So many iconic Scottish landscape features - spanning the Bronze Age, to the age of the Picts, to the collapse of the Highland clan system - are an easy bicycle ride from Findhorn. Yet Findhorn -except for its Scottish whisky barrels - hardly looks like Scotland at all.
There have been stories in the press and other media about a small community in the north of Scotland called Findhorn,
where people talk to plants with amazing results - stories of vegetable and flower gardens animated by angelic forms ...
stories of plants performing incredible feats of growth and endurance: 40-pound cabbages, 8-foot delphiniums, and roses
blooming in the snow - all a short distance from the Arctic Circle...[on] a cold windblown peninsula jutting into the North Sea with soil as sandy and worthless as your local beach.
.....THE MAGIC OF FINDHORN, by Paul Hawken;
Fontana/Collins © 1975
The paths along which we walked were lined with marigolds, alysum, lobelias, pansies, nemesia, wooly apple mint, and
columbine. In the beds were thick and profuse clumps of flowers, brightly competing with one another in the morning sun:
petunias, silver dust, asters. Michaelmas and Livingstone daisies, poppies, campanula, fuchsia, delphinium, clarkia,
helichrysum, monkshood, cosmos, ajuga, echium and many others.
It was an amazing display, and every flower seemed perfectly in bloom on this crisp late September day...the flowers are neon bright at latitudes farther north than Moscow and parts of Alaska. Roses are in full bloom over the roadways, cosmos plants stand six feet in the air, and bumble bees, drunk from nectar, stagger around the purple sedum.
THE MAGIC OF FINDHORN, by Paul Hawken
Scotland's Moray coast boasts the only Malt Whisky Trail in the World, with seven distilleries a short, inebriating drive
apart. But these wooden vats before me now aren't filled with 9,000 liters of that golden Speyside elixir that makes
Scotsmen dream and rave.
No, these gigantic Douglas fir vats from a cooperage at Craigellachie hold other kinds of spirits.
Spirits who are into organic gardening, meditation, yoga, shamanism, and the alternative lifestyle of the world-renowned
Findhorn eco village in the Scottish Highlands. Imagine 1920 vintage vats recycled into quirky Hobbit houses with picture
windows. You can't help but wonder... does it smell like Glen Moray Single Malt Scotch inside?
The Findhorn Foundation features the "Whisky Barrel Cluster" as a landmark on its Ecovillage map. Findhorn's first "Barrel House" was built in 1986 and four more soon followed, enhanced with extensions, stonework and turf roofs. These barrel houses overlook dancing wind turbines and the sandy dunes and beaches of the North Sea's Moray Firth, a micro-climate absurdly called "The Scottish Riviera."
The whisky barrel cluster is only a tiny part of the community which began humbly in 1962 and exploded into the Findhorn Foundation Ecovillage Project, squeezed now between the village of Findhorn and the
zooming Kinloss RAF base.
I first got wind of Findhorn in the mid-1970's while living in a Dublin bedsitter and indulging my obsession for the Irish tin whistle. I was getting private lessons from one of Ireland's most famous players of that humble piece of tin with six holes, Donncha Ó Briain (Dennis O'Brien 1960-1990).
Every Saturday I'd hop the bus from Rathmines into Dublin City
Centre, then another on to Glasnevin to the O'Briain family house. There I sat enthralled in the sitting room, watching good-natured Donncha in his wheelchair, barely able to move his fingers and his head, pour all his heart and physical force into making that whistle chirp, whirl, warble and fly. Back then I thought the tin whistle the most amazing musical instrument in the whole world, and I still think so.
One day my musical rambles around Dublin lead me to meet the obstreperous American whistle player with the band How To Change A Flat Tire (Front Hall Records). He raved about Findhorn, a spiritual hippie commune set on magical ley lines way up in Northern Scotland on the 58th parallel. It was at least as far from Dublin as the Arctic was from Manhattan.
He'd seen the mammoth vegetables and met the folks who talked to them to make them grow. Vegetables - except for carrots, mushy peas and potatoes - were hard to come by in Dublin back then, and it was shocking to think that a place so far north should know about such freaky things as eggplants and zuchini squash.
