Bangkok to Singapore by train: An epic journey – Time to observe

Taxi to Hua Lamphong Station, Bangkok
Taxi to Hua Lamphong Station, Bangkok
Last meal in Bangkok looking at Hua Lamphong Station
Last meal in Bangkok looking at Hua Lamphong Station

Bangkok to Singapore is regarded as one of those iconic railway journeys. On The Eastern and Oriental Express – a luxury train – the trip costs £1640. So it’s not for everyone. But what about the normal train – the one the locals take? Train – locals – Asia: my friends tell me I must be mad; they have pictures in their heads of trains where people are holding onto the rooftop. But as travel guru, Simon Calder says: The cheaper you travel, the closer you get to the soul of a place. Bangkok to Singapore can be done for around £40 or $55 according to seat61.

I had previously taken the train from Bangkok to the Cambodian border. It was a bit closer to that image my friends had in their minds, rattling along at around 30 mph. We stop in random places that don’t even have a station. Yet, people get on and off – some selling local delicacies. I have mango and sticky rice, a popular Thai desert. Despite the fact that all windows are open even the conductor is so hot he takes off his shirt along the way. My clothes are ruined from the dirt coming in through the windows. But everyone has a seat, albeit a bit squashed. We arrive exhausted and then have to go through the Cambodian border, an ordeal in itself which is not very unlike crossing the iron curtain in my home town Berlin in the 1980ies.

King and Queen watching over passengers at Hua Lamphong Station
King and Queen on large posters, watching over passengers at Hua Lamphong Station
Our friendly conductor on the Bangkok to Butterworth sleeper
Our friendly conductor on the Bangkok to Butterworth sleeper

With all that in mind I make sure to be well rested before I board the train for Singapore. “Sawatdee crap,” I salute the conductor waiting outside my carriage. The second word isn’t an insult in Thailand, but an expression of politeness. Every other sentence finishes in “crap.” He welcomes me in English, but with a Thai smile. The train leaves on time and the seats are comfortable. There is only one seat on either side of the aisle. It turns out the guy opposite me doesn’t speak English so I decide to look out of the window. We pass shacks that are built so close to the railway I keep thinking we’ll hit them. But then huge building sites of what appears to become a new motorway are a sign of Thailand’s economic development. I admire the Buddhist spirit houses even on the building sites.

Cambodia and Co 181
Bamboo train, Battambang, Cambodia

My spirit wanders back to Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge wanted to return the place into a country of peasant farmers in the course of which around ¼ of the population died. Although it now is a relatively stable democracy it is unsurprisingly still far less developed. Battambang, Cambodia’s second city, still doesn’t have a single set of traffic lights. On a stretch of the disused railway between the Thai border and Phnom Penh the Bamboo Train keeps attracting tourists. We sit on a platform made of Bamboo with only one wooden pole to hold onto while a little engine races us along. The bumps and shakes keep getting bigger and I say my last prayers.

Rice field in Thailand
Rice field in Thailand as seen from the International Express

En route to Singapore the “International Express” from Bangkok to Butterworth in Malaysia couldn’t be more different. The train is clean, it is air-conditioned and a friendly attendant shows me the English language dinner menu. I fully expected it to be a reservation for the dining car and am slightly disappointed when he serves me the three course meal at my seat. During a journey of almost 24 hours a little walk to the restaurant would have been a welcome distraction. While we drive past rice fields and palm trees I eat a spicy green curry and decide to go to the restaurant car for breakfast.

My berth
My berth

Night falls at around 7pm and the conductor comes to make our beds. Two facing seats become one bed and the upper berth is lowered down. The friendly gentleman across the aisle tells me to take my valuables into bed with me. I say “good night” and draw the curtain and at 9pm I am sound asleep. The advantage in the lower berth is not only that there is more space, but that it has a window. I wake up at five o’clock to admire the sunrise.

I am confused when the conductor climbs out of the upper berth. The passenger above me must have got off during the night and he took his place I conclude. I venture to the restaurant car. Even after three weeks in South East Asia I didn’t manage to get used to the local choice of breakfast, which to me doesn’t seem much different to lunch and dinner. So I order an English breakfast: bad choice! It reminds me of: “When in Rome do as the Romans do!”

