FAITH IN COWAL
Argyll in the west of Scotland where the lush green tip of the Mull of Kintyre reaches out to touch Ireland and 'the beauties of heaven unfold by the sea'*, is a land of saints, of ancient monasteries, and even older duns. Here Gaelic Christianity first set foot on mainland Britain and from here, with the holy enchantment of Iona about his feet, Aidan set out to rekindle the fire of Christ in Northumbria. Here too Fintan Munnu, the son of Tulchán, on his way home from Iona to Ireland, founded a monastery in the Cowal Peninsula where the River Eachaig flows into a small sea loch. Today we call it the Holy Loch.
Cowal is bordered and shaped by lochs and the sea. Loch Fyne separates it from Kintyre and the Firth of Clyde from the Glasgow metro area. To the north-east lie Loch Long and Loch Goil, and to the south Loch Striven and Loch Riddon. Unlike the orderly pastoral scenes of the Scottish borders or the bleak, often treeless highlands and islands, Argyll has a magnificent varied landscape of oak and conifer forests, countless waterfalls, holy springs, and Atlantic beaches. Here there are the vestiges of Iron Age settlements, of Christian communities perhaps older than Iona, standing stones, Celtic crosses, ruined chapels, and holy wells seeping up from a pre-Christian past. Here are places, to borrow from T S Eliot, where prayer has been made valid and continues to be, as people, whose longing for God and 'otherness' is no longer fulfilled by what is on offer in many churches, seek out quiet places where the lines of God's first book are still legible.
There are four Bride dedications in Cowal, including a holy well in Dunoon, and Saint Bride's Hermitage is overjoyed to be a late fifth. We believe the hermitage is on land that belonged to (or was very near) the monastery of Fintan Munnu whom Columcille thought too able, too holy, to be a mere monk on Iona and believe we were brought here by his prayers.
'Faith In Cowal' is an initiative to encourage people to make pilgrimages to the sacred sites of this part of Argyllshire to reconnect with their Christian past – and bring it into their present. The Arrochar Alps create a wild and remote landscape to the north; and the great trees of the Argyll Forest Park spreading across the hillsides and mountain passes with its towering firs 200ft high invokes images of the great Russian wilderness, and ask us to imagine the hermit cells of years past; to prayerfully recall the men and women, whether solitaries or in communities, monastic or married, who once dedicated this land to God and whose holiness has worked with God himself to make it so deeply conducive to prayer today.
Please take time to read the Faith In Cowal pages and, if you can, consider a pilgrimage to one of our holy places. And remember Eliot again, prayer is more than an order of words. Trying to pray can feel like an incoherent jumble of random feelings but all it needs is for us to place ourselves in the presence of God with an open heart. If we do that then a single word, a candle, or wee white stone dropped in a holy well on a hillside becomes a means of connection with Him.
*From The Dark Island by David Silver.