Now all I remember about this whistle player - whom I'll call Circle Man - is his dunking my head in a bed sitter sink of cold
water to teach me circular breathing. That is, "recycling" the breath as Eastern European bagpipers do. While I coughed and sputtered, Circle Man insisted that if I learned to play the whistle by breathing through my nose, then I could play jigs and reels without stopping for a breath. But to me, Circle Man's run-on playing without pauses to accent the rhythm sounded horrible, like a crazy circus performance. And I was having enough trouble mastering my triplets, crans and rolls.
Back then I was living most of the year in a walk-up on Manhattan's noisy Tenth Avenue in Hell's Kitchen. I never dreamed that one day I'd be living only 26 miles from Findhorn, and would twice consider buying an eco house here. In 2002 Gordon and I spent
three months living at Findhorn Caravan Park, taking walks on the duney beach, enjoying the New-Age
ambience, veggie food and open-mike talent nights between our commutes to Inverness. It was an escape from the tartan
tourism capitol - to be in a place that didn't seem Scottish at all.
In Inverness the OAP's - Old Age Pensioners - dress in drab colours like sky grey, mumbly brown or oatmeal, and they don't dye their hair or wear any makeup. The OAP's at Findhorn are hard to spot, with dyed red hair, glitter bits, bright yoga pants, rainbow-coloured Tibetan wool hats, and European, North American and Aussie accents.
The reputation of Findhorn in dull obtuse Presbyterian circles is that the people living here are shamefully loose, but that's how fringe thinkers, artists, and visionaries are usually considered.
What conservative Invernessians think of the Findhornians is that they are (read promiscuous ) hippies. Certainly last year's Hogmanay celebration at Findhorn - a shockingly non-
alcoholic event with fruit juice, incense and balloons - was a trip back to the 1970's, with lowing scarves, tabla drums,
barefeet and hairy armpits.
Findhorn is half-hour drive from the self-proclaimed Capital of the Scottish Highlands, but the landscape between Inverness and Findhorn contains features spanning 4,000 years of history. The eerie burial Cairns of Balnuaran of
Clava date from 2000 B.C.
The magnificent 9th century Sueno's Stone, the largest known Pictish stone in Europe, stands 22 feet high outside the town of Forres.
Culloden's haunted Battlefield -Scotland's Masada - is a wretched piece of bog whereon 16 April, 1746 "Bonnie" Prince Charlie lost the future of Scotland to the English Duke of Cumberland.
All these iconic landscape features - spanning the Bronze Age, to the age of the Picts, to the collapse of the Highland clan system - are an easy bicycle ride from Findhorn. Yet at the Findhorn (except for the Scottish whisky barrels) it hardly looks like Scotland at all.
For one thing, the bank notes exchanged at Findhorn aren't even Scottish. Rather than featuring Scotland's savior Robert the Bruce, Findhorn's Ekos depict wind turbines and the grand timber houses in the "Field
Findhorn has developed its own monetary system to keep money circulating within the Findhorn community. One Eko equals one British/Scottish Pound
Sterling. Spend a 10 Eko note in the Phoenix shop, and you get change in Ekos to spend elsewhere in the eco village - at the
cafe or the restaurant. You can trade Ekos back for sterling before you leave. But lots of Findhorn visitors take them
home as souvenirs - which means that the sterling the Ekos represent doesn't get spent outside of Findhorn.
Writing an "Eco" Column for an airline magazine sounds like a perverse oxymoron, doesn't it? Especially when the airline is the U.K.'s largest, operating over 182 aircraft in 28 countries on 500 routes serving 46 million annual passengers. In March, 2009 I was commissioned to write an article for the EasyJet Traveller inflight magazine about the Findhorn eco village. So I hopped on the bus from Inverness to Findhorn to gather up interviews, new impressions and photographs, albeit the sodden grey weather.
Near the entrance to the Findhorn Park is a nod to the Highlands' rich Gaelic culture, albeit an eyesore to Findhorn's
administrators: a funky vintage caravan with a hand-carved sign proudly announcing the name of this humble dwelling:
Tír Tairngire, Scots Gaelic for “The Promised Land.”