Crossing a river in Southern Thailand
Crossing a river in Southern Thailand

I had heard about an Islamist insurgency in Southern Thailand, but people who know the area told me it was safe to travel on the “International Express.” In my guide book I now read that the Bangkok to Butterworth train is “off limits.” Reassuringly I am not the only European on the train. The gentleman across the aisle tells me that he is from Hat Yai, an important southern city, which we are about to reach. He is going home for a few days. I ask him whether I should be worried. There is an increased presence of security personnel on the train. But he says the military government of Thailand have arrested the leaders of the insurgency and that it is now safe.

Fellow passengers from Southern Thailand
Fellow passengers from Southern Thailand

In Hat Yai a Muslim family takes the seats near me. They are quite communicative and so I ask them where they are from. A young girl with a headscarf mentions a place and adds: “Where the bombs are!” She smiles. We make it to the Malaysian border and I am slightly relieved. Another European traveller jokes that now is the time to dispose of your drugs and I suddenly think I should have checked that nobody hid any in my bag. But it’s too late now and I am pleasantly surprised by the welcome we get at the Malaysian customs.

Approaching Georgetown, Penang Island
Approaching Georgetown, Penang Island

Again, we enter another era: In Malaysia the train suddenly runs twice as fast and very smoothly. The country seems much more developed than Thailand. Housing schemes that could well be in a middle class area in Britain are now passing on the other side of the window. We are supposed to be in Butterworth at 1pm and arrive around one hour late. I decide to take a little break from the train and catch a ferry over to Penang Island.

Not New Orleans, but Georgetown, Penang
Not New Orleans, but Georgetown, Penang

Georgetown used to be an important British hub in South East Asia before Singapore took its place. I take a rickshaw around the town and must have caught the slowest driver ever, but he compensates by putting on deafening music. The colonial past is still apparent in buildings and place names. I admire the streetart on the walls of some of the houses. It has a very pleasant, laid back and multi-cultural atmosphere: Malays only account for around 40% of the population with the Chinese being equally strong. Then there is a large Indian minority. They have all brought their own food and Penang is known for its culinary variety.

Chinese floating villages or clan jetties
Chinese floating villages or clan jetties: Georgetown

But it’s time to move on. I catch the train again in Butterworth. The line to Kuala Lumpur has just been upgraded and electrified. We cruise at around 100 mph on a train that could well run in the UK. I make my way to the restaurant car and am a bit disappointed: There is only a choice of four microwave dishes. The friendly service compensates and the food turns out to be tasty. We arrive in Kuala Lumpur or KL bang on time four hours later.

Butterworth to Kuala Lumpur
The new Butterworth to Kuala Lumpur train

The taxi driver tells me it’s been a busy day with demonstrations against the Prime Minister of Malaysia, who is accused of corruption. It’s night time and I meet up with a bunch of locals. Together we hit the Golden Triangle, the main party district. It could be anywhere in Europe or the US. The next morning I wonder around the main sights slightly hungover. I find it a very pleasant city and begin to understand why Malaysia is a destination of choice for refugees like the Rohingya from Burma. In the evening I am invited to an end-of-Ramadan party. Thankfully there is no alcohol here, but plenty of very tasty food and fireworks. I must be the only non-Muslim there and am generally pleased about the tolerance towards other religions in Malaysia. Although it is a Muslim country I see more Anglican churches as well as Hindu, Confucian and Buddhist temples. But I’m told inter-marriage is not possible under Malaysian law.

Durian fruit (front)
Durian fruit (front)

Back on the train at 8am I am now headed for Singapore. As the day progresses the train slows down again and we end up rattling along at around 20mph. The lady next to me asks whether I have tried Durian – that fruit you either love or hate. In many places it is forbidden on public transport because of its smell – “Yes I have.” She is pleased.

The train terminates at Johor Bahru on the border with Singapore. We have to catch another train which only takes us over the bridge into the city state. I am thinking I have gradually worked my way up from Cambodia having reached the furthest developed South East Asian country. Yet, this is the first time my luggage is screened and searched. I have to give them credit for being courteous, but am still slightly annoyed about the fuss.

And then the train journey is over in a very unspectacular manner. I have to take a bus to connect with the Singapore subway. After a long winding disagreement over formalities between Singapore and Malaysia, who owned the railway, the remainder of the track right into the heart of the city was closed down to make way for economic development. Sadly the beautiful art-deco Tanjong Pagar station will see no trains anymore. While Singapore has been so successful in offering connectivity in air travel this doesn’t seem to apply to trains. I wonder if they will regret it when Malaysia completes its railway upgrade to Johor Bahru. It certainly cuts short the epic Bangkok to Singapore train ride.

