The rain falls softly but persistently, screening the summer sun, blanketing the surrounding hills and woodland, and carpeting the fields in dampness. A man stands stripped to the waist, wearing his kilt and stout shoes as protection against the wet. He's warm, glowing perhaps from his efforts tending the fire that's blazing fiercely as it heats the stones for the Purification and Renewal Ceremony. But the warmth is more than physical - there's an inner glow, too. It's a scene familiar to staff the world over and one that has been repeated thousands of times as men reach Sunday morning, the final stages of their weekend journey into the fellowship of the Warrior Community.
But there's something unique about this one, something very important to me. This is the first ceremony of its kind to be held by MKP in Scotland. Applecross July 2010; a long, long wait of 16 years is finally over.
What does it take to serve? Willingness? Knowledge? Energy? All these, but fundamentally it takes commitment. And it takes commitment just to reach Applecross, situated on the north-west coast of Scotland hundreds of miles from the UK Community's birthplace in the New Forest deep in the south of England. Men have already travelled a long, long way before the inner journey has even begun.
With Applecross almost reached there's a powerful symbolism in the final few mites, marked by a climb of more than two thousand feet over the Bealach Na Ba. If the weather is fair, breathtaking views through the glens and then across to the Isle of Skye are a reminder of how small we are in the context of the natural world. if the mountain is cloaked in mist, hairpin bends and a gradient of 1 in 5 test the nerves of approaching visitors. Little wonder the ancient name for Applecross, the settlement nestling on the other side beneath the mountains, bordering the sea, is Achornrich, a place of sanctuary.
Sixteen years ago I was a man approaching initiation, yet almost 14 years have passed since I last circled up with the staff men on the Thursday evening of a training weekend. What will I find that is familiar, what will I find that's new? Will I be judged for my absence? What do I have to offer?
The sun begins to drop, flooding the room with light. Welcomed into the circle, I do indeed have something to offer. The question is asked by our leaders, John K., Bennie N. and David S., what are the cultural differences our leaders should be aware of as they take these new men on their journey? How will Scottish men feel about being initiated by English men?
I speak a little of my experience at the first UK initiation weekend in the New Forest, the gratitude I felt to the men who had flown in from the States, and how that gratitude overcame my own prejudices. I am heard.
There is room to talk about Scotland, Scottish people, Scotland's past, Scotland's future. We move from the broad sweep of generic history to personal. stories from men about their Scotland and how they relate to that country, to that culture. This sets the tone of the weekend, and I'm left in no doubt that this caring community of men who have travelled so far to get here fervently believe that creating and managing the first Warrior training in Scotland is special and important. I am grateful.
The discussion even eclipses the hottest topic on the staff bulletin board over the past few weeks - how to combat the Menace of the Highland Midge, an issue that has prompted an unprecedented move, the appointment of the very first Midge Co-ordinator, Brian Lilley. And there are other gestures too: kitchen coordinator Paul Erne takes care to reflect the geographical location in his menu. Among the staff sacred objects is a 19th century edition of James Paterson's book "Wallace the Hero of Scotland", dated 1865.
Friday, and men are coming. Thursday's setting transmutes into action, free flowing, energised and focussed. Preparations are complete and 17 initiates arrive with the sun shining, as a blustery wind portends what is yet to come. By the time of Midnight Adventure the rain is full and incessant, and the winds have rendered the midge coordinator's rote redundant - for this time at least.
Saturday morning and the men awake. For some it will be the longest day of their lives. Applecross welcomes men who are ready to work; the land sends a symbol to mark the day: a stag has descended from his mountain kingdom and strikes a regal air, watching from close by as the men walk in file towards the pit.
What happens next? Every man has a different story to tell of his initiation experience and every staffing provides each of us with new insights, new clarity, and new wisdom. Old fears, shame and guilt are exposed - laughter, tears and anger are welcomed. At the end of the day, 17 men are initiated as Warrior Brothers. As is their right, individuals have chosen to pass on individual processes. Not one man has chosen to leave. Looking down on Applecross from far above the mountains, the ancestors who went through their own initiation on this land thousands of years ago are watching us. I have a feeling they approve of what they see.
Sunday: the first morning of their lives as initiated Warrior Brothers for 17 men. They awake in the rain to the sound of the bagpipes. The strains of Highland Cathedral mark their final day at Applecross; for some, perhaps, that tune will take them back to this moment for the rest of their lives. None are aware that the man heralding the dawn has travelled from Belgium to create this awesome moment. Gautier has not a drop of Scottish blood in him... aye, but he's a bonny piper!
And so with the P&R ceremony complete and the feast prepared I watch as the staff are introduced to the men for the first time. I watch their amazement as they learn how far men have come at their own expense to create this weekend for them.
I revisit in my mind the feast at Sopley in December 1994. I remember first and foremost the longing to be part of a weekend, like the one I had just experienced, but in Scotland. What would life have been like for my father, my uncles, and my bosses if this experience had been available to them? What could life be like for my brothers, my cousins, my friends, men I work with, men I drink with? What could I do to make that happen? Sixteen long years have passed, and while some of these men have gone now, something special awaits a new generation.
Now there are two regular iGroups meeting in Scotland. Individual men who have previously journeyed south to be initiated no longer live in isolation. Already two PIT weekends have been held, where men have reinforced their initiation experience.
I watch in awe as the men who came through that weekend in Applecross step forward at their iGroup, ready to work. They are ready to put aside their fears of not knowing, of not getting it right, to find in doing so the first step to being good enough.
The future of the Warrior community in Scotland will be built on this kind of energy, and the future already looks to be in good hands.