Writing an "Eco" Column for an airline magazine sounds perverse, doesn't it? Especially when the airline is the U.K.'s largest, operating over 319 aircraft in 30 countries, on 1000 routes to 136 destinations, and serving over 65 million annual passengers. In March, 2009 I was commissioned to write an article for the EasyJet Traveller inflight magazine about the Findhorn eco village. My editor was especially interested in Findhorn’s eco houses made from old Scottish whisky barrels. After all, Scotland's Moray coast boasts the only Malt Whisky Trail in the world, with seven distilleries a short—inebriating—drive apart. I suspected the real reason EasyJet wanted a piece on the whisky barrel houses was to sell whisky ads! Whisky sells alot more advertising than does eco hippie stuff. So I hopped on the bus from Inverness to Findhorn to gather up interviews, new impressions and photographs, albeit the sodden grey weather.
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, bizarrely squeezed now between the village of Findhorn and the zooming Kinloss RAF base. 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, about 500 of them now, 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?
Yes, it does. 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. Park a bicycle out front, then start looking for furniture to fit with round walls….
With house plots in the U.K. averaging £100,000 and house prices averaging £250,000 (and eco houses in Findhorn's Field of Dreams going for over £500,000) building your own accomodation from a 17-foot high, 16.4 feet deep barrel is a nifty alternative. Better than paying £60,000 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 then — 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, they are so used to it, visitors certainly do!
The Findhorn Foundation’s Whisky Barrel Cluster is a featured 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 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 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. 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.
As well as veggies, the Phoenix Shop stocks 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 may believe in 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...
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 time of simplicity and innocence that we shall never see again.
Findhorn’s Universal Hall is 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.
Next to the Universal Hall is the Phoenix Cafe, formerly the Blue Angel cafe. You can enjoy organic meals and local produce, and coffee here, inside or outside, depending on the weather. But after all the evolution in vegetarian cuisine around the world, it is disappointing to find the same old “jacket potatoes” with the same old fillings - baked beans (organic!) cheddar cheese (organic!) tuna mayo (Dolphin friendly!) and vegetarian chili. Y-a-w-n…
…and Paninis…and toasties (with organic whole wheat, of course)…sandwiches cheddar cheese and onion (organic!) and so on and organic so on and on… Oh, and PIES! Mushroom and leek, and lentil and olive pies!!! This is as adventurous as it gets…
But to continue your walking tour…past ecomobiles and earth ships - to the grand straw bale and fancy timber houses in the colorful Field of Dreams. In 2004 you might have bought one for under 50,000 pounds, but now many are over 300,000. The Findhorn Foundation is now a huge and successful charity business.
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, founder of the Moray Art Centre, Findhorn is a magical wish-fulfilling place. He says this because this luminous 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.'
I first got wind of Findhorn in the mid-1970's when I was living in a Dublin bedsitter. A fugitive from a walk-up on Manhattan's noisy Tenth Avenue in Hell's Kitchen. I was freelancing travel articles about Ireland - to The New York Times and Travel & Leisure - in order to indulge my obsession for the Irish tin whistle.
I felt lucky to be getting private lessons from one of Ireland's masters of that humble six-holed piece of tin, Donncha Ó Briain (Dennis O'Brien 1960-1990). Every Saturday I hopped the bus from Rathmines into Dublin City Centre, then another on to Glasnevin to the O'Briain family house. I sat enthralled watching good-natured Donncha pouring all his heart and physical force into making that whistle chirp, whirl, warble and fly. I thought the tin whistle was the most amazing musical instrument in the whole world. I still do.
