Tilly update
Tilly update

"Into the Woods" series, 49: Wanderers & Wilderness

Soay, St Kilda, Outer Hebrides, Scotland


Like Robert Macfarlane (in Monday's post), Sara Maitland is fascinated by the peregrini: the early Celtic Christian monks and mystics who set out alone in small, flimsy boats, seeking solitude, nature, and God on the most remote islands of Britain.

"On island after island," she writes in A Book of Silence, "the more isolated and far-flung the better -- on St. Kilda, on the Farnes, on the Shiants, throughout the Hebrides and the northern islands, off the coast of Ireland, around Iceland and possibly even North America -- the traces of hermits can be found. This history is confused and uncertain, but originating in Ireland in the fifth century, there was a well-developed form of Christian spirituality which valued the silent eremitical vocation extremely highly.

A ''cleit'' (stone hut) on St Kilda

"In Britain, the most famous such voluntary exile was Columba, who left Ireland in the mid sixth century and crossed the Irish Sea to become first a hermit and later a missionary and founding father based on the tiny island of Iona, which is just to the west of Mull. His community later spread across Scotland and converted north-east England as well, but he was by no means unique: over the next several centuries hermits settled alone or in tiny communities all over western Scotland and further afield too....These adventures were known in Ireland as 'green martydoms' -- to distinguish them from the 'red martyrdom' of being slain, shedding blood for the faith. To leave home and travel out beyond civilization was a martyrdom (the word means 'witness'), death of the ego, a self-giving that seems absolute."

Iona by Torsten Henning

Shetland ponies on the Isle of Foula

"We do not know very much about the spiritual theology of these early hermits," Maitland continues. "Their lives are lost in legend and story, their physical markers faded or wiped out by the wildness of the places where they dwelt."

One of these hermits was St. Cuthbert, bishop of the monastery on Lindisfarne, a center of Celtic Christianity in the Farne Islands off the Northumbrian coast. A great lover of nature, he issued regulations to his monks for the special protection of Eider Ducks, which are called Cuddy Ducks ("Cuthbert's Ducks") to this day. He retired to live an austere and solitary life on Inner Farne Island in 676, and died there in 687.

Lindisfarne Abbey and St Marys by Russ Hamer

Cuddy Ducks

Sara Maitland explains that we know more about St. Cuthbert than most other Christian hermits because he was personally known and loved by Bede, author of The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. "But what interested Bede is somewhat different than what interests me," writes Maitland. "So, for example, Bede records that Cuthbert would pray all night standing up to his neck in the frigid waters of the North Sea and, indeed, when he emerged otters would come and warm him with their tongues and fur. This combination of the ferociously ascetic and the miraculous engages Bede, for what he is writing about is the ultimate form of something so obvious to him that he never says anything about what Cuthbert thought he was trying to achieve, nor about the content of those prayers.

Otter, Farne Islands

Grey seal & newborn calf, The Farne Islands, Northumberland

"It is not until rather later, from the tenth to twelfth centuries, that we begin to get accounts that attempt to explain what the island hermits were seeking, in the beguiling poetry of the Irish monks:

"Delightful I think it to be in the bosom of an isle, on the peak of a rock, that I might often see there the calm of the sea. That I might see its heavy waves over the glittering ocean, as they chant a melody to their Father on their eternal course. That I might see its smooth strand of clear headlands, no gloomy thing; that I might hear the voice of its wondrous birds, a joyful tune. That I might hear the sound of the shallow waves against the rocks; that I might hear the cry by the graveyard, the noise of the sea. That I might see its splendid flocks of birds over the full-watered ocean; that I might see its mighty wales, greatest of wonders. That I might see its ebb and its flood-tide in their flow; that this might be my name, a secret I tell, "He who turned his back on Ireland." That contrition of heart should come upon me as I watch it; that I might bewail my many sins, difficult to declare. That I might bless the Lord who has power over all, heaven with its pure host of angels, earth, ebb, flood-tide."

Birds on the Farne Islands by Bob Jones

Puffins on The Farne Islands by Joe Cornish

Unlike Maitland and the hermit monks she admires, I am not a Christian, and I certainly don't live an isolated life, yet my morning prayers on Nattadon Hill aren't so different from those of the nature-loving peregrini:

Delightful I think it to be in the green hills of Devon, climbing through bracken and blackberries to the granite peaks above, that I might often see the sheep-dotted fields, and the grey tors of Dartmoor beyond. That I might hear the wind singing in the trees, a choir of oak, ash, rowan, and beech; and the bells of the village church; and the bleating lambs; and the hooting of owls in the woods. That I might see this hillside covered in bluebells, stitchwort, and foxgloves, no gloomy thing; and that I might hear the voice of its rooks and its robins, a joyful tune. That I might see the badgers live undisturbed; and the small red deer, shyest of wonders; and watch wild ponies graze in the tall grass as they flow between valley and moor. That I come nameless to this hill, no more, no less than others creatures here, living quietly, gently upon its slopes. That I walk these paths with respect, attentiveness, open eyes, open ears, open heart. That I might bless Mystery within all of us; and my good neighbors, human and nonhuman alike; and the air, the water, the fire, the earth, ebb and flood-tide. Mitakuye oyasin.