Quatro-lingual Singapore
Quatro-lingual Singapore

Singapore is an unusual place. It appears to be a Chinese city where people speak British English, located near the equator. Indeed around 3 in 4 people are ethnic Chinese, 16% are Malay and 9% are Indian. Most signs and announcements are in English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. After my not so smooth entry I find the Singaporeans generally friendly and helpful. A cocktail in the rooftop bar of a hotel overlooking the bay soon helps me to chill.

Chilling in a rooftop bar in Singapore
Chilling in a rooftop bar in Singapore
Students writing "Marry me" into the air
Singapore students writing “Marry me” into the air

Argyll, Schottland: Top Reiseziel nicht nur für 007 – ein persönlicher Reisebericht

Achadh na Cloiche, Isle of Skye. Dieses Photo von mir wurde 2004 in der Young Scot Photography Competition preisgekrönt.
Achadh na Cloiche, Isle of Skye. Dieses Photo von mir wurde 2004 in der Young Scot Photography Competition preisgekrönt (aufgenommen mit der vorgeschriebenen Einwegkamera).

Schottland wurde in 2013 von der CNN zur Touristendestination Nr. 1 erkoren, wohl in erster Linie auf dem neuesten James Bond Film “Skyfall” basierend, der z.T. in Glencoe in Argyll gedreht wurde. Mich hat Schottland seit meinem vierzehnten Lebensjahr in seinen Bann gezogen, und vor zehn Jahren habe ich dann den Schritt gewagt, meine Heimat Berlin zu verlassen und dorthin auszuwandern um gälische Sprache zu studieren. Gerade als ich mein Studium abschloss, eröffnete der erste gälische Fernsehsender, BBC ALBA. Bei dem bin ich jetzt als Korrespondent und Videojournalist in der Region Argyll tätig. Als Ein-Mann-Team mache ich Reportagen für Radio, Fernsehen und Internet vom Finden der Story über Filmen bis hin zum Schnitt.
Gälisch ist eine keltische Sprache und sie wurde einst auch von König Macbeth gesprochen, bekannt geworden durch Shakespeares gleichnamiges Stück, und William Wallace. Letzterer wurde in “Braveheart” von Mel Gibson gespielt, und er schreit in dem Film auch pflichtgemäß auf Gälisch: “Alba gu brath” [sprich: Àlapa gu braah] – “Scotland forever,” als er auf die Engländer losstürmt. Heute sprechen nur noch ca. 60.000 Menschen Gälisch, aber die Sprache wird von der schottischen Regierung wieder gefördert.
Die Region ‘Argyll and Bute’ an der Westküste hat 26 bewohnte Inseln. Eine Dienstreise ist mir bis heute besonders in Erinnerung geblieben. Meine Frau hatte mich liebenswerterweise nach Tayvallich gebracht, einem kleinen Dorf etwa eine Stunde südlich von Oban. Von dort aus bestieg ich die Passagierfähre – ein kleines Speedboat – auf die Insel Jura. Jura ist doppelt so groß wie die deutsche Insel Fehmarn, hat aber nur ca. 180 Einwohner; es existiert ein Hotel, ein Laden und eine Whiskydestillerie. Meine erste Reportage befasste sich mit eben dieser Passagierfähre, die erst vor kurzem ihren Betrieb aufgenommen hatte und deren Finanzierung in Zeiten knapper Kassen ungewiss war. Inzwischen scheint ihre Zukunft aber erst einmal gesichert (zumindest in den Sommermonaten). Nach einem Interview in dem Inselhauptdorf Craighouse, einem paar sehr kurzen Aufnahmen zwischen zwei Platzregen und einem “dram” in der Isle of Jura Destillerie ging es mit dem Bus weiter zur, auf der Südseite anlegenden, Fähre auf die Isle of Islay.

