Sailing in the wake of Saints and Scholars - the Celtic Connection

26 Jul 2016

There is no region historically richer than the west of Ireland and Scotland. Prehistoric man built massive stone structures and the Celts built thousands of ringforts. But no group had more influence than the Christians who followed, building monasteries and carving high crosses while illuminating manuscripts on vellum. Thankfully, they left behind evidence of their endeavours; even today we can follow in their wakes, sailing these same waters that remain almost untouched by time.

It is on the northwest coasts of Ireland and Scotland that the survival of Christianity was ensured. Saint Patrick, Saint Bridget and Saint Columba, Ireland's patron saints, carried the message of Christianity to the Celtic people via coastal routes. Saint Columba, or Colmcille in Irish, brought Christianity to the pagan Picts and Gaelic Scoti in Scotland, and established Iona, one of the holiest early Christian settlements. Saint Brendan the Navigator was even reputed to have sailed across the Atlantic to America in a traditional vessel called a currach, still used by fishermen today.

Malin Head - Star Wars Film Location - Donegal

Sailing from Ireland to Scotland, one can easily follow the trail of the ancient Christian trade routes northward and Viking raiders southward in succession. Many of the islands and headlands around the northwest of Ireland are littered with remains of early Christian settlements; their shelters and churches, as well as carved crosses and slabs, were often destroyed by the Vikings who followed to plunder their riches.

There is no better to way to explore their way of life than by small boat, the way they did, seeing the land and sea from their perspectives. From Malin Head – recently the film set of the latest Star Wars movie in Donegal – to Iona and beyond, the coastal islands make history come alive. It is awe-inspiring to stand beside a cross carved by a saint almost 1500 years ago.

Remote Tory Island has some of the more interesting remains, including a round tower, St. Bridget’s oratory, and a Tau cross, one of only two in Ireland. Inishmurray in Donegal Bay has a high concentration of early Christian remains, including a well-preserved Cashel and beehive huts. Unfortunately, both islands have tenuous harbours and should only be visited by boat in settled conditions. Tory also can be reached by ferry from Magheroarty and Bunbeg, and Inishmurray is accessible by tour boat from Sligo.

Iona in Scotland is the mecca of early Christian settlements, where Saint Columba established an important community in 563 AD. Its scriptorium is where the ancient texts of the Christian scriptures were preserved: you can feel the spirituality as soon as you step on the hallowed ground. It is small wonder that many kings of Europe chose to spend their remaining days on earth there and to be buried there, including Macbeth. The remarkable illuminated manuscript of the Book of Kells was held in Iona (and perhaps even created there) until being removed to Kells for safekeeping after the arrival of the Vikings. It is now displayed at Trinity College in Dublin.

It is best to arrive in Iona by private vessel so one can experience the sacred island in the absence of crowds, but it is safest only in settled conditions and with good ground tackle. The strong reversing current in the channel can become very uncomfortable and even dangerous if the weather turns. Fortunately, there are sheltered and interesting anchorages nearby.

Alternatively, one can take a ferry from Mull to Iona and pass by the remarkable basalt columns of Staffa and Fingal’s Cave. Several cruise lines also offer visits to Iona as part of a Scotland tour, including Fred Olsen, West Coast Tours, and Staffa Tours.

However you choose to go, do not pass these places up. You will be awed and inspired by this cradle of Christianity.