clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

FINDHORN: COMMUNITY ON NORTHERN END OF SCOTLAND EVOLVED AS RESIDENTS SOUGHT SPIRITUAL HARMONY WITH NATURE.

THERE IS AN intrigue surrounding the Findhorn community, a mystery. A whole mythology has grown up around this small town on the northern edge of Scotland. For decades visitors have been making pilgrimages to Findhorn. More than 100,000 have come so far.

Some come merely to study the energy-efficient architecture, or glimpse the vegetable garden - where, legend has it, a cabbage once felt in such harmony with the world around it that it grew to weigh 50 pounds. Most of those who come hope for their own mystical experience.Dorothy Maclean is one of three people who started the Findhorn community, nearly 40 years ago. Glamour and mythology aside, she says, "the reality of day-to-day living in the community is not so easy as it sounds."

Maclean came to Salt Lake City to speak at the University of Utah's Summer Institute in the Human Services at the Graduate School of Social Work. Kelly Fogarty, who helped organize the conference, said the U. paid Maclean's way to Salt Lake City to talk about sustainable communities.

Says Fogarty, "This is pertinent to the field of social work, how people can get along for long periods in an intentional community. More and more in the world, sustainable communities will be an issue - how people can live to-geth-er in close proximity, grow their own food.

"What was surprising and refreshing was that she didn't say everybody got along, that everything worked so smoothly. But they did have a commitment to deal with problems, and that is what sustains a community." Fogarty says she read the book "The Magic of Findhorn" years ago and has been curious about it ever since. "It's one of the longest-running intentional communities in the world. It's mutated. But it's still there."

Maclean was accompanied by Gordon Cutler, Findhorn's oral historian. Together, they told the story of Findhorn to an audience of about 50 people, several of whom had driven hundreds of miles to hear the lecture and see slides of the place it all began.

Findhorn got its start, inauspiciously enough, as a trailer park. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that before there were buildings, there was the idea of a community, the idea of a simple, spiritual community, that took hold in Dorothy Maclean's heart.

Maclean was born into a Presbyterian family in Canada. As a young woman, during World War II, she worked for British intelligence. "That training to keep your mouth shut is very useful for living in a community," she says.

During the war, she recalls, "the spirit in Britain was incredible. Everyone was working together for a purpose. That experience of cooperation hasn't been equaled since."

If the war taught her the joy of cooperation, her friendship with a Quaker woman taught her how to work joyfully. Her friend, Sheena, believed that to perform your daily chores with love and happiness was a way to honor your Creator. Sheena once asked Dorothy to help her dust her living room, but then sent Dorothy home because she was dusting with a sour attitude.

In Britain during the late 1940s, spiritual and meditation groups flourished. Maclean and Sheena became friendly with a young Royal Air Force officer, Peter Caddy, and his wife, Eileen. Peter was a "positive thinker" as well as a "sufi," a mystic, recalls Maclean. He was a man of action, whereas she and Eileen were more contemplative. A half-dozen other people joined the group, people who were searching for direction in the aftermath of war.

At Sheena's suggestion they all decided to quit their professional jobs, find manual labor, and try to live more simple and meditative lives. It might have been a good plan except that a young man in their group decided to further simplify his life by leaving his wife and children. His mother-in-law called the newspapers to report Sheena as a homewrecker.

Only a few reporters were interested at first. Failing to find the orgies the mother-in-law had reported, they interviewed the group on their religious beliefs. "We were naive," says Maclean. They answered every question they were asked and let the tabloids turn them into a sideshow.

By this time, the group's members had decided that all religions were equally good so they admitted to being Buddhist, Christian, Jewish - whatever they were asked about. They said they tried to live Christ-like lives, but somehow it was reported that Sheena thought she was Jesus, resurrected. They told the reporters their group had no name and found themselves heralded as "The Nameless Ones" in newspaper headlines across Great Britain. For a month, they were hounded by reporters, 50 at a time.