Update_06_01_15 323
Bowmore Whiskybrennerei, Isle of Islay

Bei der nur wenige Minuten dauernden Űberfahrt nach Islay wird klar, warum die Meerenge ausgewählt wurde für Turbinen, die auf dem Meeresgrund Energie erzeugen sollen: Die Strömung ist so stark, dass die kleine Fähre Mühe hat dagegen anzuhalten. Auf Jura ist die gälische Sprache inzwischen ausgestorben (systematische Unterdrückung der Sprache und Kultur über Jahrhunderte haben Wirkung gezeigt), aber auf Islay ist sie noch lebendig. Von hier berichte ich über ein Projekt, bei dem von der älteren Bevölkerung Ortsnamen dokumentiert werden sollen. Sobald sie sterben, gingen diese sonst verloren. Ich finde das sehr interessant, habe ich doch selber einmal auf der Isle of Skye, wo ich damals auf das gälische College, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, ging, ein ähnliches Projekt durchgeführt. Islay ist noch größer als Jura, hat 3000 Einwohner und acht Whiskydestillerien. Es geht hier trotzdem sehr familiär zu. Alle Autofahrer grüßen sich, und in der Pension “Bowmore House” bin ich mehr Freund der Familie, denn zahlender Kunde. Einen Zimmerschlüssel bekommt man hier nicht, man ist entre nous.

Am nächsten Tag geht es mit dem Flieger zur Insel Colonsay. Im Flughafengebäude weiβ zunaechst niemand, wo der Check In nach Colonsay ist. Nach zehn Minuten kommt die Angestellte zurueck, und ich erfahre, dass das Einchecken in einer Baracke am Ende des Flugfeldes stattfindet. Etwas irritiert nehme ich dort alleine Platz und höre auch kurz darauf Motorengeräusche. Aus einem Propellerflugzeug steigen drei Personen. Ich denke nun, in Kürze käme jemand, um mich abzuholen, stattdessen gehen die Motoren wieder an. Nur durch wildes Gestikulieren kann ich vermeiden, dass das Flugzeug ohne mich abfliegt.

Ein Strand auf der Insel Colonsay
Ein Strand auf der Insel Colonsay

Die Insel Colonsay hat nur ca. 100 Einwohner, von denen einige ältere Menschen noch Gälisch sprechen. Aus dem Flugzeug bewundere ich die vielen schönen Strände. Am Flugplatz bitte ich, den Angestellten, mir ein Taxi zu rufen, woraufhin ich nur ein Lächeln ernte: Es gäbe keines. Aber nach einem kurzen Moment des Schocks meint er, er schließe sowieso gleich wieder, sobald das Flugzeug wieder weg sei, und könne mich dann mitnehmen zum Colonsay Hotel, einem charmanten kleinen Landhaushotel. Von hier berichte ich über ein Festival, dass dort zum ersten Mal stattfindet.

Auf der Colonsayfähre
Auf der Colonsayfähre

Die Rückkehr nach Oban geht per Schiff. Normalerweise nehme ich immer mein Auto mit, da das die Arbeit auf den Inseln sehr erleichtert. Eine Kollegin besorgt dann die Fahrkarten für mich. Diesmal war ich ja aber zu Fuß unterwegs, und eine Reservierung ist für Fuβgänger nicht nötig. Colonsay hat einen sehr langen Fähranleger. Ich laufe also mit meinen vier Gepäckstücken (Reisetasche, Kamera, Stativ und Laptop) hinaus zur Fähre, wo ich freundlich nach meiner Fahrkarte gefragt werde. Da fällt mir siedend heiß ein, dass ich keine habe, woraufhin ich einfach durchgewunken werde. Auf der drei-stündigen Rückreise nach Oban scheint erstaunlicherweise die Sonne, als wir an unzähligen kleinen Hebrideninseln vorbeifahren und ich mir einen Sonnenbrand einfange.

Vögel folgen der Fähre
Vögel folgen der Fähre

25 years since the Berlin Wall fell – a Berliner looks back

Update_06_01_15 712
Anniversary celebrations at the Brandenburg Gate on 9th November 2014

It happened almost by mistake on 9th November 1989. The anniversary celebrations 25 years later at the Brandenburg Gate included a row of white balloons where the wall once stood. Pictures of them flying off into the sky went around the world.

In 2014 9th November was a Sunday and I went to Mass at St Hedwig Cathedral only a kilometre away. For the first time ever I heard the tune of the German national anthem played at Mass. It drove the tears to my eyes as I remembered the overwhelming joy everyone felt 25 years ago.

The Stasi never sang along

The peaceful revolution, as it is called, had its origins in the churches. I recently visited Gethsemane Church in East Berlin where thousands gathered in October 1989 just to get some information on the situation. The police never entered the churches although the infamous Stasi secret service did. A man who was there at the time told me they could tell who they were as they never sang along. Some people were beaten or arrested as they left though.

