Conservation: The monk, the goat and the orchard

A Buddhist community on Holy Island combines an alternative therapy with alternative energy. By Fiona Macaulay
A dead thrush lay on the doormat of the abbott's residence at the Samye Ling Tibetan Centre in Dumfriesshire. "Oh, that'll be there for Rinpoche to bless," remarked Nicholas Jennings, as I stepped gingerly over the threshold. Animals are greatly respected in Buddhist philosophy.

My mission at Samye Ling, in the vale of Eskdalemuir, was to meet Mr Jennings who, on behalf of the centre, is managing a conservation project on Holy Island in the Firth of Clyde, just east of the Isle of Arran. The Samye Ling Centre bought the island in 1992 in order to create a retreat in a self-sustaining environment. Buddhist thoughts about the way we should care for the earth are very similar to those of conservationists. This convergence of beliefs was given further recognition and support last year with the formation of The Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) which has been joined by nine of the world's major faiths.

For the ARC, Holy Island is a flagship project which is a fore-runner to an initiative to be known as The Sacred Land Project. This will be launched in April next year, its aim being to conserve, and if necessary reinstate, sites of spiritual significance.

Although Holy Island's spiritual history is Christian, the Buddhists respect and want to build on that. "It is an excellent place for undisturbed meditation," says the retreat master of Samye Ling, Lama Yeshe Losal. "The island has been sanctified by the intense prayer and contemplation carried out there."

Holy Island was the home of St Molaise, a 6th-century hermit who was said to have possessed miraculous powers; his cave is a favoured place for meditation on the island. And the ruins of a 13th-century monastery provide a similar sense of tranquillity.

One of the planned conservation projects is to re-plant the monastery orchard, which is believed to contain soil from the Holy Land. Some 27,000 trees of indigenous species have already been planted, mainly funded by a "Sponsor a native Scottish tree" appeal, advertised in environmental magazines.

After consulting local experts, rock whitebeam and downy birch were planted along with oak, ash, hazel, hawthorn, rowan, holly, beech, willow, alder and elder. The island's wild Eriskay ponies, Soay sheep and goats, which are thought to date from Jacobite times, have been excluded from the planted areas so as to encourage rejuvenation of the natural habitat. Initially it was suggested that the numbers of these animals should be reduced, but for the Buddhists a cull was out of the question. (Their respect for animal life also meant that Gary Rhodes on his Rhodes Round Britain tour was not granted permission to come on to the island to kill and cook a goat.).

During the summer, small groups of volunteers have been coming to the island in 10-day shifts to lend a hand. An ongoing chore is clearing the beaches of refuse thrown up by the waters of the Clyde. The Holy Island Project relies on this free workforce. As a non-profit making organisation, no one has a paid job - except for Mr Jennings who is in charge of fundraising.

His task is a daunting one, for the eco-architectural plans for a retreat centre at the south end of the island are expected to cost about pounds 5m - and there is no money in the bank. The design for a self-sustaining development is the brainchild of Andrew Wright, who has his own architectural practice and is also a consultant to the Richard Rogers Partnership. The plans won the main prize of the Bovis/Architects' Journal Award at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1994.

"What I enjoy about architecture," says the 31-year-old architect "is a design approach that meshes together social issues, landscape, the science of structures and environment; that creates a harmony between them".

The basic idea for Holy Island is to build two sets of retreat rooms, partly dug into the ground, which will descend the hillside like a row of steps or terraces. "It's a simple idea," says Mr Jennings. "You dig out the back wall and use that earth to make the floor, then put a top over the gap like a lean-to."

The roof will be covered with earth and the rooms will have a sloped, glazed front. The energy-efficient features of the design are various - the rooms will be south facing, which together with the angled glass fronts will maximise solar gain in an area which has limited sunshine. It is estimated that this will provide on average almost half the space heating.

Andrew Wright's designs include a scheme to make the island water self- sufficient. Rainwater will be collected along a gully and stored in tanks above the retreat rooms, to be used for washing and cleaning. Below the retreat rooms, water running off the buildings will filter into a pond at the top of a garden area for irrigation purposes. There is enough fresh water from natural springs for drinking and food preparation. Most waste water would be naturally filtered through a series of reed beds.

Research is being done into the possibilities of alternative energy sources of which the most feasible is wind power. "We need to set up a local weather station," says Mr Jennings. "But local knowledge of wind speeds makes it look quite viable, it may even be possible to supply some of the electricity we would make back into the grid."

Some vegetables and fruit are already being produced under organic principles in the walled garden of the old lighthouse keeper's cottages, but Andrew Wright's plans provide increased garden areas, complete with irrigation systems and a series of greenhouses. In the words of Lama Yeshe Losal "the aim on Holy Island is to create an atmosphere of spiritual and ecological good health as an example for all".

For enquiries regarding The Holy Island Project contact Nicholas Jennings, Samye Ling Tibetan Centre 013873 73223