Meldon Hill viewed from Nattdon Hill

Wildflowers in spring, Nattadon Hill

Young Dartmoor ponyWords: The quotes by Sara Maitland are from A Book of Silence (Granta, 2009), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author. Pictures: The last three photographs above are mine, taken here in Chagford: Meldon Hill viewed from Nattadon Hill, a pathway on lower Nattadon, and a very young Dartmoor pony on the village Commons. The photographs of islands in Scottland and north-east England (and their birds and animals) are Creative Commons images. They are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)


Amen, Terri. Amen.

A glorious posting Terri. We are about to embark on an adventure to the cradle of Scots Christianity (Whithorn). One of the things I am looking forward to is tracing the history through the landscape. Gathering up lots of images and impressions, mapping out the way the place feels, we are looking forward to it.

Hi Terri, somehow I am with you and have always looked at life this way , but have not expressed it as well up to date. Cathy said Amen P.. I will say 'And so be it.' It is a page of such meaning of the simplicity and feeling for life that it brings a tear to one's eye.


Beautiful. All. But the one that most touches me is the newborn baby seal, the two just meeting. "Where am I?" "Oh, I have so much to show you."

For me, it's 'Blessed be."

I have a different take on hermits, methinks. Are you surprised?


Turning one's back on earthly interupts,
venturing to a farther shore
is the definition of a poet.

We hear tides that are not there,
yet in the breast, the soul,
the tintinabulation of that inner ear.

We see the places where sand and sky
stretch into a tightrope we must walk
across the inmost space.

But we return with a boon for all,
a word, a thought, a line, a poem
to lead our readers to the light.

Do not think giving up the world
means giving up on humanity.
We are all sogged in it.

You may turn your back on Ireland,
but have turned your face to yourself
as surely as Narcissus gazed

into his own sea.

©2015 Jane Yolen all right reserved

The Ego To Her Monk

And so you bring me here
to witness how you live
in a hut built of mud and stone,

dine on leaves of kelp
and water cress floating
among the rocks of St. Kilda,

chew wild honey sweet
off a waxen comb
crafted by bees humming
their own Salve Regina,

write verse with the stray
feather of goose or duck,

tie robes with rough cord
of grape vine,

muffle your ache
with the moan of seals
in the waking dawn,

and cut your hair
when it lengthens past
the ear lobe.

And so you bring me here
to say - as temptress born
from your grate of bone
I will perish...

The turf shall become my tower
into which I fall
many depths, my white throat
eaten by worm and beetle,

its vessel of vain song
diminished -- to the masonry
of seed and loam,
the slow fade of sin.

And so you bring me here --
an obdurate stare, too shocked
to coax or tremble.
Loved everything about this fascinating subject and post.
Thank you Terri!

My Best

Like Jane, you chose the twist of trying to get rid of ego, but coming up with tangled results. I love a mystery.

Passing Saints

Little girls in white dresses,
And lily -like hats, all
Wanting at that moment
To secretly be saints.

Saints of two kinds but
Mostly we knew the ones
Who were brave martyrs
For their faith, their souls.

Other saints beyond
Saint murdering, they
Fell ill, and spoke in prayers
Unlike any other. Mislaid halos.

Those, who died young, left
A trail of miracles, dying
So others could live. Little
Girls quietly let go of halos.

Where then could they go?
To places far away on earth,
To make do with being humble
As best they could. To pray.

To look into the woods
And waters, the ret gifts
The hidden music, shun wealth
For signs, for leaving behind.

Where we were we leave
To tomorrow. To strangers
But not with pain. It is high
In hope. And invisible poems.

"ret gifts?" Met....

I loved "ret gifts"! I thought of the flax, retting in its waters, rotting away the outer sheath and leaving the smooth pure inner fibers, the "gift".

It is from "peregrini" we get our word "peregrination." The peregrini remind us that not all who wander are lost.

They did not seek out the solitary wilds that they might speak to God where there was no other voice to be heard but theirs, but that in the lonely silences, they might listen to God where there was no other voice to be heard but His.

Thanks so much Phyllis

I am glad you liked the poem and very much appreciate your perspective!!

My Best

I had to look up "ret," as I didn't know what it means. Rot. Really, it was a typo. It just shoved whatever it was to be just the right word. The elves on this site must have decided to edit.

A wonderful poem, with a sting in its tail! I very much like the idea of poets as peregrini of the imagination....

I'm fascinated by your personification of the monk's ego as a feminine spirit. I'm with Phyllis on this one: there are mysteries within mysteries within mysteries in this beautifully crafted poem.

My mother and grandmother were Catholic, but they'd left the church by the time I came along, so I didn't have the experience of growing up with saints held up as heroes or role-models. Your poem gives me some idea of what that might be like...

That's how I feel when I'm out in nature. I don't want to talk and hear my own voice; I want to listen and hear the earth.

Hi Terri

Thanks so much Terri, I think there are even mysteries there I wrote but probably don't fully fathom. This came to me and I thought of his ego as a female entity something along the lines of Eve, Lilith or other ancient temptresses. Anyway, I so deeply appreciate your comments and interest in my poem!!

It means a lot
Take care!

Thank you. Once again a prompt was given, I had no idea it was there until I wrote it.

Terri, do we know which Irish monk wrote that beautiful hymn to nature? I'm fascinated by the depth of feeling and pure love/joy that these early Christians had for the wilderness around them, so different to the later (and still dominant, I think) idea of domination and exploitation.

And that beach on Iona looks familiar...I do believe I spent a gorgeous sunny, but very chilly, afternoon lying on it (keeping out of the wind) and finding small treasures, tiny polished gems.

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