An Enchanted voyage, a pilgrimage of song

 

Astern were the twinkling lights of Carnlough nestling in the dark land mass that makes up the glens of Antrim. Above was a starry array and very big creamy full moon starting its night ascent. The boat rolled gently, there was a salty sea smell on the air. It was a heightened moment for we had cast off the ropes that connected us to one world and were voyaging into another.

 

Our voyage was special, for it came from a matrix made of many magical elements.

 

There was the boat itself. Winny, built with best timbers and fine craftsmen in the nineteenth century. It is a boat rich with a varied maritime history. The admiralty, Irish revolutionaries family people and mystics have all used it for their various purposes. It has inspired caring love and has given great happiness to many. There are its more recent voyages north of the Mull of Kintyre where it discovered an exquisite world. A place where the interplay of light, colour, shape and movement creates an extra ordinary beauty. There were the connections made with some of the communities that had established themselves in this world. Of old these islands were places made holy by druidic and Christian remembrance.

 

Now in this age, new communities have established themselves to again acknowledge and celebrate a sense of the Holy. There are the Buddhists of Holy Island in the Clyde, the people of Erraid near the Ross of Mull, loosely connected to Findhorn. There is the Iona Community based in and around the monastery of St Colomba. All are vigorously reviving new versions of old spiritual practices. All these places offer hospitality to enable visitors to experience a deeper sense of what it is to be alive. Over the years a desire grew to celebrate this place in song. To this end a crew were assembled.

 

This crew was mainly inspired by the Baha’i tradition. The Bahai’s see all things as an evolving movement both physical and spiritual. To them all spiritual traditions represent a differing senses and understandings of holiness. The desire of this voyage was to translate the natural beauty of the area into improvisational form of music. Poetically speaking the voyage was both pilgrimage and the creation of a song line that linked Ireland Scotland, Buddhists, Christians, ‘New Agers’ and all who were met in a sonically holy embrace.

 

The outcome would also be a CD. Baha’is say that there are many names can be ascribed to God. One of these names is the ‘Ancient Beauty’. Being bathed in the outer ancient beauty was, for this crew, a way of enabling a musical meditation and remembrance of the inner Ancient Beauty.

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A pilgrimage is a way of submission to the Will of God. One opens oneself to the mercy of the universe. It is a leap into an unknown. In front adventure, behind safety. On the sea there is that extra dimension, that ever present threat of danger. This gives a sea pilgrimage a rich edge, a heightened sense of reality. Beyond the harbour there is only us and the resources of the boat, and the Grace of God. What would our pilgrimage bring? Would blessings come in the form of tests or in the form of gifts?

 

That night as the engine hummed with its own reassuringly familiar rhythm, the signs were auspicious. Eight hours in front was the safety of the harbour of Troon. There is a quality about a night passage, darkness colours the imagination allowing different forms of closeness. In good company it can be a time of heart sharing. For this first part of the voyage we were three old friends with a lot of catching up to do. As we gently swooshed along, keeping watch, seeing lights flashing on the horizon, noting the passing half seen outlines of land and islands, there was lots of sharing and a great senses of our grace to be alive and awake.

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The Winny reached Troon the following midday. Four of our singing crew were waiting for us. Gear was stowed, instruments loaded and we set course for the Holy Island. The wind was on the nose, the sea lumpy, so motoring was the order of the afternoon. For some it was their first taste of the sea. How would they respond? Happily as Winny’s solid beam rocked and rolled through the waves, waves that occasionally showering us with spray. The crew found a new kind of poetry. There was nothing but laughter and exhilaration.

 

The sun was low as we arrived off the old light house buildings where the Buddhists maintain their disciplines of retreat. We stopped engine, and in the contrasting quietness of the gathering twilight we sang the first song of our cruise. As the colours of the sky became richer so too did the intricacies of our improvisation. Two song hours later we dropped hook off the other end of the Island.

 

The next morning some went ashore to visit the holy man’s cave. On their return we sailed back to the retreat house. Shortly Winny was full of assorted people, some fresh from retreat, others helpers to those on retreat. Some were old friends, for most years Winny drops by this island and takes all who wish on an island circumambulation. This was another beautiful meeting. Old acquaintances were renewed and new friendships made, coffee was drunk and news swapped. It was all very sweet. Too soon we had to make our departure. Before our goodbyes all joined in an improvised song that celebrated our meeting. Winny’s crew and our Buddhist visitors sang in perfect harmony.

 

Ardrisaig and the Crinan canal was our next port of call. We wanted to be in the canal basin before the locks closed for the night. The passage was uneventful, and memorable only because the sun shone, the spirits were light, and the crew were able to explore and settle into the rhythms of the ship.

