This last week, Martha, Merlin and I took a trip up to one of our more treasured places; The Isle of Arran.
The stunning little “Gem of the Clyde” as Billy Connoly refers or “Scotland in miniature” by many many others.
It holds many memories for us and this was actually my sixth visit. First with Mum and Dad as a teenager, then with Mair as one of our first weekends away together and then once Martha had arrived we returned as a little family in 2011 and 2012, when Mair was pregnant with Merlin and undergoing treatment
Tragically, despite having booked the same cottage again for the following summer as we left in 2012, little did we know that Mair would be taken from us 4 months later.
We did return in 2013, this time with Auntie Lou and an 11 month old Merlin, Martha and I. That visit was a time of deep reflection for all of us. Merlins first visit, Martha returning to a place she spent two wonderful summers with Mair and for Lou, the chance to see and feel the magic of this little place that had so touched Mair’s soul.
This visit came about at quite short notice as Martha simply asked one morning as we drove over Snake Pass “Daddy can we go back to the place with the Buddhas? I want to see Green Tara again” A reference to Holy Isle which sits just off the coast at Lamlash on the main Island
For some reason I had never been away with just the kids and me. I don’t really know why. Maybe the length of the journey with Merlin so young or something else I don’t know, but needless to say I said yes immediately and promptly booked our holiday.
Arriving at Ardrossan last Wednesday to get the ferry over, its hard to describe the feeling I experienced when I once again saw the skyline of Arran. Its misty peaks trying to hide from view, almost like a place you are not allowed to see fully until you are on water and away from the mainland. The rolling lowland and forest covered south of the island, the almost volcano like peak of Goatfell rising up from the coast flanked by the rest of the Arran Cuillin. A simply stunning place and one I couldn’t wait for Martha to see again and for Merlin to be able to run around on now he was older.
It is difficult to fully explain my connection to the Islands of Scotland, the feeling of overwhelming peace I feel when I am there, whether it be Skye, Mull or Arran, there is simply something there that I seldom feel anywhere else I have been.
Of course there are the reams of wonderful memories that these places hold for the children and me, but its more than that.
Its a sense of belonging and spiritual connection to the land, its stark wildness, its line sculpted by fire and ice. Its just incredible. I feel re-energised when I come to these places. Refuelled! I just feel home!
This visit though reminded me of something more and that was how wonderful the people of the island are, whether they have grown up there or whether they have moved there in later life.
Everywhere we went, we were remembered, whether it was making soap at Arran Aromatics, painting porcelain at Pots N Pieces or the Ferry Man to Holy Isle. And I don’t mean tourist swarm. I mean genuinely remembered. They remembered Merlin being on my back in the little life last time we were there, they remembered Martha and Mair going pottery painting while I took a walk up to Castail Abhail on the Cuillin, they remembered specific parts of conversations with Mair and yes, they remembered her passing from conversations with Lou and I on our return in 2013. That is special to feel from strangers, very special and only reinforces that feeling of home.
We went swimming, we spent a lovely morning on the beach at Blackwaterfoot, we had a stunning evening drive around the coast to Catacol, Pirnmill and Lochranza (where I nipped into the Arran distillery 😉 ) and of course, we went back to see the Buddhas.
Holy Isle, as I said earlier, sits just off the coast at Lamlash. It it home to the World Centre for Peace and Health, a Buddist residence which welcomes visitors to stay for a day, a week, a month or much longer. One Finnish lady we spoke to had been there 17 years. On the north of the Island there is a closed womens retreat (4 years) and on the main isle of Arran there is a mens retreat (7 years).
Now we are not buddists in the truest sense by any means but it is fair to say that we hold a lot of what it shows us very closely. Mair had attended classes for nearly three years and thus I gained interest in it as she became unwell. It helped her hugely to deal with her diagnosis and even her death, and it has helped me in no small part in the last three years to learn to cope with life without her. We don’t neccesarily talk about it very openly but it influences us in a very un-pious way.
Martha was aware of Mairs interest in Buddism, in fact to the point where she would readily take the mickey of how sometimes when she went to meditate, Mair would fall asleep, but joking aside, it clearly touched her.
My mum, when talking about Martha, has often said “that little girl has lived before” and there have been several little things that have happened over the six young years that have displayed an almost sixth sense emotionally.
