Experience a secluded Buddhist retreat in the Firth of Clyde

by Megan McEachern, The List, 31 January 2014

Holy Isle, located just off Arran, provides an ideal opportunity for relaxation and spiritual engagement

Firth of Clyde, Scotland (UK) -- You’d be forgiven for thinking the only way to experience a remote Buddhist monastery involves a voyage to Tibet and a trek across the Himalayas. Fortunately, if a taste of the Buddhist way of life and a secluded, spiritual retreat is something you’d rather not fly thousands of miles across the globe for, you can discover it nestled on a small island in the Firth of Clyde.

Aptly named for its spiritual heritage, which dates back to the 6th century, Holy Isle lies just off the east coast of the Isle of Arran. The 3km long island houses a Buddhist monastery, two lighthouses and The Centre for World Peace and Health where visitors can stay during the summer months (April–October).

Only 55 minutes from the Ayrshire coast to Arran, and then a further ten minutes by motor boat to Holy Isle, the island is deceptively near to civilisation. Yet it can feel disconnected from the bustle of city life as the monastery and centre look towards the mountainous peaks of Arran. The east coast of the island is unadvisable to walk to as it is reserved as a wildlife sanctuary. Unadvisable also perhaps because the view is not quite as tranquil here; the eye travels over the sea returning to the grey masses of Ayrshire’s coastal towns and Hunterston power plant.

It can be difficult locating Holy Isle’s boat ticket office: a small caravan located next to Lamlash pier on Arran. Slightly ironic, as camping and motor vehicles are two things prohibited on the island. If you're just visiting for the day, take a walk to the cave of Saint Molaise, where the holy man lived as a hermit in around 600AD. Carvings can be seen on the inner walls, mostly simple crosses and names, thought to have been made by pilgrims and Vikings in the 13th century. A healing well is found close to the cave and is thought to bring blessings to all its drinkers. The water, despite being clear, doesn’t actually meet current EU standards for drinking water, so maybe just have a splash rather than a pint.

While in some ways the day trips to the island could be seen as adhering to the growing trend of spiritual tourism, the longer stays can provide something more meaningful and engaging. The centre houses 60 beds and guests are able to participate in a number of courses, depending on the length of their stay. Yoga and meditation programmes provide opportunities for visitors to escape from the speed and complexities of their normal lives. Some activities take place outdoors in an attempt to connect more fully with nature – so bring a cardigan. Longer volunteering and retreat opportunities are also available.

The Buddhist monks and nuns who live on the island survive almost solely from what they grow in the organic vegetable garden next to the monastery. Sewage is processed using a reed bed system, resulting (impressively) in very nearly clear water being discharged into the sea. Respect for the surrounding environment is expected when visiting Holy Isle, and taking pets is frowned upon. However there is an abundance of wildlife for animal lovers. Look out especially for Eriskay ponies, Soay sheep and Saanen goats.

Holy Isle
Lamlash Bay, Isle of Arran, KA27 8GB, holyisland.org
01770 601100, reception@holyisland.org
Prices start at £28 per night, £20 if volunteering.