Anthropology: Scotland’s Holy Isle and Its Culture of Spirituality

In Firth of Clyde, Scotland, the Holy Isle sits like an isolated, hazy dream across the waters from Lamlash village on the larger Isle of Arran. The island is 2 miles long and less than a mile wide. However, the island has a history of holy springs, hermit monk caves, a 13th-century monastery, Viking runic writing, and Buddhism. The Holy Isle is a sacred site with a history of spiritualism since the 6th-century. On the Isle, tourists see wild ponies and goats. Gardens tended by Buddhists, and multi-faith residents are next to nature reserves and sacred sites. Visitors find complimentary tea and coffee at the Information Center, where a volunteer will explain the many walks around the Isle. Longer stays are available to visitors who would like to make a retreat on the Isle.

The spiritual retreats, native tree planting reserves, and gardens result from The Holy Isle Project. This project is lead by Lama Yeshe Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation master in the Kagyu tradition. However, the island is open to Buddhists and non-Buddhists. In fact, the aim of the project and its retreats is to provide an inclusive and multi-faith refuge. Before the Buddhist presence on the Isle, it was formerly a sacred place for Celtic Christians. The Christians would come to pray, meditate and practice a life of solitude and monastic living. Both Christians and Buddhists believe the island has a sacred purpose, and despite religious differences, they meet on this common ground.

pray flags represent the Buddhist history of The Holy Isle
Pray Flags on the Holy Isle

The early history of the Holy Isle

The Holy Isle’s history with spirituality began with the tale of Saint Molaise. Also known as Saint Molios or Saint Laisren, he lived from 70-640AD. The legend is that Saint Molaise’s bathwater gave a blind man back his eyesight after he used it for bathing. He was a hermit in a cave on the isle. He lived this way to enjoy quiet contemplation and meditation. The cave overlooks the harbor of the mainland because he wanted to be seen and live by example.

Not far from the entrance, crystal clear, blue-tinged water bubbles in a spring. People say it has healing or holy properties when drunk or splashed over the face. Beautiful crystal clear pools like this are widespread across Scotland, and the landscape is famous for them. There is some evidence that a monastery existed on the Isle from the 13th – 15th – century. Also, the inside of Saint Molaise cave has old Viking runic writing. Vikings moored between the Holy Isle and the mainland before the Battle of Largs.

The practice of being a religious hermit, called ‘peregrinatio’ in the early Celtic church, was so practitioners could withdraw from their homeland. Inspired by Biblical stories of similar practices in Egypt and the Middle East, being a hermit was common for monks. All across the Western Islands, including in Ireland and Britain, there is a tradition of Holy Islands. These isolated places were sanctuaries for prayer and monastic life.

A wild ponie roams around the Holy Isle
Wild ponies roam the Holy Isle

Inhabitants of the island

Today, the Holy Isle continues its history as a sacred site. In 1992, the Isle was gifted to Tibetan Monks by its Catholic owner. Now the Holy Isle belongs to the Samye Ling Buddhist Community, who are Kayu Tibetan Buddhists. As the boat from the mainland approaches the Isle, we see Tibetan prayer flags at the visitor center. The Centre for World Peace and Health is also on the Isle. Tibetan Prayer flags adorn the inside of Saint Molaise cave. . The Isle has a melancholy but peaceful atmosphere with dark green hills and silver-grey clouds over the skyline.

Tranquil water surrounds you everywhere you turn, and the Isle is far away from the noise of the already quiet mainland. As you wander one of the island’s many walking trails, you may spot one of the island’s 30 residents tending to the gardens and nature reserves. Many of these residents have taken a month’s long vow of silence. Knowing this adds to the mystic and still feeling that people come to the island to experience. The Isle is home to many wild animals, and beautiful silver wild ponies roam free, unafraid of attention from visitors. Some goats and sheep also call the island home and wander freely.

Anyone is welcome to inhabit the Holy Isle, provided they abide by the ‘5 Gold Rules.’ The rules are; 1) to respect life and refrain from killing. 2) to respect other people’s property and refrain from stealing, 3) to speak the truth and refrain from lying, 4) to encourage health, and refrain from intoxicants (including alcohol, cigarettes/vapes, and drugs 5) to respect others and refrain from sexual activity that causes harm

A Buddhist lama on the Holy Isle
A Buddhist lama in traditional clothing

The meeting of Buddhism and Celtic Christianity

Despite the history of Buddhism and Christianity on the Holy Isle, it is not a monastery. However, the idea is that the Isle is a place for people of all backgrounds and religions to come and find peace. There is an emphasis on sustainability, treating the island with respect, and being custodians of all its inhabitants. Rather than any conflict of spirituality being present, the Tibetan Buddhists believe Saint Molaise’s legacy gives the Isle a rich history of monastic practice. They aim to honor and continue this. In fact, to honor the Isle’s Tibetan custodians, a multi-faith ceremony took place. A Cistercian Abbot at the ceremony noted that both Buddhism and Catholicism have a history of monastic practice and that he was grateful to the Buddhist community for continuing this.

The Holy Isle is an interesting example of the exchange of culture and practices. Everywhere you look on the Holy Isle, there is a mixture of spiritual beliefs. For example, the Celtic Christian Saint Molaise’s cave is now decorated with Tibetan prayer flags. Pray flags are colorful squares of cloth with woodblock prints on them that bless the surrounding area. They have a long history in Tibetan Buddhism. Not far from where Viking writing has been etched into stone, a rock painting of the Buddhist deity Green Tara can be found. The moody, cold landscape of Scotland provides a unique backdrop for the vastly different Buddhist artwork.

