Finding Inspiration on Scotland’s Isle of Cumbrae

retreat (noun): the act of withdrawing to a place of privacy or safety, often for meditation or instruction.

I attended a Patchwork Farm creative writing and yoga retreat at the Cathedral of the Isles in Cumbrae, Scotland © Laurel Kallenbach

Every year or two, I like to go on a Patchwork Farm creative writing and yoga retreat held somewhere tranquil and beautiful around the globe.

This summer, I retreated to the United Kingdom, to the country of Scotland, to Cumbrae (an island just a few miles off the western coast not far from Glasgow). There, in the village of Millport, adjacent to the 1850s-era Cathedral of the Isles, is the College of the Holy Spirit, originally built to house and educate seminarians. Inside the College of the Holy Spirit are rooms named after Celtic saints (St. Mungo, St. Patrick, St. Ninian) and the Virtues, including Patience, Joy, and Kindness.

Behind the door of Kindness was a cozy room where I spent a week resting, reading, writing, and gazing out the window at the picturesque neo-Gothic church and a small, historic cemetery with elaborate Celtic crosses. When I arrived, afternoon sun flooded into my room, inviting me to nap.

My room at the College of the Holy Spirit was called “Kindness,” and I did, indeed, experience much kindness at the retreat. © Laurel Kallenbach

Scotland may seem like a long way to go for a Coloradoan in search of rejuvenation, but half the fun of a retreat is exploring a new place and getting to know yourself in a different environment.

And although my trip to Cumbrae involved planes, a bus, a train, a ferry, another bus, and my own two feet, the journey was not arduous. I found public transportation in Scotland to be efficient, punctual, and comfortable. And it’s the eco-friendly way to travel, too. (Air travel, alas, is not—although you can buy carbon offsets to compensate for your flight’s heavy footprint. In fact, the United airline website where I booked my flights offers carbon offsetting at the point of purchase.)

A Sweet Island Getaway

Tucked away among the Cathedral of the Isles’ 160-year-old buildings with slate roofs, a church spire, a tree-lined walkway, and exuberant hydrangeas, I did yoga and wrote as part of my yoga and writing retreat. Ten minutes’ walk took me down to the harbor and beach of the island. What could be more uplifting and inspirational than the ocean, the company of fellow writers, and a church bell that happily chimed every 15 minutes? The Cathedral of the Isles was the perfect hideaway for creative pursuits and personal restoration. And when I beheld my little room, with a private bathroom, I felt right at home. (You can read about a past retreat I attended in Jamaica a few years ago.)

The College of the Holy Spirit. My room, Kindness, is the farthest on the right on the upper floor. © Laurel Kallenbach

Situated in the Firth of Clyde, the four-mile-long island of Cumbrae has one town, Millport, with a variety of shops, restaurants, pubs, and a couple of hotels. On the island, you can kayak among the seals and sea birds (the water is pretty cold, though!), or hike or bicycle one of the island’s many trails.

A number of the people on my retreat biked around the entire island or hiked to the top of the highest hill for scenic views of nearby islands. I had an infected toenail, so I stayed at the College with a few short ventures into town and to the beach. I would have loved to see more of the island, yet the Cathedral gardens were so lovely that I was content to stay put.

The village of Millport, on Cumbrae, has a rocky coast and sandy beach. © Laurel Kallenbach

Creativity in a Scottish Church

Yoga and writing are the perfect pair for creativity, as Patchwork Farm founder Patricia Lee Lewis has taught me. This is part of why I’m such an aficionado of her international retreats, and I’ve followed Patricia to Mexico, Guatemala, Wales, Ireland, and now Scotland.

Patricia Lee Lewis (wearing blue) talks with some of the writers during the Patchwork Farm retreat in Cumbrae. © Laurel Kallenbach

Each day at the Cathedral of the Isles began with yoga, which was led on this retreat by Penfield Chester. She knew just how to help us retreat attendees—20 British and American women—limber up our bodies and get the creative juices flowing. After breakfast, we gathered to write (drawing from prompts given by Patricia) and read our work aloud to each other.

Afternoons brought free time, followed by dinner and another session of writing in the evening. I worked on my novel, which I’m afraid had been languishing for months. These retreats always jumpstart my fiction writing.

The cloisters at Cathedral of the Isles © Laurel Kallenbach

It was fortunate that the location for this creative retreat was the College of the Holy Spirit. The words inspire and spirit share a common etymology: the Latin spirare, meaning “to inhale” or “breathe in.”

I like to think that those stone walls, the sea, the trees, the flowers in the cloisters, the yoga practice, and the writing practice all helped me breathe deeply into my own creative soul.

A Place for Visitors of All Kinds

Although I visited the island of Cumbrae for an organized retreat, the College of the Holy Spirit also offers individual B&B rooms at very reasonable prices. In other words, you don’t have to be part of a group to stay there.

The rooms are modest, but charming. There are singles and doubles, and a few rooms have en-suite bathrooms, while others share a bathroom just a short distance away. All accommodations are free of telephones and TVs, which assures peace and quiet.
 (One caveat: the doors and floors in these old buildings are creaky, so you can hear people tiptoeing through the hallways at night on their way to the loo. Bring earplugs.)

