IMG_0458 Ulva

With Coral anchored in the sound between Mull and the smaller island Ulva, I took the dinghy ashore. The outboard had not been working properly since I left Oban, so it was a long row against the tide. “That looked tiring”, commented a man drinking his coffee at the café at the top of the slipway; but actually it left me feeling well stretched and present in my body. I tugged off my seaboots, laced up walking boots, and, leaving my lifejacket in the bottom of the dinghy, headed inland. A map at the visitors’ centre showed various trails across the island, and I chose the one that led along the southern coast toward Craigaig Bay, where I hoped to be able to see eagles. As I tramped under the trees I was distracted by glimpses of water to my right… surely it should be to the left… was I on the right track? I carried on, puzzled and preoccupied, until I was jerked into the present by the sight of an eagle soaring from behind the treetops and banking out over the loch. She flew low enough for me to see her primary feathers fingering out into the sky, subtly moving as she adjusted her flight. She circled twice and disappeared behind the trees again.

I stood still, open-mouthed and openhearted, waiting for her to return. Then a helicopter crashed overhead, followed by another, filling the air with a throbbing that shook my body and overwhelmed my hearing. They clattered off into the distance leaving me shocked and disoriented. Gradually the silence of the woodland and the eagle returned.

Continuing along the path I turned a corner into a clearing. In front of me a five-barred metal gate between stone gateposts guarded the entrance to a church: a plain white building, quite recently painted, with bare stone quoins at the corners, and a small belfry at the end of a pitched slate roof. The gate creaked and wobbled precariously as I swung it open on rusty hinges.

The main church door opened into a dark vestibule with several doors to choose from. After some hesitation I found my way into what seemed to be a vestry, through a narrow passage behind a vast wooden pulpit, into the main meeting room. It was a square, open, space, with a wooden floor and a high ceiling, flooded with sunlight from three large windows set with clear leaded panes on the eastern side. Cut flowers were arranged on the windowsills; I found it strange that while some were fresh, others were dried out and dusty. From the far end I looked back at the plain but enormous wooden pulpit, with steps leading to two levels and a canopy over the top that rose almost to the ceiling. I suspect the lower level was for reading from the Bible, with the upper reserved for the all-important sermon.

I discovered from a notice that this was a ‘Parliamentary church’, one of five churches on Mull and Iona designed by the celebrated engineer Thomas Telford following an Act of Parliament which funded the building of churches in parishes without one. They all have a simple and inexpensive design, build on a T-shaped plan that allows a maximum number of parishioners to sit near the pulpit. The Ulva church was completed in 1828 when the island had a substantial population; the clearances that started shortly afterwards brutally removed two thirds of the inhabitants.

I walked around quietly, feeling enveloped in a silence that noticed every move, echoing as my footsteps trod the floor. Even though the building is now used primarily as a community centre, it carried for me the feeling of a sanctuary. The silence held qualities different to those of the eagle, somehow drier, crisper, enclosed: a human silence rather than a natural one.

Out of the church and through the creaking gate I chose the pathway that led high over the centre of the island and, I hoped, toward my original destination. After climbing through muddy woodland to the open hilltops I looked down into Craigaig Bay, a small inlet protected by a scattering of grassy islets, and to islands beyond: Lunga and the Treshnish Islands, with Col and Tiree in the further distance. The sea was calm; tiny squalls ruffled the surface into patches of ripples and a line of disturbance showed where the tide was racing round the headland. I watched another eagle, this one floating high above the cliffs. A hawk flashed past in the woodland below me, too fast to clearly identify but most likely a peregrine. Swallows perched on the fence posts and twittered at me, close enough for me to see clearly the orange patch under their beaks; as I approached, they fluttered along to the next post.

Farther down the hill, I passed though dense patches of foxgloves fading into a purple haze in the distance. Clusters of primrose, speedwell and low-lying honeysuckle grew in the shelter of lichen-covered outcrops. Now I became aware of a wider range of sounds: the twitter of smaller birds; a harsh cry of distress in the distance, suddenly cut off; then the single call of a cuckoo. All were contained within an underlying silence so profound that each sound seemed to hold a physical, three-dimensional presence.

Above Craigaig Bay I found a place to sit with my back resting against a rock. From here I looked down to where a passage between the rocks led to the sheltered beach. Up from the beach stood the stone walls that are all that remains of some cottages; and surrounding them the mounds and ridges that are all that is left of a field system, lazy beds and a water mill. For generations people here worked the land and fished the seas until they were burned out in the late nineteenth century. They seemed to have left a different kind of silence behind them.


‘Silence’ is a fascinating word. At a very simple level it can be taken to mean the absence of sound, or at least the absence of noise that is intrusive or irritating. But this is misleading. Silence is not an absence of sound but as Sara Maitland puts it in her Book of Silence, it is a ‘positive presence… Perhaps it is a real, actual thing’. It is rather more difficult to say just what it is that is present.