The outcome was indeed unknown and at one point there was an order to make use of firearms. But the general situation in Eastern Europe had changed. Hungary was the first country to open its border with Austria and tens of thousands of East Germans went through. The Soviet Union had also changed under Mikhail Gorbatshev. No help was to be expected to continue the oppression.

The Wall fell by accident

A new head of state came to power, which in itself was very unusual. Living in West Berlin I still didn’t even consider that the wall could fall. It had been there since before I was born. But on 9th November 1989 at a press conference a government minister read out a statement saying that travelling to the West would now be possible if people had the appropriate papers. He was asked when this would come into force and stumbled that this came into effect immediately.

At that point tens of thousands left for the border. The guards didn’t have any orders and phoned their superiors, but got no answer. At last they decided to open the gates. Not a single shot was fired.

Walter Momper was mayor of West Berlin in 1989
Walter Momper was mayor of West Berlin in 1989

Would they let me out again?

The opening of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin a few days before Christmas 25 years ago was another symbolic moment. In early November the iron curtain had fallen politically, but it was yet to be taken down physically. I was there on the day, when a crane lifted several pieces of concrete out of the wall to open a border crossing. There were huge crowds on either side. When they poured through the border guards could only step aside. I remember feeling slightly uneasy going through without a stamp in my passport. Would they let me out again?

The emotion was overwhelming though. I still have tears in my eyes thinking back. The wall which had cut my home town in two was finally tumbling. Only a few steps on the other side and a young East German lady came up to me and gave me kiss on the cheek. Such was the joy on both sides. I strolled up “Unter den Linden,” East Berlin’s main avenue, together with a friend of mine. In front of Humboldt University a group of French communists were trying to convert us to their cause. They couldn’t have picked a worse day.

Update_06_01_15 653
Only one block away from Unter den Linden German history is still omnipresent. Bullet holes from WWII and a much larger hole left in the row of houses by a bomb between a new-build and a restored house. Next to it is a house which hasn’t changed much since 1945.

When Germany commemorated the anniversary of the fall of the communist/ socialist regime in November 2014 I was back at the Gate. Michail Gorbatshev, the Soviet leader who started the political change in the East, was there, too, and warned of a new cold war.

Celtic Christianity – Visiting some early Christian sites in the Hebrides

Iona – Eilean I Cholm Chille

Was St Columba a Protestant? This was one question that was raised at a recent conference on the Hebridean Island of Iona. The 1450th anniversary of the saint’s first landing there was a huge celebration. Ahead of the big day Historic Scotland which owns the site was encouraging research in preparation for new interpretation of the abbey. Folklore, archaeology and the many carved stones and crosses were among the subjects discussed. One lecturer suggested the Viking raid of 1209/10 was in fact originally planned as a trip by the Norwegian king and archbishop in order to ensure the continuous allegiance of the Hebrides. The brutal attacks that followed were not planned.

Iona Abbey
Iona Abbey

Most monks fled to Ireland after that, but in 1203 Benedictine monks founded another monastery on the island. Augustinian nuns followed suit. By the early 20th century the abbey and nunnery had fallen into disrepair. The Iona Community was founded in 1938 and it restored the abbey. The ecumenical institution today works for social justice and will celebrated their 75th anniversary not long ago. Apparently many denominations claim St Columba as one of the founding fathers of their tradition. Presbyterians say that he never was a bishop, and suggest that this must have meant his disenchantment with the Catholic Church. Catholics respond that the life of the monastery was indeed following Catholic traditions.

Scottish Gaelic bard Aonghas MacNeacail recently raised the question whether St Columba was already a Christian when he came to Iona, pointing out that he came from Derry (Gaelic “Doire” = thicket) and went to Iona (Gaelic “Idhe, “probably from “iubhar” = yew). My impression was that he was alluding to possible Pagan origins of the place names. In any case it was a truly memorable event which certainly strengthened the Scottish-Irish connection.

Tiree – designated monuments of national importance

Kirkapol - Isle of Tiree
Kirkapol – Isle of Tiree

Only a short distance away is the Isle of Tiree. St Columba didn’t only found the monastery on Iona but built a monastic cell on Tiree as well. Campus Luinge or Magh Luinge is said to have been at Soroby, but there is no evidence of it and so it could well have been at Kirkapol. The ruins of two chapels are still to be found there and the place has a special holy feeling about it. They are situated next to the former parish church and one of them was built on a large rock. Nowadays there is only one Church of Scotland left. Tiree doesn’t seem to be quite as spiritual anymore as there were less than twenty people attending the Sunday morning service recently. The island doesn’t have a Catholic church.

