Scotland on Sunday, Nov. 17 ,2002
There are two ways of looking at the Findhorn Foundation, the religious community in the north-east of Scotland dubbed the Vatican of the New Age. You can dismiss its members as a bunch of wackos, who grow giant cabbages for God and scan the skies for the spaceships of spiritually-attuned aliens. Or you can see them as visionaries: a prescient group who foresaw an age when orthodox religions would yield to a more fluid spirituality and ecology would rise up the political agenda.
As it celebrates its 40th birthday today, the Findhorn community finds itself in an unprecedented position: it appears, at last, to have connected with the zeitgeist. In a society worried about global warming, its “eco-village”, a network of energy-efficient houses, seems far-sighted rather than eccentric.
In fact, its pick-and-mix approach to religion, combined with the commercial pragmatism that has allowed 40 businesses (such as Fairway to Heaven: a golfing holiday with a spiritual dimension) to flourish , mean the community is virtually tailor-made for the 21st century. Of course, you might have to turn a blind eye to some of its excesses: its penchant for connecting with plants’ “devas” or “spirits of nature”, for example .
But, in general, its meditation rooms and Japanese peace poles, if not quite mainstream, at least touch a chord with an increasing proportion of the population.
Even the traditionally thorny relationships with the people of the village of Findhorn are beginning to thaw, although some residents still fear the burgeoning development will encroach on their territory.
Their worry is understandable: what started as a rag-tag collective of “sensitives” in a caravan park, has grown to a core community of between 400 and 500.
Every year, 14,000 people from more than 40 countries visit the community to gain an insight into how it functions: in the past, they have included Shirley MacLaine, Ruby Wax, Hayley Mills and Julian Cope. Some visitors, moved by the mutually-supportive atmosphere, give up glamorous lifestyles to take up new lives there.
This is what happened to Mike Scott, the creative force behind the Waterboys, and advocate of the Findhorn experience. He pitched up at the community in 1992, seven years after making his name with ‘The Whole of the Moon’, and just as his first marriage was breaking up.
Initially, he says, he felt detached from the place, but then he attended a community meditation. Asked to see light radiating out across the universe, he had an overwhelming sensation. “Wave upon wave of electrifying inspiration passed through me.
“I felt awed and humbled and truly felt that I had been looking for this moment and this place all my life.”
Scott, who lived in the village of Findhorn for more than a year, says it changed the way he looked at life forever. “I realised everyone really is the same deep underneath, with the same longing to love and be loved,” he says.
Scott, who has performed concerts in the community’s hall , was a welcome ambassador for the Findhorn community at a time when it was still weighed down by the legacy of its loopy origins. The community, after all, only came into being when its three founders, Peter and Eileen Caddy, and their American friend Dorothy Maclean, lost their jobs at the Cluny Hill Hotel in Forres (now owned by the foundation): they were sacked after Peter chopped down some trees to prepare a landing site for aliens willing to evacuate selected earthlings in the event of a nuclear disaster.
Unclear on what to do next, Eileen listened to the voice of God and was told they should all (the Caddys’ three children included) move to the Findhorn Bay caravan park.
While Eileen was acting as a conduit for the Divine, Dorothy was communing with the “devas” and, before she knew it, there were 40lb cabbages and foxgloves eight foot high growing in the garden.
As its vegetable patch flourished, so too did the community. It soon became clear, however, that the caravan site proved a fertile breeding ground for more than cabbages. The community’s apparent tendency to bed-hop, a perception perpetuated by Peter Caddy’s five marriages (two before Eileen and two after), was grist to the mill for a society obsessed by the concept of free love.
Then, in the 1990s, the foundation’s reputation suffered as a result of its links with Dr David Mead, a proponent of holotropic breathing, a process that produces the effects of LSD by non-chemical means, and the death from dehydration of foundation member Verity Lynn, a follower of spiritual “guru”, Jasmuheen, who was trying to live without food or water. Such controversies brought a flurry of worried parents to the door demanding to know if the Findhorn Foundation was a cult.
In recent years, their fears have been soothed by the reassuring tones of Richard Coates, PR spokesman and foundation member, who does his best to shrug off Findhorn’s flaky past. Coates gave up his job as a manager for a large computer manufacturer shortly after being lured up to Findhorn by a girlfriend 25 years ago.
“If we were a cult then we would be failures,” he says. “We have no charismatic leader, no one is asked to empty their money into a pot, and there is no one on the door to stop you leaving.”
Coates gets frustrated by the constant flow of knocking stories, but believes even bad publicity can draw new blood to Findhorn. “I know for years everyone has focused on the giant cabbages and such like, but if people come because they are curious about that sort of thing, and then they find people who collaborate in a positive and fulfilling way, then that’s a good thing.”
Alex Walker, who once worked for the management studies department at Glasgow University, says: “When I first visited, it seemed to me Findhorn was a useful and interesting community on to which had been tagged this absurd spirituality,” he says.
“But after a while, I realised the spiritual side of it was what pulled it together, that it was at its very core. It’s the reason Findhorn survived where so many other communities from the 60s didn’t.”
Dorothy Maclean, now 79, believes the community’s decision to embrace commerce has not changed its ethos.
“If we had known it would turn out like this, we would probably have run away. It would have been too daunting for us,” says Maclean, who lives in America and is back in Findhorn to give a workshop.
“But the basic tenets of the community have remained the same: to connect with the God within and co-operate with the intelligence of nature.
“People have to be able to make a living here if the community is to survive, but it is the way they conduct themselves while doing it that is important.”
After years as the butt of the worst of the cabbage jibes, she is delighted Findhorn is losing its weirdo status.
The irony is, however, that, while being socially acceptable makes a refreshing change, it also means facing up to a new challenge: competition.
Once Findhorn cornered the market in crystals, self-help books and green thinking. Now you can buy birth stones and tarot cards on every High Street, and rival New Age communities are springing up all over the globe. New projects are needed to keep the community ahead of the game.
With this in mind, the focus of the foundation is firmly on the future: the building of more eco-houses, the hosting of major international conferences, and workshops on economic sustainability, all projects that will reinforce its new-found credibility.
As the 40th birthday celebrations reach their peak tomorrow night, the eyes of the community will again be raised to the heavens: this time, however, it is fireworks rather than UFOs they will be looking for.