The tiny island of Oronsay is at the heart of our pilgrimage this week as it has been for other pilgrims over the centuries. A holy island, it was once home to a small but thriving monastic community whose edifices and carvings rival (possibly even surpass) those of nearby Iona. Unlike Iona, however, Oronsay is not serviced by public transport or even signposted, for that matter, so it remains relatively unknown, untouched, and untouristed. To get there requires making your way to Colonsay (which for us was a series of 4 ferries from the mainland), driving across that island on a small single lane track, then waiting for the tide to fall and wading out over an ancient (and still unmarked) track, then hiking up and aross the island. Once at the priory, you have to keep you eye on the time so that you won’t get stranded when the tide comes rushing back in making the causeway impassable until the next time it turns. Over the course of our afternoon, we only saw four other people, plus two dogs.
As we started across the sands on Colonsay, we passed the ruins of a very old chapel that once served as a resting places for the coffins of the great and the good before they were carried over the causeway to Oronsay. That was moving to me, and gave me a focus for my walk. As I slipped and slid my way through the cold water strewn with seaweed and sharp shells, I thought of how it would be to make that journey as a part of a cortege, grieving, or even helping to carry that coffin across. I could feel my own mortality, and also my place in a long procession of humanity.
Once through the gate, we made our way to the 500-year-old High Cross, one of only a few which were not defaced during the Reformation when idolatrous images were systematically defaced or destroyed, to pay our respects. We then made our way to the chapel and explored the roofless ruins, which must certainly have been grand at one time. Despite the ravages of time, the ruins still hold a holy air, and I realized once again that holiness doesn’t come by consecration alone, but by intent, tradition, and the hearts of the people who cross its threshold.
At the back, there is a lovely museum where the best of the carved graveslabs have been moved to protect them from the wind and rain. Most of them are in quite splendid condition, and it was a privilege to have time to move from one to another, considering the stories and lives they mark.