Certainly, as I sat on the grass above Craigaig Bay, I was reaching outward with my listening as if seeking to touch something elusive and fragile: the call of the birds, the whisper of the wind; maybe even the trace of the now-absent sounds of those people who once lived here. Maybe I was reaching into the gaps between the sounds, to hear that which was occluded. Sometimes I felt I was also trying to reach behind those present and past sounds to a sense of an underlying cosmic silence, maybe to what the ancient ones called the music of the spheres.

But the silence was also about me. It was about a certain quality of mind and attention. Sara Maitland describes ‘an interior dimension to silence, a sort of stillness of heart and mind which is not a void but a rich space’. This ‘rich space’ certainly is one that is stilled, relatively emptied of internal chatter and self-absorption. But it is nevertheless awake, alert, full of imaginative response to my surroundings.

“Why do you go sailing on your own?” people often ask me. I usually reply that the presence of other humans seems to demand conversation, and however attractive that is, it fills the rich space of internal quiet and overwhelms the possibility of opening to the underlying silence of the world.

So while silence is a positive space, it is a space that opens only when ‘I’ am no longer filling it. By ‘I’, I mean in particular my self-importance and self-concern, my attachment to my own purposes, all of which create a deafening internal ‘noise’. Silence, in the extended, positive sense of the word, seems to arise when external ‘quiet’—the absence of intrusive noise—meets an internal quietude. This meeting is a delicate place: the external quiet may be unexpectedly disrupted, as my encounter with the helicopters suggests; my quietude is continually threatened by egoic concerns. This is the kind of silence prized, according to Barry Lopez, by the Tukano Indians of Brazil when they speak in praise of ‘The Quiet’: a ‘realm of life that could not be sensed until one overcame the damage done to perception by long exposure to inescapable noise.

Solitude helps open this inner quietude, especially when accompanied by an intentional practice such as meditation and prayer. In the company of others it helps to agree to avoid ordinary chatter. Sometimes, quietude arises through social conventions, such as the formal silences that mark moments of remembrance or mourning and the reverence that is customary in holy places. The physical rhythms of walking are often said to lead to an internal quiet. So too do the extended periods in long-distance sailing where there is nothing to be done but attend to the movement of the boat through the water. All these are brought together in the discipline of pilgrimage.

The qualities of quiet and quietude create space for calmness and joy. All sense of division fades away: no longer separate things, no split between inner and outer, no conventional judgements of good and bad. The mind becomes coherent and with it the world; everything is just as it is. And in this, human being and world meet each other. Peter Matthiessen’s sense of the land at Crystal Monastery, high in the Himalaya, catches exactly this quality:

There is so much that enchants me in this bare, silent place that I move softly so as not to break a spell. Because the taking of life is forbidden by the Lama of Shey, bharal and wolves alike draw near the monastery. On the hills and in the stone beds of the river are fossils from blue ancient days when all this soaring rock lay underneath the sea. And all about are prayer stones, prayer flags, prayer wheels, and prayer mills in the torrent, calling on all the elements in nature to join in the celebration of the One. What I hear from my tent is a delicate wind-bell and the river from the east, in this easterly wind that may bring some change in the weather. At daybreak, two great ravens come, their long toes scratching on the prayer walls.


Toward the end of the afternoon I left the grassy slopes above Craigaig Bay to return to Coral. At first, the pathway carried me over soft turf, but it then gave way to a track laid with coarse stone chippings that continually shifted underfoot. Soon my mood sank. I was tired, footsore, trudging heavily, irritated with the distance and the rough path. It was as if, after a charmed day, my prima donna self felt the landscape owed it some ease: I wanted a quick return to the comforts of civilization, a cup of tea, a comfortable seat. I was alarmed at how quickly I become irritated, even angry at my surroundings, just because they didn’t meet my expectations. The silent place where I met the world became overwhelmed with self-pity. Luckily, I caught myself at it and was able to laugh: what nonsense it was that my ‘Holy Roman Ego’ thought it has a privileged place in the scheme of things. So I interrupted my trudging, chose to walk upright, seeking a balanced Tai Chi gait and an open awareness. I imagined myself as walking with the landscape rather than against it, and immediately felt lightened and less tired. Once more the flowers were bright, birds were singing and gentle waves breaking on the foreshore. I was nevertheless very pleased to get back to the landing place and treat myself to a cup of tea with a cream scone before rowing back to Coral.


Maitland, Sara. A Book of Silence. London: Granta, 2008, p. 26-27. The reflections on silence in this chapter are also informed by Lees, Helen E. “The Outdoors as the Source of Silence: Access, Curriculum and Something Relational.” In Philosophical Perspectives in Outdoor Education Conference. Moray house, Edinburgh University, May 2-4, 2012. Cooper, David. E. “Silence, Nature and Education.” In Attending to Silence, edited by Henny Fiska Hagg and Aslaug Kristiansen. Kristiansand: Portal Forlag, 2012

Lopez story is quoted in Cooper, David. E. “Silence, Nature and Education.” In Attending to Silence, edited by Henny Fiska Hagg and Aslaug Kristiansen. Kristiansand: Portal Forlag, 2012

Matthiessen, Peter. The Snow Leopard. London: Picador, 1980, p. 183.