But the ruins of the four temples are an indicator that things weren’t always like this. They are are designated monuments of national importance. Originally founded in the 6th century the stone structures are thought to have been built in the 10th century. Viking place-names are common on Tiree and Kirkapol translates as Kirkton. The cell was run by St Baithane, a cousin of St Columba’s. St Oran’s cemetery is situated close by and it used to contain a chapel as well.

Gott Bay - Isle of Tiree
Gott Bay – Isle of Tiree

There are ruins of two other temples: St Kenneth’s and St Patrick’s at the other end of the island. It is not thought that St Patrick visited the island, but St Comgall is said to have built this cell. A heritage trail connects all the chapels and other sites of historic interest. Local retailers have information leaflets. Remember that ferries to Tiree and accommodation on the island can be in short supply in the summer, so book early.

Isle of Oronsay – grave slab schools

Oronsay Priory
Oronsay Priory

To the south lies the Isle of Colonsay. According to tradition St Columba founded a monastery on it’s smaller sister, the Isle of Oronsay. But a monastic settlement is thought to have been established on the island by St Oran in 563. Oronsay was possibly named after him. The remains of an Augustinian Priory from the 14th century, which are thought to have been built in the same location, are today well preserved. It was possibly set up by Iain I, Lord of the Isles, who was at the time based in Finlaggan, Isle of Islay. A letter from the Pope to one of the monks in 1353 confirms the existence of the priory at the time.

High cross, Isle of Oronsay
High cross, Isle of Oronsay

The high cross next to the church was made on Iona, but the Oronsay monks developed their own school which is characterised by a sailing boat with its sails spread rather than folded away as was the case in most other places. There is an impressive collection of grave-slabs in one of the buildings. Some show men in armour, others a sword and others again a clergyman. The last monk is thought to have left around the time of the reformation in 1560.

Grave slab in the Augustinian Priory, Oronsay
Grave slab in the Augustinian Priory, Oronsay

The island had a population of five at the last census. It can be reached on foot at low tide from neighbouring Colonsay. The walk to the priory takes about 45 mins so you should leave yourself at least two hours for the round trip allowing for a good look around at the priory. It is worth wearing wellies and exact local tide times are available on Colonsay. The two islands will soon also be a honey bee reserve as 50 colonies of the only native British species are to be found there. They already are a protected area for choughs and corncrakes though, several good reasons for a visit.

Isle of Lismore – rivalry of St Columba and St Moluag

Update_06_01_15 112
Window in the Lismore Parish Church

“Grian Lissmoir di Alba” (The Sun of Lismore in Scotland) is a description of St Moluag according to a wee booklet which I picked up at the St Moluag Centre on the Island of Lismore. It has recently been updated by its author who calls himself “Niall, Coarb of St Moluag.” A Coarb is a person who is not a clergyman and who looks after a church.

Amongst the well known facts is the explanation of the saint’s name: He was called “Lughaidh.” The prefix “mo-” was a sign of respect whereas the suffix “-ag” is a common Gaelic term of endearment. He was born at the start of the 6th century in Ulster and became a bishop in 552. St Moluag founded over 100 monasteries of which place-names such as Kilmoluag and Kilmalu bear witness. The author claims that the first syllable of the island’s name (“Lios” in Gaelic) means monastery. According to Dwelly’s dictionary of the Gaelic language, the most authoritative of its kind, it symply means “garden.”

562 is said to be the year of foundation of the Lismore monastery. According to a well known legend St Moluag, on approaching Lismore, cut off a finger and threw it onto the island while proclaiming that he had taken possession of it. He feared that St Columba was going to reach the island first in his boat. The author doubts that this actually happened. Lismore apparently was a holy island for the Picts whom St Moluag is said to have converted.

Who was more important St Columba or St Moluag? The Coarb argues that St Columba only became famous because he had a biographer: St Adamnan. I have heard this argument before and it isn’t surprising if we remember that oral tradition was more important in those days than writing, despite the fact that Gaelic is the oldest written vernacular north of the Alps.

The Coarb, who is also a priest in the Episcopal Church of Scotland, strongly believes that the saint still performs miracles today. The booklet reads: “As this ancient office of Coarb of St Moluag predates the major schisms in Christ’s Church I hope to be able to use this office to … work towards one holy catholic and apostolic Church.”