 

Shadows were lengthening when we tied up in the Ardrisaig Basin. Shortly afterwards our crew was complete when my wife Rosie arrived with the serious recording equipment, a digital audio tape recorder. As the sun set generating an array of beautiful colours, supper was enjoyed and we set up the equipment. Sitting in Winny’s main cabin we made the sound of the completed crew. It was a long gentle improvised hum, rich in layers of harmony and overtone. It spoke of an easy musical unity. It also told of the excellence of Winny’s main saloon as a recording studio.

 

The next day musicians had to become boatmen. We were negotiating the twenty or so locks of the Crinnan canal. As people familiar with this canal know, vigilance is needed if the gushing waters are not going to take charge of the rising boat and swing it dangerously around. Winny, twelve or so tons topped and tailed with bowsprit and bumpkin is particularly dangerous, both to herself and others..

 

This was going to be a test of crew character! Happily it was a test that the crew passed. As confidence grew, our progress became an occasion for drumming and improvised sea shanties. The rain failed to dampen spirits, and crews on the other boats that travelled with us got into the spirit of celebration! By mid afternoon we were in Crinnan. The rest of the day was spent getting to know each other musically. Musical enthusiasms were shared, songs were swapped, different treatments of songs were tried. Between us was a sufficient difference of styles and tastes to make this sharing rich. Steve was a guitarist who can play and sing nearly any Beatles song ever written. Richard was fresh from conducting a performance of Baha’i choral music which he had composed. He also played a mean fiddle. Rosie`s repertoire of Scottish and English folk songs is endless. Jody, was just back from a year in Africa, and had learnt a number of tribal African songs, Poppy’s contribution was a natural capacity for creative improvised singing, Kathryna had a fantastic sense of rhythm and was a consummate bodhran player. Tim was choreographer dancer and percussionist. That night guitar, flutes, fiddle and voices combined with near miraculous harmony. Later again contact was made with some people on a nearby boat with Christian persuasions. Discussions and sharing went deep into a very starry night.

 

It was pure sunshine the next day, Crinnan basin was a picture of bright colours and relaxed tourists. Our leaving was delayed by a further mechanical hitch, the starter solenoid had packed. Happily the Crinnan boat yard had a suitable replacement. By mid day the engine reliably fired and we were ready for the off. As some know, the waters of the Clyde are tame in comparison with the waters North of the Mull of Kintyre. This is a place of surging bubbling whirlpools and tide rips, where contrariness of wind to tide can make for massive wave turbulence, where islands, because of their relative lack of accessibility are remote. Where the landscape is purified by an ancient and relentless battering of wind rain and sea. For those who are called by wilderness it is a supremely beautiful place, a beauty made more intense by the ever changing play of light. This is a land full dangerous natural hazards, hazards that respect no human timetables.

 

 

Our destination was the Garvelloch Islands. The South Western Island is the site of a sixth century monastic settlement probably founded by St Brendon, kinsman of St Colomba. Story tells that when life got too hectic in Iona St Colomba would come here for spiritual restoration. A northerly wind gusted as we approached, heightening the vividness of colours. We skirted the island and found anchorage between the rocky island outcrops. Ashore we found an eighth century round hermit’s cell with thick stone walls but open to the sky. Sitting with in we made an extraordinary low extended hum augmented by the melodies of fiddle in a rich minor key Not only did we seem to be in communion with the very rocks of the island but also with all the spirits that had ever lived there. As the music came to its natural end the inner silence was decorated by flurries of wind and distant cries of seagulls.

 

One became aware of the smells of damp rock, peat, and the rich aroma of the island’s flora. For some it was an unforgettable moment. Later again we went to the body of the ruined monastery and chanted Alleluia. It was another moment of a timeless ancient connection.

 

Shadows lengthened, we set course for the Island of Mull. The wind had strengthened from the north,. gusting up to force 6. We anchored inside the Carsaig islands. As we settled for the night the boat yawed to an irregular rhythm Our sleep was disturbed by those evocative sounds of water lapping against the hull and wind humming through rigging.

 

 

The next day was sunlit and the wind gentle.. We upped anchor before breakfast, and sailed slowly west. There is a deep satisfaction in feeling the power of the wind fill sail and move the boat on its journey. Soon , with freshening wind, we were surging and frothing through a calm bright blue sea. In terms of colour, progress down this coast is always from heavy greens and dark greys to a luminosity of golden browns and lighter greens . From the western headland of Ardlanish bay the granite rock takes on a pinkish hue. On a sunny day these colours are made more remarkable by splashes of white sandy beaches and an intentness of blue sea. By lunch we were entering Balfour bay on Erraid. On a sunny day this cove has a pure Mediterranean feel. This day it was looking its very best. One of our crew members, Kathryna, Maltise by birth, felt immediately at home..