One day my musical rambles around Dublin City lead me to meet the obstreperous whistle player who played with the American band How To Change A Flat Tire (Front Hall Records). This musician - who I’ll call Circle Man - had a frantic run-on style of whistle playing. He was intent on showing me how to do circular breathing as Eastern European bagpipers do. Dead simple, he said. You breathe in through your nose, and breathe out through your mouth - into your instrument. To teach me this, he dunked my head in a bed sitter sink of cold water. While I coughed and sputtered, Circle Man insisted that I would soon be playing jigs and reels without stopping for a breath. But I thought playing Irish music without breathing - without pauses for style and rhythm - sounded horrible. And I was having enough trouble mastering my triplets, crans and rolls.
When Circle Man gave up on my circular breathing, he began raving to me about Findhorn, a spiritual hippie commune - way up in Northern Scotland on the 58th parallel. It was set on magical ley lines, power lines of force that run deep through the earth, which the ancient mystics knew all about. Circle Man had seen Findhorn’s mammoth vegetables - turnips a foot tall and potatoes as big as a pie - 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. Findhorn seemed so far away, even from Dublin. At that time I was consumed by Ireland and Irish music. I never thought I go to Scotland, especially way up there…
Back then I spent most of the year living in a walk-up on Manhattan's noisy Tenth Avenue in Hell's Kitchen, which I shared with Bill Ochs. Bill was my first tin whistle teacher, and after my whistle-binge work with Donncha Ó Briain I started teaching at An Claidheamh Soluis/The Irish Arts Center too. But through some kind of whistle magic I was spirited to Montreal, and eventually to Scotland after encountering Gordon Mooney. I never dreamed that I'd be living with a Scot in Inverness, only 26 miles from Findhorn. And that I would twice consider buying an eco house there.
In 2003 Gordon began his job in Inverness as a Planning Officer at the Highland Council. Before we bought a house in Inverness, he commuted five days a week for three months from our campsite at what was then called the Findhorn Caravan Park. Between trips to Inverness, we enjoyed taking walks by moonlight on the sand dunes and beach, enjoying the New-Age ambience, veggie food and often zany open-mike talent nights. It was an escape from the Tartan Tourism Capitol - to be in a place that didn't seem Scottish at all.
We could see that although some Findhorn’s 500 residents did live modestly, with simple room, board and modest wage for their work at the Findhorn Foundation Eco Village—they enjoyed 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 workshop spaces.
In Inverness, my new home, I wasn’t known as a free-lance travel journalist, but as an OAP - an Old Age Pensioner 60 years old. Too old to get a job, and too old to wear fetching clothing. OAP’s in Inverness dressed in drab colours like sky grey, mumbly brown or oatmeal, and they didn’t dye their hair or wear any makeup.
But the OAP's at Findhorn were 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 Inverness, in dull obtuse Presbyterian circles, is that the people living here are shamefully loose. But we all know, 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.
Tired of the boozy Hogmanay goings-on in Inverness, Gordon and I, with his offspring Shona and Craig, decided to bring in the new year at Findhorn’s wild ceili dance. The Hogmanay celebration at Finhorn — 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.
It was strange to think of these extremes of culture, Findhorn and Inverness, only 25 miles apart: Progressive, international Findhorn with its Tibetan prayer flags, and the Wee Free Inverness church services where burning candles and wearing bright colors was an abomination. It reminded of the spiritual shock I experienced that same Hogmanay when after breakfast in Inverness, we drove the five miles out to the Cairns of Balnuaran of Clava dating from 2000 B.C. and found ourselves experiencing a frosty magical Mindwinter’s solstice. It was sunny. The midwinter’s sun shot right into the inside of the cairn, like the hand of an old clock striking the number twelve at midnight. The sun’s rays were as a sharp as a needle! After wandering around the stones dreaming of the old Celts and their mystical ways, we drove back into town, stopping at Tesco’s for groceries. The Tesco parking lot—cars! bright neon lights! loud noise!— was under heavy mist. It was cold, clammy, not sunny and frosty like at Clava. I was in shock. In Scotland you can drive only a few miles, to find yourself time-warping from one millenium to another. Parallel realities of invisible spirits and spirits in glass bottles on grocery store shelves. That’s Odd Scotland!