So what is left of the Catholic tradition on Lismore? According to an article by the Very Rev. Alexander S. MacWilliam, which I was recently given to me by the St Moluag Centre on the island, no Catholics were left there after the reformation. Nevertheless Bishop Chisholm decided at the beginning of the 19th century to move the Highland seminary from Samalaman in the Rough Bounds of Moidart to Lismore. It seems it wasn’t warmly welcomed on the island and some Catholic clergy had their objections, too, remoteness and Presbyterianism being two of them. Bishop Chisholm, who was based on Lismore himself, replied that travelling to Moidart was just as difficult as getting to the island and that the tranquility provided an excellent location for studying.

It is from letters between bishops that we have most of our information. We know that the Gaelic language was taught at the seminary. But Sir Walter Scott had his doubts regarding the quality of the teaching there, though the question is whether he was in a position to judge. At one point there were eight students based on Lismore. They also had to work in a lime kiln, although it seems the business wasn’t very profitable. In 1815 the building was renovated. When the debt burden following the works became too big, the Bishop was forced to reduce the number of students. The seminary shut in 1827 and the remaining students were transferred to Aquhorties in Aberdeenshire before going to Blairs the following year. Two bishops are buried in the grounds at Kilcheran House on Lismore, overlooking the Lynn of Lorne, where the current Cathedral is only seven or eight miles away in Oban.

Kilmun on the Holy Loch

Kilmun Church
Kilmun Church

The Argyll Mausoleum in Kilmun on the shores of the Holy Loch is an interesting place in its own right. The Dukes of Argyll were buried here from the 15th century. The local Church of Scotland is adjacent to it. But there were always rumors of a much longer history of the site. Archeologists have now confirmed that part of the bell tower dates back to the 12th century. Furthermore there is also a circular stone structure from the 8th century which is believed to have been a monastic cell. A grave stone from around that time could be that of St Mun who came from Ireland to settle in 597 AD. He was initially going to join St Columba on Iona, but then became known as the most austere Celtic saint, willing to accept great suffering so that souls could be saved. He died in 635 AD.

A visitor centre is situated in the church. During the winter it is only open three days a week, but there are also information panels outside. Restoration work at the Mausoleum was completed recently. The Campbells have often been regarded as controversial in history, and it doesn’t at first seem obvious why they would choose such a remote location for their mausoleum. There were many suitable sites closer to their ancient homes at Loch Awe or Inveraray. But the trustees now think Kilmun on the Holy Loch must have been considered a special place of holiness already in the 15th century.

Muckairn – another unlikely place for a cathedral

Taynuilt, east of Oban, was once known as Muckairn as the Brigadier John MacFarlane told me when we had a walk around his home turf. The Church of Scotland parish is still called just that. But John also has ancestors from across Loch Etive where the ruins of Ardchattan Priory are still to be seen. At the back of it are what is left over of a much older Church and the area there used to be known as Baile Bhaodainn. There is a well there which is thought to have healing power.

Grave slabs at Ardchattan Priory
Grave slabs at Ardchattan Priory

Back on the other side of the loch next to what is today the Kirk there are the ruins of what used to be a Catholic Church. It was the site of the first Cathedral of Argyll and the Isles when it split apart from the Diocese of Dunkeld in 1222 AD. Pope Innocent II is believed to have said that it must have been a “rara avis,” a rare bird meaning the bishop who wanted to downsize his area of influence. But maybe it was felt necessary due to the language barrier. The new Bishop Harald of Argyll is said to have been fluent in Gaelic and Norse. The cathedral wasn’t in Taynuilt for long before relocating to Lismore where it was felt to be safer at the time. Some academics believe the first Church in Taynuilt, called “Kilespikerill” was named after Saint Cyril others say it could refer to Harald himself. Canon William Fraser of the Visitation, Taynuilt, has suggested it could mean “Cill Easbuig Earra-Ghàidheal” or the church of the bishop of Argyll. The Church of Scotland, which is there today, is the 7th church in this location.

Monessag Stone, Taynuilt
Monessag Stone, Taynuilt

John gave me a little tour of Muckairn. Our first stop was the Monessag Stone in Airds Bay. Iain believes this could have been the seat of an early saint (indicated by the prefix “Mo-“) whose name might have been Nessa. Given that many monks came from Ireland originally there could well be a connection to King Conchobarr’s mother by the same name. This seems to be the oldest Christian place in Muckairn.