She was once talking loudly at the beach at the Manjushri Centre in Ulverston about how “you must not knock my Daddy’s stack over, its precious and so are the stones”. A Buddist nun nearby, Gen La Dekyong responded and smiled saying “oh don’t worry, we’ll sit and look at it” Martha responded with (and not in a rude way) “Oh I wasn’t talking to you, I was talking to the wind”
This same nun, at a later private meeting following Mairs passing, had picked out the card of the green tara as a gift for Martha and explained its connection to weather and natural force. She remembered what Martha had said to her on the beach that day. I don’t believe in coincidence!
Going back to Arran, when we first visited Holy Isle, Martha wanted to leave an offering for Green Tara, a green jellybean. This was quite a selfless act for a 26 month old but so a connection with Green Tara was there.
Returning to the Isle in 2013, she chose to leave a headband, that Lou had just bought her, on the offering stone for Green Tara…and I left a bracelet I had got there the previous year. We also scattered Mair’s fairy dust off the coast. A kind of pilgimage some might say.
On our visit this year, we were not supposed to go over. Visiting to the island purely for walking tends to stop at the end of the season i.e. October but this year it had ended early due to poor weather.
But again, this is where the kindness of local people showed its true heart. Talking to the ferryman, I explained the reason for our visit and he took no time at all to come up with a solution. He needed to take supplies to the isle so would take us over too.
Stepping off the boat, I could just feel it all over again. That surge of tranquility to be there once again. I don’t think I have ever felt so much overwhelming love for my children as I did at that moment, seeing them tottering off, Martha explaining to Merlin that they were off to see the Buddhas. The bond between them is incredible, again spiritual.
We took a lovely walk down the coast, first coming to St Molaises Cave, then to the healing spring which they both took great pleasure in drinking from and feeling the various precious stones in its water bed through their hands, before we came to the first of the 8 buddha paintings.
Photos cannot do justice to the beauty of these rock paintings, their detail, their vibrant colour, sitting against the autumnal heather. They feel like friends. White Tara, Green Tara, Marpa, Milerapa, Gampopo, Karmapa and others. We found all of them along with the rock on which has the Tibetan symbols for Om Mane Pame Hun, the mantra Mair used when meditating and more, and which I subsequently had tattoed across my shoulders after coming in 2013.
We sat and had lunch beneath this rock, we scattered some more of Mair’s fairy dust and then returned to Green Tara.
Martha not only found the headband that she had left 2 years previous, but my bracelet was also there 🙂 The joy on her face when she found it made me well up
We all held each other tightly, closed our eyes and had a quiet moment together. In reality it was about 2 minutes but it felt like hours. Stillness around us and no sound but that of waves softly lapping against the stones beneath us. We opened our eyes again and felt free in this place.
Out came the jellybabies again and Green Tara was given a green one for each of us before we headed off again back to the boathouse.
We played on the beach, making pretend fires, stacking stones and awaited our boat back home
We had been able to do what we had travelled north for. We played, we remembered, we created memories and we bonded like never before.
What this visit to Arran has reminded me of it that we have these places. We have a wonderful, loving group of friends, family and more around us at home, and we also have these memory locked places to come to, to re-energise, to remember. The memories are here forever and again Martha coined in perfectly when she said as we left Arran, “I think I’ll be coming here when I’m a grown up Daddy” and I have no doubt she will 🙂
We don’t ever forget, we always remember. These places are in our hearts and minds for all time. Going back to our daily lives does not mean we leave anything behind, but I think there is something about a visit like this that reminds us that despite the tragedy we have been through, we are also incredible fortunate. We have a good life, we are surrounded by love.
Martha asked me a question the other night randomly. She asked whether we were rich, poor or somewhere in the middle. I just responded with instinct and said “We are rich in everything that you cannot but with money” She looked at me puzzled, but then smiled and placed her head on her pillow 🙂
As we left on the ferry on Saturday to journey home, the cloak of mist once again descended around the island, its mysterious looking peaks, its rolling landscape locked away once again 🙂 A secret Isle 🙂
Om Mane Pame Hun – Avalokiteshvara please bestow upon me the attainment of complete purity, Enlightenment