The group broke up. Maclean and the Caddys and the three tiny Caddy children fled to Scotland, seeking anonymity. Maclean and Peter Caddy got jobs in a hotel for a few years during the 1950s. But eventually everyone was out of work, "on the dole," and living in a small trailer, or "caravan" as the British call them, on the edge of the sea, near Inverness.

They began a vegetable garden, adding compost to the sandy dunes and getting amazing results. Findhorn became a stop on some bus tours of the famous gardens of northern Scotland.

Remembering the "Nameless" experience, Maclean was at first reluctant to tell the tours about the metaphysical aspect of their gardens. Living in harmony with nature, and trying, still, to do God's will, she says, she had come closer to the spirits of the plants. At first she was in touch with the spirit of the garden pea. Then she began to hear from other plants. They told her, she says, precisely how they needed to be cared for.

It was about this time that two things happened: The National Assistance Board decided to cut off the welfare for these able-bodied adults who couldn't seem to find jobs; and Eileen Caddy's self-published book, "God Spoke to Me" started to sell. The central irony of Findhorn may be that people who want to live simply can't survive without good publicity.

Eventually, like-minded gardeners and seekers came to rent trailers near Maclean and the Caddys. The community grew steadily. Several wealthy visitors liked the life they saw at Findhorn and gave money so residents could buy the land their trailers were on. Young architects came to stay and build. The community got a dining hall, an office, a printing shop. Whenever visitors dropped by, one of the community's members took them on a tour.

During the hippie era, the numbers swelled. Gurus came from India. Flower children came from California. Even Joan Baez came to Findhorn. During the late 1970s, according to historian Cutler, the Findhorn fervor died down a bit. Although there were still plenty of residents, the number of visitors was dropping off. Then came the artsy movie "My Dinner With Andre," in which Andre mentions the time he spent at Findhorn. And again, says Cutler, "we were the flavor of the month."

Over the years, the Findhorn community experimented with the best way to capitalize on all the visitors. Today Findhorn Foundation, a charitable trust, offers classes, workshops and retreats. The members own a nearby castle. They charge several hundred dollars a week (depending on the class), which includes meals and rooms in the castle. A recent catalog advertises Experience Weeks throughout the year; an Eco-Village sustainable housing conference; and other retreats about painting, singing, finding the child within, celebrating Easter, celebrating the Celtic fire festival. One course description lists an interesting instructor: HRH the Prince of Wales, talking about sustainable systems "on his land holdings."

More than 300 people, from 35 different countries, currently live at Findhorn.

But not Dorothy Maclean. Though she still travels as an ambassador of sorts to speak about how the community got started, she lives now in Washington state. Of the three founders, only Eileen Caddy still lives at Findhorn. Peter was killed in a car accident in 1994, but he had left Findhorn at the time of his death.

In Utah, Maclean's listeners, like the visitors to Findhorn, are fascinated by the nature spirits. "Do people still talk to the plants, and explain their need for a road, before they run a bulldozer through?" they ask. "It depends on who is doing the cutting," she says. Each resident of Findhorn follows his or her own spiritual belief. "Didn't you once cut down a whole stand of trees, behind the hotel?" someone asks. Maclean smiles. "I won't dwell on this, but yes, that was during our UFO period." They needed a landing pad.

Utahns also ask questions about community, about how decisions are made. Cutler, the historian who lived at Findhorn for 15 years and now lives in Salt Lake City, says the open community has attracted such a variety of people that there is now "an anarchy of spiritual beliefs," and decisionmaking is increasingly complex.

Maclean says there never was a plan for the community. It evolved. Maclean doesn't complain or criticize, but her spirit seems more in harmony with a small home and a vegetable garden than with a large business trying to run a school in a castle. Though she doesn't live at Findhorn, Maclean still tries to hear God's voice within her heart and to perform her daily tasks with love.