An Ecological Way of Life on Holy Island

by Nicholas Jennings, Director of Resource Development, The Holy Island Project

The Holy Island Project is the subject of a £5 million application to the UK’s Millennium Commission by the Rokpa Trust. The Trust, a registered charity, plan to build a 108 bedroom inter-faith spiritual retreat centre. The project is already gaining acclaim for its innovative approach to energy and material conservation. Andrew Wright the architect won first prize in The Bovis Royal Academy Summer Exhibition with the Holy Island design.

"Inner peace leads to world peace" is the new motto of this rugged and beautiful little island, near the Isle of Arran in the Firth of Clyde, off Scotland's west coast. Holy Island, once the hermitage of St Molaise (6th Century), is again becoming a place of pilgrimage and retreat. The Holy Island Project is dedicated to the following aims:

  • to contribute to the spiritual welfare of our time by engendering compassion and understanding
  • to promote peace and understanding in a multicultural society through interfaith dialogue
  • to conserve the environment for future generations by adopting an ecological way of life

In 1991 Lama Yeshe Losal, the Abbot of Samye Ling Tibetan Buddhist Centre in Dumfriesshire and Chairman of Rokpa Trust, was unexpectedly approached by the then owner of Holy Island, who told him of her wish to see the Island pass to someone who would respect its long spiritual heritage.

The Rokpa Trust had an increasing demand for retreat facilities at the Samye Ling Centre. Although there were no plans to buy more property, the early stages of planning an extension to their existing retreat facilities were underway. Holy Island appeared an ideal location for a retreat and the opportunity of acquiring it seemed worthy of further investigation. Lama Yeshe assisted by many able volunteers researched the uninhabited island’s spiritual heritage, environment and wildlife. What they found added to his growing conviction that Holy Island could make an exceptional contribution to the spiritual life of the nation.

A public appeal to raise the purchase price of the Island was launched. It quickly gathered momentum as the public interest in the project was of surprising dimensions. The media interest and many donations showed the Holy Island Project had struck a chord in the nation’s psyche. Fuelled by this public interest and an increasing network of supporters the idea of establishing Holy Island as a centre for spiritual retreat, inter-faith dialogue and ecological living for the coming millennium matured.

Place of Retreat

Special places of retreat and sanctuary have long been an intrinsic part of Scottish culture. They provide an opportunity for individuals to reflect on both their personal spiritual growth and their role in society. Making a pilgrimage to a place of retreat is a pattern of behaviour which is recognised throughout the world and appreciated by people of various faiths and cultures. The modern activities of tourism have an ancestry in pilgrimages and retreats. The term pilgrim now commonly connotes a religious journey but its Latin derivation from peregrinus denotes a traveller, a wanderer, as well as a newcomer. Tourist has similar Latin roots in the word tournus or lathe suggesting an individual who makes a circuitous journey - usually for pleasure - and returns to the same starting point. The contemporary use of both terms, identifying the pilgrim as a religious traveller and the tourist as a vacationer is an artificial distinction that veils the motives of the traveller’s quest.

For many centuries pilgrims came to Arran in order to make their way across the island on foot to the bay known as Lamlash and thence to Holy Island or ‘The Holy Isle’. The island was associated with a Celtic Christian saint, St Laisren or Molaise who is believed to have lived there in retreat in a cave for many years in the sixth century. There is evidence of a monastic community and it is thought that pilgrims were received hospitably there from at least the thirteenth century. Right up to modern times the people of Arran have had a special regard for the island as a place of therapeutic qualities. In particular the water of St Molaise’s well has been taken for a variety of ailments.

In April 1992 Rokpa Trust purchased Holy Island with a commitment not only to respect its ancient heritage but to actively carry it forward in a manner appropriate to the multi-faith multi-cultural society at the beginning of 3rd Millennium.

The first important expression of this commitment was to re-establish free and open public access. The second was to hold an inter-faith inauguration service at St Molaise’s cave. This was attended by senior figures in the Christian Churches, representatives of other faiths, members of the House of Lords, the House of Commons and the European Parliament.

Environmental Management

Holy Island has a small herd of nine wild Eriskay ponies, approximately fifty wild Soay sheep and fifty wild goats. Following a survey an environmental management plan was drawn up. A major theme is the re-establishment of woodland cover through regeneration and planting, control of Rhododendron incursion and balancing the grazing needs of the animals with the woodland regeneration and protection of plant communities of special interest such as the relic population of Rock Whitebeam. The environmental management provides excellent opportunities for study, practical training and volunteer involvement. A particular feature of this are the inter-faith work camps which bring people of different faith backgrounds to share in practical work. Holy Island Project is forming a partnership with Operation New World and Farnborough College to establish a long term environmental management programme linked with a training programme for young (20 - 25 years) unemployed persons leading to a National Vocational Qualification. Over thirty thousand native trees have already been planted, rhododendron control is in hand and drystone dyking and fencing along with improvements to pasture have reduced damage by feral grazing.

The environmental benefits of The Holy Island Project are in three main categories.

  • An exemplary project of sustainable living with maximum regard given to minimising the negative environmental impact of the built environment.
  • To promote and support the development of a world-wide movement to mobilise the commitment of the world’s faiths in order to bring about the changes in human activity necessary to avert ecological disaster.
  • A nature reserve with a wide range of training opportunities.

Religious Significance

The Holy Island Project will be Britain’s first large residential building designed entirely around long term ecological strategies for sustainable living. It will serve as a symbol and practical example of the religious impulse to care for the natural world in a sustainable and self-renewing framework which looks to a long term future. Such an approach has both scriptural and moral support from all the world's main religions. It mobilises creative energy springing from a positive concern for the natural world as the manifestation of that which is entirely sacred and combines this with the highest level of engineering.

The care of the moral and spiritual well being of multi-faith and secularised society can no longer be the responsibility of any one single faith. The Holy Island Project will create opportunities for the individuals and different faith groups to share a common concern for spiritual welfare. The openness of Buddhism easily disposes it to take the role as care-taker of such a project. Asoka, a 4th century Buddhist scholar, clarified the Buddhist position thus “One should not honour only one's own religion but one should also honour the religions of others. In doing so one helps one’s own religion and renders service to the religion of others”.

A religious project free from strong sectarian, political, or ethnic associations can serve as focus for positive co-operation on major issues. Unlike secular or political action it can break free of the fears around economic interest and political unpopularity.

If you are interested in more information about the Holy Island Project please contact:

Nicholas Jennings
Director of Resource Development
The Holy Island Project
Samye Ling Tibetan Centre
Eskdalemuir, Langholm
Dumfriesshire DG13 0QL
Tel: 013873 73232
Fax: 013873 73223