This caravan is an early Findhorn settler's tin "croft" with birch log extensions - draped in foliage and wonderfully quirky.
You will not find it on the Findhorn Foundation map of the Eco Village. As Findhorn evolves within the Global Ecovillage
Network (GEN) as a United Nations-endorsed Ecovillage Training centre - attracting students, eco-warriors and
professionals from around the world - these old caravans are being hauled away to the crusher.
Since I first visited Findhorn in 2002, most of them have been hauled away, as their occupants have died, departed, or moved into more upscale "eco" housing. The sad-looking caravan-size earthen gravesites which remain will one day be covered with handsome new eco structures costing a handsome fortune.
After a wistful moment at the still-inhabited "Promised Land" ( Oh for the simple mortgage-free life! ) I revisited my
favorite whisky barrel house. Despite years of Champa incense wafting through these round houses, on a warm summer's
day the scent of a Glen Moray Single Malt Scotch - like the tartan tourism ghost of Bonnie Prince Charlie - rises again.
How does one live in a whisky barrel? And - alcoholics notwithstanding - why? First you drain the barrel of its last drop of Scotch, down to the very last vapour, and let it air a bit. Cut out some picture windows and hang them with lace curtains and Tibetan prayer flags, and park a bicycle - not an automobile !!!e - out front.
Why live in a whisky barrel?
With house plots in the U.K. averaging £50,000 and house prices averaging £200,000 (and eco
houses in Findhorn's Field of Dreams going for over £350,000) building your own accomodation from a 17-foot high, 16.4
feet deep barrel is a nifty alternative. Better than paying £38,000 pounds for a caravan or a gas-guzzling camper van that
will ultimately - between the wet salty winds of the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean - rust to dust.
Although £15,000 may seem steep for two empty wooden barrels (and that was cash down, without a mortgage), the
builder of the first barrel house joined the vats together, spent £25,000 more to kit it out, and got a split-level house for £40,000 - nothing back in 1986 in the U.K. And yes, although the inhabitants don't smell the whisky anymore, visitors certainly do!
It's a bizarre idealogical juxtaposition, that this peaceful eco village of 700 - herbalists and healers, poets and potters and
shamans - should have blossomed right next door to the Kinloss Royal Air Force base, training fighter pilots since it opened in 1939. (Brace yourself for the vrooooooooom of the low-flying Nimrod MRA4's, each loaded with two pilots, two Weapons System Officers and six Weapons Systems Operators.)
What an odd place to locate an RAF base: on marshland inhabited with large water birds. Of course the WWII wartime thinking was 'hide a British airbase far, far away in the North of Scotland, 'and maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine
warfare. But tragically (and obviously) in November of 1980 two pilots died when their aircraft hit birds on take off and
crashed in the Kinloss woods.. So one wonders, are there any water birds left? Or have they all been pre-emptively
Oddly, the wide road in front of the Findhorn Visitor's Centre is actually the RAF's old runway. It's still called "The Runway" and RAF personnel drive their cars over it to buy their weekly boxes of Findhorn's organic veggies.
The Findhorn Foundation caters to an annual 4,000 visitors from 70 countries. To grasp the range of eco ambitions here, drop into the Visitor Centre for a guided tour or explore on your own with the Visitor's Guide sold at the Phoenix shop.
You'll learn how it all started in 1962 with six desperate souls crammed into one caravan in the Findhorn Bay Caravan Park,
living on the dole and growing their own food in the sandy soil. From these edgy beginnings sprung the UK's largest Community-Supported Agricultural system, and an Eco Mecca the Stockholm Environment Institute once rated as having the lowest eco footprint in the industrialised world. But from what I can see, today's eco footprint is more likely to be a tire/tyre track. The narrow pathways in between Findhorn's eco structures were never meant for cars, especially the gas-guzzling hunkers zooming up and down 21st century Britain. Rather than Champa incense, you're more likely to get a whiff of B.P. car exhaust.