 

 

Erraid is home to a small community of people linked to the Findhorn Foundation. They offer hospitality to people who wish to experience a soul relationship with life on the western seaboard. Many years back, before the island was under present ownership, Rosie had lived here as caretaker. Friends of hers discovered an extraordinary subterranean cavern. This cavern is now a place where people visit to get a sense of ‘island rockiness’. We wanted to visit to explore its acoustic qualities. A scouting party went to discover its whereabouts. Eventually it was found tucked away in a very inaccessible location. However finding ourselves with out light and confronted by a cavern inky in its unpenetratable blackness, we decided that cavern music making must wait for another time.

 

Later that afternoon we sailed round to Tinker’s Hole. There were a few boats already moored for the night. Not wanting to disturb, we went through to the other side of Tinkers to a place where one has direct view of the setting sun. Sun sets in this part of the world can be good. In clear skies the many rocky islands become beautifully silhouetted. The contrast of these dark shapes with the colourful brightness of the dying sunlight can create a spectacular beauty. We were blessed with just such a sunset. It became an occasion to drum. As well as conventional drums every object, hull, cabin top, winch handle, teapot or anything suitable that came to hand became a percussion instrument. As that glorious orange ball sunk slowly below a Hugh horizon of pinks blues and yellows

 

Winny and her crew became shamans of ecstatic rhythm.

 

The next morning Winny was away early. Our destination was Orans Chapel on Iona. This small stone building is met just before one reaches the Abby. As well as expressing a Spartan and beautiful simplicity it has a wonderful acoustic. We sang and played the dawn; prayers were spoken and chanted, fiddle flute and guitar echoed most inspiringly. It was very very serene. The elation experienced inside was matched by the beauty outside. Here there was another kind of beauty, a beauty that continually recreates itself through the interplay of light colour and shape. It is not surprising that St Colomba felt that here he could make his spiritual home,or that so many people continue to visit and find inspiration and renwal.

 

After breakfast we sailed across the sound to Fionnphort to meet with a Scottish contingent of singers. We were not sure who those would be. In mind was a concert in Fingal’s cave and there was an open invitation to a group of friends and their friends. First on board was Alex Reed and his wife Parvise. They had travelled form the East coast. He had recently come from opening the Scottish parliament with a rendition of a selection of Baha’i holy writings sung in Gaelic. Next to come was a small pipe player, David Grant. David was remarkable in so far as he was recently returned from a seven year journey round the world with his wife and children. Their mode of transport was a horse drawn caravan. (The account of his travels have been published under the title ‘The Seven year Hitch’!)

 

The next to arrive was Christina and her daughter. Christina is a Gaelic speaker originally from Barra. Together they bought a whole new dimension of musicality to our ensemble. It was extraordinary listening to the range and subtleties of their Gaelic and Hebridean lilts.

 

The glass was rising, the whole area was bathed in a bright sunshine, the sea was calm. It was undoubtedly a day to visit Staffa and its famous cave. Fingal’s cave is ‘a must’ in a list of places to visit. Descriptions do not do it justice . Suffice to say that it is big, and that it has a wonderful echo. Its name in galic translates as ‘melodious cave” To day it was looking its spectacular self. We disembarked and set up recording equipment.. In the following hour or so there was a feast of music. Gaelic lilts and bardic songs were followed by east European style violin solos. Set musical harmonies were followed by flute meditation. In the background the gentle but immensely powerful Atlantic created a constant but quiet ebbing and flowing of roaring waves. Our finale was an extraordinary improvised chant to which all contributed. It was part Tallis, part Hilliard Ensemble, part Mongolian humi overtone , part Hebridean lilt. It seemed to bring together water rocks and sounds into one glorious filigree of unity.

 

Later en route for the Bull Hole Winny met ‘ Kite.’ Old friends Nigel Burgess and family were on board. We tied up together on her mooring. In the ensuing still evening supper and ceilidh bought us deep into the wee small hours.

 

The next day was a stinker, mist rain and lots of wind. It was a taste of what the week might have been. We were shown our great good fortune!

 

The final gathering of the voyage took place that night in the Burgess’s barn. It was what Baha’is like to describe as a Unity Feast. There were prayers, poetry, readings, songs, dance and excellent food. It was yet another way of bringing together and celebrating the richness of the world’s diverse cultures. It turned into a true a feast and was hugely enjoyed by all.

 

The next day there was a time of parting. Half the crew had to re-enter the normal world and be at their workstations on the following Monday. This was a bitter sweet moment. Long hugs, final hum and fond good buys were made. All knew that we had participated in a journey and pilgrimage of extraordinary alchemical magic. The grace had been immense. There had been countless blessing, countless wonder-full moments, an extraordinary unity between the crew. And so the pilgrimage ended. Winny made her passage back to Carnlough.

 

For all it had been a unique time . Our experiences left not only an intense memory which bonds the crew in an eternal closeness but also a hugely evocative and musically interesting CD.

 

The questions which came with the start of the pilgrimage had been answered: Our pilgrimage had been hugely blessed with the richest of enchantments.