Buddhists drink from fresh Scottish stream on the Holy Isle
Buddhists enjoy the fresh Scottish streams

How to visit the Holy Isle

The only way to get to the Holy Isle is to catch a boat from the small village of Lamlash. The village overlooks the harbor and directly faces the Holy Isle, providing postcard-worthy views. However, as Lamlash is located on the larger Isle of Arran, you must travel to Arran via Ardrossan on the mainland. Ardrossan is easily reached by train from Glasgow. Is this beginning to sound like quite an adventure around all of Scotland? Well, it may be. However, it is well worth it to experience the peace and history of the Holy Isle.

Once disembarking from the ferry in Brodick on the Isle of Arran, you will find a bus to Lamlash. However, if you are feeling adventurous, it is not uncommon for visitors to hitchhike the five-minute drive from Brodick to Lamlash. The island is small, safe, and full of friendly locals who will help you get to where you need to be, provided you can understand the thick Scottish brogue. You do not need to rush to the Holy Isle, as the village of Lamlash itself is beautiful to visit. At the Lamlash pub, the Pierhead Tavern, you can find a hearty meal and local ale to warm you before heading to the boat. However, be careful to take a boat, as only one will depart from the village per day.

A rock paiting of the Buddhist deity Green Tara represents the history of the island
Rock painting of the Buddhist deity Green Tara

Religious Syncretism in anthropology

In anthropology, the history of the Holy Isle is an example of what is called ‘religious syncretism.’ This is when two entirely separate and distinct traditions or sets of beliefs merge to allow for harmony, making political and cultural progress. The term can be applied to theology, art, myth, and religion. When separate cultures or religions can seem oppositional, finding common ground and appreciating others allows for social cohesion. Although this is particularly common in the arts, religion, and language, the term can be applied more broadly to social structure and politics. However, not all cultures view the term syncretism positively and think of it as a bad influence. Some like to maintain and protect their unique traditions. However, many anthropologists think that influence from other cultures is largely unavoidable.

Other anthropologists believe that two cultures residing closely together do not always result in syncretism, and we must carefully use the term. They also note that syncretism must be viewed in terms of power relations also. Usually, syncretism occurs, an imbalance occurs, and one group holds more influence over the other. Thus, syncretism is a complex and multi-faceted concept that needs to be studied carefully.

Syncretism can be intentional or unintentional. It is important when examining the concept to make this distinction. In the case of the Holy Isle, as an example of syncretism, it appears intentional. The Buddhist community on the Isle have maintained their unique practices and beliefs while adopting an appreciation of the islands island’s Celtic Christian history.

Saint Molaise cave now has Tibetan pray flags in it
Saint Molaise cave with Tibetan prayer flags

Why is syncretism important for the Holy Isle?

The history of the Holy Isle is important to anthropologists as it holds history and stories from many different parts of a tiny place. As anthropologists, our job is to study culture and people not as static or unchangeable systems, but rather as flexible and changing over time. The Isle is an example of how art, religion, and culture can merge and make systematic changes to that specific time and place. Buddhism originally found its way to Scotland due to its imperialist connections with South East Asia. The Scottish interest in Buddhism was cultural and academic. In 1881, Thomas William Rhys formed The Pali Text Society to encourage the translation and study of Pali texts. Pali is the language in which some of the oldest Buddhist texts are written.

This scholarly interest in Buddhism continued all the way up until interest in Zen Buddhism began in the 1950s among non-academic societies. Many of the British and European adoptions of Buddhist or Asian culture have a basis in imperialism and colonialism. Edward H. Said’s book, Orientalism,¬†breaks down how Europe exoticized and fetishized Asian culture. Orientalism is a word used to describe Asian culture in a stereotyped way from a colonial gaze. Many Asian cultures were considered sensual and archaic and the antithesis to Christian morality and rationality. Asian and Middle Eastern practices were depicted in art and literature in a romantic style closer to Greek Classical styles. This creates stereotypes and idealizations of other cultures whilst also politically oppressing them.

Anthropologists such as Nancy Scheper-Hughes have noted that anthropology has a history of working through colonial systems without intending to. For this reason, she suggests a ‘moral model’ of anthropology, in which we seek to aid with decolonization by collaborating with cultures.

pray flags on the Scottish hills represent history of the Holy Isle
Tibetan pray flags on the Scottish landscape

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

Thus, in recent years, decolonization has become an important part of anthropological thought. This is also why anthropologists encourage us to consider power relations where there are examples of syncretism. The history of the Holy Isle is at once a reminder of colonial history and domination and a symbol of cultural appreciation. In handing over the custodianship of the Holy Isle from the Catholics to the Buddhists, it is a means of making amends for inappropriately adopting Buddhist tradition in the past. Today, anthropologists always try to adopt this attitude when studying other cultures. Many classical anthropologists collected data from the ‘Orient’ without considering the impact imperialism was having on their work. The Holy Isle is an example of the collaboration of culture instead of the appropriation of it. It is also an example of how to appreciate other cultures.

The Holy Isle is also an example of how religions and cultures can collaborate to change and create new practices. For example, the emphasis on conservation on the island is of great significance to the Buddhist community. They have dedicated themselves to the maintaining of native trees and the eradication of non-native plants. The aim is to create a refuge where the community lives in harmony with nature, Christianity, and its complex history of oppression and discrimination. Thus, the Holy Isle is not only a refuge but also an act of decolonization. When we study history and anthropology, we must always acknowledge how all kinds of reconciliation live with a history of oppression or an imbalance of power.

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