Cnoc Aingeil with Cruachan in the background
Cnoc Aingeil with Cruachan in the background

Another part of it, Balindore, refers to a “deòir” or a keeper of an abbot’s crook who used to live there. The early Church is said to have been based more on abbots rather than bishops. And there is evidence of pre-Christian places, too, such as “Allt a’ Bhile,” the burn of the tree of worship. “Cnoc Aingeil” near the present day Church of Scotland refers to a hillock where fires would be lit at Beltane and this could have been a place of druidism.

Who was St Conan? According to the website of St Conan’s Kirk in Lochawe he is the patron saint of the Lorn area in Argyll. Born in the 7th century he lived in Glenorchy. There is a well in Dalmally named after him. He is said to have blessed it and often sat nearby. When a wolf came one day he managed to make it disappear just as the wolf was about to attack.

St Conan watches over Robert the Bruce

St Conan's Kirk, Lochawe
St Conan’s Kirk, Lochawe

St Conan’s Kirk in the village of Lochawe is a remarkable church – big and beautiful – in a very small place. It has an effigy of Robert the Bruce. The Scottish King won the Battle at the Pass of Brander in the Wars of Scottish Independence in the 14th century.

Effigy of Robert the Bruce, King of Scots
Effigy of Robert the Bruce, King of Scots

Not surprisingly St Conan also has a place in the church. Following in the tradition of St Columba, although he didn’t know him personally, he later became a bishop on the Isle of Man. He died in 684, although the exact date is a matter of debate. An Irish monk who researched his earlier colleagues set the day as 13th January. Iain Colgan published his book, Acta Sanctorum Hiberniae, in Louvain, in Belgium in 1645. The saint’s feast day is thus celebrated on 13th January.

St Conan, Lochawe
St Conan, Lochawe

Apparently St Conan wasn’t afraid of meeting the Devil face to face. One day the two met to decide the future of the souls of the people of Lorn. They went about this in a business-like manner. The good people were to be the saint’s, the bad the Devil’s and the middling were to be shared equally. This, they agreed, would happen by choosing in turns. But allegedly the Devil got too excited and stretched out his hand when it was the saint’s turn. St Conan though would have none of this and exclaimed, “Na, na, fair play, paw for paw.” This phrase has apparently passed into proverbial use.

Mariota Stone returns to Isle of Mull

The Mariota Stone captured many people’s imagination. For around 500 years it lay in a graveyard near Bunessan on the Isle of Mull so its origins are likely to precede the reformation. The inscription (originally in Latin) apparently reads: “Here lies Mariota, daughter of…” and the rest is illegible. Over the centuries rain and roots had damaged the stone but it has been restored by Historic Scotland. It is now sheltered in a wooden box. It is thought that Mariota was a Christian as there is a cross on the stone. Mary MacDonald’s grave is also said to be in the graveyard. She wrote the famous tune “Leanaibh an Àigh” which later became known all over the world as “Morning has broken.”

Locals showed me a Sheelanagig on the outside wall of the ruined 12th century church. I remembered having seen another one at the nunnery on Iona. They are small sculptures of women showing their genitals – not something you would expect to find on a church wall. Their origins are unknown, yet they are found in many places in Britain and Ireland. Some can be found in mainland Europe as well. The most common explanation is that they were Celtic Pagan symbols incorporated into Christianity.

Davaar and Sanda Islands

Causeway to the tidal Davaar Island
Causeway to the tidal Davaar Island

Davaar Island can be reached at low tide via a causeway in about 20 minutes. It takes another 20 minutes to a cave containing a painting of Jesus on the Cross. The last 10 minutes are a bit difficult to walk over stones.

Jesus on Cross inside a cave on Davaar
Jesus on Cross inside a cave on Davaar

Local resident, Archibald MacKinnon, had a dream in 1887 to paint Jesus on the Cross in this cave and so he did. On its discovery, people in Campbeltown thought it was a sign from God and when they found out who has painted it he was expelled from the town. It is well signposted and the timings of the tide can be found here as well as at Campbeltown tourist office.

Nearby is Sanda Island which is also well worth a visit. It is privately owned, but the owners usually welcome visitors. There is a ruin of a chapel there, which St Ninian founded. The first evangeliser north of Hadrian’s wall is said to be burried on the island, too. Legend has it that his grave is marked by an alder tree and that whoever stepped on it would die.