb, and holy well are part of the Places of Resurrection tour.
On February 11th (St. Gobnait’s feast day) she is tenderly remembered in her native region. But she has also been proclaimed by the Irish bishops to be a national saint. There are shrines and places of devotion to St. Gobnait in all the places she is believed to have stopped on her journey – including Inis Oírr. But Ballyvourney – is that special place for Gobnait… the place she felt most at home, the place where she carried out most of her ministry. And Ballyvourney is the place that draws the greatest number of pilgrims devoted to this saint.
Today there is an active church on the former monastic site. St. Gobnait’s grave and marked spots around the churchyard are places where pilgrims pause for devotion and reflection. It is here that they can do the “rounds” or turas, always moving in a clockwise direction – a tradition that has pagan roots. One of the strongest mystical draws on this site is St. Gobnait’s Holy Well, with its arched entryway that takes the pilgrim into a deeply shaded path. Just next to the well is a sturdy tree, and hanging from it are hundreds of tokens or “clooties ” that have been placed there by pilgrims hoping to leave behind a part of themselves or loved on in need of healing. There are taps and cups available for drinking from the well or for pouring into personal vessels to take holy well water home.
St. Gobnait was best known for her care of the sick. There is a legend that tells of her staving off the plague from Ballyvourney by drawing a line in sand with a stick and declaring the village “consecrated ground.” Inside the church today, there is a medieval (possibly 13th century) figure of St. Gobnait which is kept in a drawer. Every year on her feast day, the parish priest brings out the figure to celebrate a devotional tradition. He holds up the ancient figure and the faithful each step forward with a piece of ribbon. They hold the ribbon up and measure it against the length and around the circumference of the figure, then take it home as a blessed relic used for healing or further devotion.
A tall statue of St. Gobnait that was erected in the 1950s stands near the monastic site. She appears with a nun’s habit standing on a beehive surrounded by bees. Gobnait is the patron saint of beekeepers, and there are several legends recalling Gobnait forcing invaders out of Ballyvourney by setting swarms of bees upon them. It’s probable that Gobnait had a close relationship with bees and used honey in healing efforts.
Dan and I visited St. Gobnait’s monastic site many years ago. It is indeed, a thin place. The stories of St. Gobnait specifically mention a “place of resurrection.” I heard Dara Molloy use this phrase when referring to his home on Inis Mór and have seen a few authors reference the phrase. But regarding thin places … a place of resurrection is the pinnacle – that place where one’s spirit is totally whole, at home, with no longing or yearning to be anywhere else. A place of resurrection is not only the place where one’s spirit will resurrect from its lifeless body upon death, but also the place where that spirit is most alive inside the living body. And I believe that a place of resurrection is the spiritual home where one is most completely alive and able to create, to discern, to prophesy … to be wise.
The connection between the eternal world and the physical is nearly unidentifiable in a place of resurrection – as they are knitted together in an inextricable pattern where neither can be separated from the other. The place of resurrection then is unto itself the combination of both worlds particularly suited to that specific spirit. … and Ballyvourney was St. Gobnait’s place.
What is yours?
This is also the Christian feast of the Presentation of the Lord Jesus in the Temple – the 40th day of the Christmas season.
So many cultures mark this day as a day to think of spring, of the thawing of the earth, the ending of the darkness, the long nights, the coming of the light. We think of St. Brigid of Kildare – Brigid the saint who brought the light of the Word, bread for the poor, peace to the troubled and welcome to the stranger whose feast day – February 1st is part of the “light” celebration.
This is also the day I start a “Tree of the Day series” where I will post images of trees in thin places I have visit. These are special trees – fairy trees, healing trees, trees of mystery, trees associated with stories.
Today I’ll give you the tree at Tobar Bhride (Brigid’s Well) in Kildare. Local people and pilgrims from all over the world visit this well and the tree beside it bringing their prayers of devotion, special intentions and hearts full of thanksgiving for prayers answered.
As a sign of devotion, the faithful who visit the well sometimes leave a physical reminder of their prayer behind by tying a rag to the tree beside the well. Sometimes they leave something else of meaning behind – a possession of the person for whom they are praying, a photo, a prayer card. These tokens are called “clooties” and the lower branches of the Tobar Bhride tree is covered with them. Some of the clooties pull at the heart of the observer. .. pictures of sick mother, baby shoes, hair ties, little toys.
The local people who care for the well and its garden remove the clooties regularly to make way for more. According to the locals, the clooties are buried nearby. One cannot stand by the Tobar Bhride tree and not be moved. It has a quiet but powerful energy.
This tree, the holy well and the Solas Bhride center are a stop on the Discover the North, Castles & Saints and Trail of the Hag tours.
There is a fairy tree near the Grange Stone Circle has split on of the stone in two. The Grange stone circle in County Limerick is the largest in Ireland with 113 upright stones 150 feet in diameter. Many people don’t know that there is a smaller circle in the field next to the big one. And in that circle, the largest stone has a hawthorn tree growing out of it. The tree has split the stone in two and managed to thrive quite well.
Further out in the same field is a tall standing stone and the farmer says that there’s another standing stone behind that one several hundred meters, though it is not visible to the naked eye.
The tree growing out of the rock is said to be a fairy tree or a mystical tree associated with elemental beings (non-human spirits) of another realm or world…. kind of a parallel universe. There are many traditional folk tales about the fairies and how they don’t like being disturbed… and if disturbed will bring bad luck. Most Irish people will dismiss these tales as pure superstition, but at the same time, they won’t disturb them. There is a respect for the mystical.
People still come to this tree and circle and leave tokens of devotion. You can see the purple ribbon and sea shell on the stone in the photo above. The entire region around the Grange and Lough Gur has an amazingly high energy vibration. I’ve taken groups there who have lost all sense of time in that place.
The Fairy Tree near the Grange Stone Circle and the surrounding sites are featured on the Places of Resurrection tour, Images in the Landscape Tour and Western Edges Tour.