The Findhorn eco village timeline starts at the Original Caravan where founders Peter and Eileen Caddy and their
three sons and Dorothy Maclean lived from 1962-69. It's now practically a shrine. If you want to know THE REAL STORY,
with gossip, scandals , hardship and spiritual turmoil, read Paul Hawken's masterfully researched and written The Magic
of Findhorn, and sigh over the innocence that will never come again.
Walk past ecomobiles and earth ships - to the grand straw bale and fancy timber houses in the colorful Field of Dreams.
The elfin, grass-roofed Natural Sanctuary
is a charmer and Findhorn's Living Machine, Europe's first eco sewage treatment greenhouse, is a fascinating operation. (Gordon and I camped beside it and didn't
smell a thing except the ocean breeze and the food we were cooking. )
"We came to this rubbish dump surrounded by tatty caravans in the middle of winter. Sheer madness! It was only later
that the deeper, underlying meaning was revealed. We didn't know anything at the time. If we did, we probably would have
fainted from shock at the work that was to be done." .....Peter Caddy, quoted in THE MAGIC OF FINDHORN, by Paul Hawken
Although most Findhorn residents live modestly, with simple room, board and the UK minimum wage for their work at
the Findhorn Foundation Eco-Village, they enjoy a shared communal wealth of resources: daily gourmet 25-entree
vegetarian feasts; an impressive range of bartered and shared talents and skills; the emotional and professional support of
community; awesome scenery and a flourishing arts scene with hi-tech, state-of-the-art performance venues galleries and
The Phoenix Shop is a Noah's Ark of everything organic from bread to beer, cheese to chocolate, veggies, fruits and
fruits of the vine and even organic Vodka! ("25,000 items! " exclaims manager David Hoyle, amazed that it all fits inside.)
Everything you need for a delectable picnic on the Findhorn beach.
The Phoenix Shop is also chock full of every kind of spiritual self-help book and sundry wands, crystals, tarot cards and other divination tools - and the whole angel mania stuff. Although I trust in the presence of angels, I cringe to see them marketed and money being made by turning people into licensed "Angel Therapists" with quick weekend degrees and conferring angel database privileges upon them. Yikes!!! But then marketing the New Age is nothing new...
You can also have a light meal at the Blue Angel Cafe next to The Universal Hall, the liveliest performing arts venue between Aberdeen and Inverness. Look for the angel wings of stained glass and pentagon-shaped roof of living sedum.
The Universal Hall has dance, drama and recording studios, video editing facilities and 300-seat auditorium. Capercaillie,
Blazin' Fiddles, The Scottish Chamber Orchestra, National Theatre of Scotland, BBC Symphony Orchestra and others have
performed here, then soaked in the outdoor hot tub which inspired the tune The Findhorn Hot Tub.
Living in a community where economic, political, social, spiritual, ecological and professional relationships all intersect can feel like a pressure cooker at times. But to Brooklyn-born artist Randy Klinger, Director of the Moray Art Centre, Findhorn is a magical wish-fulfilling place. He says this because this luminous new arts facility (powered by solar and geothermal energies) started with Randy's crazy dream and a rusty shed.
"I fled New York City's cold cynical art scene in 1992, and started teaching art at Findhorn in a 50-year-old rusty metal
shed with no insulation, bad lighting, and a pot belly stove, says Randy. "It rained as much inside as it did outside. That
lasted 14 years, during which my vision of beauty - something that can bring you to the darkest depths of tragedy then
uplift you to a greater brightness, attracted more and more people.
"I envisioned an environment for artists and students to evolve and flourish, away from market trends, fashion, and critical
intimidation, and find for themselves the highest beauty of our age. After sweat and tears, countless financial miracles and
local and government support, it's happened beyond my wildest dreams. "
"We now host exhibits from the British Museum, the National Galleries of Scotland, the Glasgow Museum and The
Louvre. And what's more, private art collectors like comedian Billy Connolly and the local aristocracy - Lairds and Ladies - call me up and say 'just come on over with the van and borrow whatever you like.'
IF YOU GO...