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Issue 25 - Scotland's lonely lake

Scotland Magazine Issue 25
February 2006


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Scotland's lonely lake

Scotland has plenty of lochs but just one lake. Written and photographed by John Hannavy

No one seems quite clear as to why Menteith is a lake rather than a loch. It has been suggested that it was given the title because it “looks English” – but the steep mountains which partly surround it make it unmistakably Scottish.

Another suggestion for the English name style is the abundance of ‘English’ coarse fish (pike and perch) which are to be found in its quiet waters and which are rarely found elsewhere in Scotland.

Yet others offer the treacherous rumour that the English leanings of one of the Earls of Menteith in the past may have influenced the title, but there doesn’t seem to be any historical basis for such calumny.

Historically, it was widely known as the Loch of Menteith at least until the early years of the 19th century.

The lake has three islands. Inchtalla was the home of the Earls of Menteith in the 13th century and, as it was reckoned to be a good idea to have a religious house on one’s estates, Earl Walter offered Inchmahome – the adjacent island to Inchtalla – to the Augustinians as a site for a priory.

With a gift of lands – and the incomes from those lands – he ensured sufficient funds for the Augustinians to build and maintain their monastery.

The newly established Bishop of Dunblane – whose approval had been only grudgingly given for the establishment of the priory – added the incomes from a couple of local parishes to the new foundation.

There appear to be no precise records as to the size of the community of Canons at Inchmahome, but the size of the chapter house and of the site of the canons’ dormitory, would suggest not more than 16 to 18 priests in total.

The island has apparently had a parish church on it since the 12th century, and indeed the early title of Inchmaquhomok has been suggested as proving that a Celtic monastery may have existed there since before the growth of organised Christian monasticism in Scotland.

The lake itself was an ideal site for the canons. The island gave them defensive protection, and the waters of the lake itself provided much of their food. Although there is little appetite for pike today, the medieval monks deemed it a considerable delicacy.

According to tradition, a favourite pastime for the monks was to stage a battle of strength between the pike beneath the waters, and the swans on top.

Using a live perch hooked to a line tied to a swan’s foot, the pike would be attracted to the bait and hook itself. With the pike and the swan firmly tied together, a great battle of strength would ensue.

If the swan proved to be the stronger, it would take off from the water and drag the unsuspecting pike into the air. If the weight and strength of the fish was too much for the swan – and the swan remained firmly in contact with the water – the canons would row out, free the bird and prepare the fish for supper.

The priory is now in ruins and the swans swim happily about while their ability to win a tug-of-war against any of today’s fish remains untested.

The lake is now well stocked with mature rainbow trout – they have to be mature to survive in the same waters as the pike – and is somewhat of a mecca for fishermen prepared to pay quite considerable fees for each rod used.

The other sporting action to take place on the lake are the infrequently staged curling matches – so typical of the hard Scottish winters of bygone times. In recent years, however, the lake has hardly frozen over at all, and the last time the curling bonspiel was held was a quarter of a century ago.

Inchmahome Priory was one of 18 Augustinian Abbeys and Priories in medieval Scotland. Some of them have vanished almost without trace. Others like Jedburgh Abbey, Holyrood Abbey and Inchcolm Abbey are quite well preserved.

Those three, and several others including Inchmahome are in the guardianship of Historic Scotland. They are now supplied with good information boards, excellent guidebooks to replace the somewhat tatty leaflets of old, and are open to the public at very reasonable charges.

The ruins of the priory are quite extensive and very romantic – not least because this is one of the many sites with strong associations with Mary Queen of Scots, who stayed here for three weeks as a five year old girl in 1547, probably staying in a cellar beneath the priory guest house near the west door of the church. The child-Queen was moved out to the island from Stirling for her own safety after the English invading forces got to within a relatively few miles of her.

The priory’s setting is in itself both beautiful and romantic. From the choir of the church, the view through the nave arcading and the ruined walls is towards the Hills of Menteith towering almost 2,000 feet above the waters of the lake. The beauty of the architecture and the warm welcoming colours of the hills on a sunny day, make this a peaceful and very soothing place to spend a few hours.

The priory remains are quite extensive – the church survives in part, with some splendid examples of mid to late-13th century architecture in the four arches which form the north nave aisle. The nave served as the parish church throughout the priory’s life, and small side chapels would have been laid out in each of these arched bays. The canons themselves used the much plainer choir of the church for their services.

To the south of the nave is the cloister, with its well preserved chapter house – the meeting place for the canons – on the east side. To the south of the chapter house was the dormitory block, the canons’ refectory to the south of the cloister and the guest house and prior’s lodgings to the west.

In summer the ruins of the priory are difficult to make out from the shores of the lake. In spring, however, they stand out clearly, set in grassy woodland, the landscape punctuated by thousands of daffodils.

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