David Todd, warden of the College of the Holy Spirit, played bagpipes for our group one evening. © Laurel Kallenbach

And I can vouch for the remarkable food, lovingly served, at the College. Our meals ranged from quite good to excellent, and the staff and chef bent over backwards to accommodate dietary requirements. Breakfasts were always cooked to order, and the coffee was wonderful!

The atmosphere of the College of the Holy Spirit is lovely. You can go into the beautiful cathedral anytime during the day—and you might catch the organist practicing. I was lucky enough to be there for a Bach recital. Magnificent!

The cathedral hosts many wonderful musicians, and quite a few of the retreats held there are of a musical nature. So, if you enjoy hearing concerts in a historic church with wonderful acoustics, the College of the Holy Spirit is your place—just as it was my place for the restorative power of yoga and writing.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my travels in Scotland:






How I Got Hooked on Writing/Yoga Retreats

I wrote from the hammock on my patio at Villa Sumaya retreat center in Guatemala.

A few weeks ago, I went on a trip that ranks high as one of my favorite types of travel: a weeklong creative writing and yoga retreat. (In my next post, I’ll relate the details of this recent getaway — in Jamaica! — hosted by Writing Journeys and Tropical Escapes. First I want to wax poetic about the wonders of writing retreats!)

Back in early 2001, I noticed a small classified ad for a creative writing / yoga retreat in the back of Yoga Journal. What could be more perfect? Here was an opportunity to combine my passion for travel with the relaxation of doing yoga and with the luxury of having time to write twice a day for an entire week.

At the time, I was frustrated because I hadn’t managed to wedge much “creative” writing into my schedule since I finished my master’s degree 11 years earlier. So I signed up with Patchwork Farms retreats and headed to a rural Mexican fishing village of Yelapa, near Puerto Vallarta.

Views of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, inspired our yoga practice and writing sessions.

Led by poet and writing teacher Patricia Lee Lewis and yoga teacher Charles MacInerney, that retreat gave me the opportunity to stretch both my muscles and creativity while staying in a palapa, an open-sided, thatched-roof shelter.

Pen in Hand

My first retreat also exposed me to the Amherst Writers and Artists (AWA) method of writing, which practices the philosophy that every person is a writer and that every writer deserves a safe environment in which to experiment, learn and develop craft. With this approach, writing is fun, and everyone — from beginner to professional — writes something profoundly moving or funny during the week.

Writing sessions (done twice a day) go like this: Our group (including the leaders) write together for a set amount of time (perhaps half an hour) and then read aloud what we’ve just written. Then the group responds — not critically but gently — by pointing out what they liked about what they heard and what parts from the writing stood out.

Our group worked on our Welsh suntans and enjoyed a picnic lunch while sightseeing in Pembrokeshire (summer, 2007).

According to the AWA, this practice “enables participants to expose aspects of their creative minds that may have been inaccessible, leading the writer to his or her truest voice, and fostering the power to use it.”

International Discoveries

I’ve become addicted to the destinations and the wonderful people who run and attend these yoga and writing getaways. Since my first Mexico experience (I’ve returned to Yelapa three times), I’ve attended similar retreats in Guatemala, Ireland, Wales, and now Jamaica. In the process, I’ve discovered magical places, including the St. Non’s Retreat Centre on Wales’ Pembrokeshire coast, Los Naranjos jungle retreat in Yelapa, and Villa Sumaya on Lake Atitlán in Guatemala.

St. Non’s Retreat Centre in Wales is a magical place to write and do yoga.

There’s plenty of free time on retreats, and the group always goes sightseeing. In Ireland, we hopped a boat to remote and mythical Tory Island, which still has its own king who greeted us on the dock and invited us for dancing and a pint at the local pub.

In Guatemala, we visited the Mayan town of Santiago de Atitlán to visit the fabulous weaving markets and to see Maximón, a cigar-smoking, scarf-adorned folk saint (a blend of a Mayan god and Catholic santo). And in Wales, we explored Neolithic dolmens and a sacred tree that bleeds.

The Territory Within

Perhaps even more important is the undiscovered territory I’ve explored within. Every morning of these retreats starts with yoga, taught for all levels so you can go as deeply or gently as you like. In this loose, relaxed state, I’ve often grabbed my notebook and let the sentences gush from my pen. Forty minutes later, the leader rings a bell to signal the end of this writing session, and I feel as if only moments have passed.

Over the years I’ve transformed from frustrated wannabe author to actually creating a novel. I’ve heard bits and pieces of other writers’ novels in the formative stages, and now, thanks to the work and environment of these AWA retreats, I actually believe myself to be a novelist.

Our group of yogis/writers sculpted and fired clay masks (Guatemala, 2008).

Whereas I first signed up to prod myself into writing fiction or poetry again, now I go to these retreats to work on scenes from my own novel. In fact, on my second retreat, I wrote a piece (right after a guided meditation) that turned out to be the seed for my novel.

This time in Jamaica I challenged myself to write some really emotionally draining passages from that novel — they were still tiring and hard work, but the environment sustained me.

The combination of yoga, good food and writing recharges my creative batteries. Creativity just seems to blossom where nature, art and movement intersect — and it can happen in any landscape: a beach, a jungle, a field of heather.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer, editor and novelist

Morning yoga at Bromley Estate retreat center in Jamaica