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Issue 41 - Way out West

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 41
October 2008


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Way out West

From great cathedrals to tiny churches, the west of Scotland offers them all, says John Hannavy.

A visit to the little Augustinian Priory on the island of Oronsay is quite an adventure. It is the most remote of Scotland’s medieval abbeys and priories, and as a result, one of the least visited.

Getting there involves a ferry crossing from Oban or Kennacraig to Colonsay, a journey across the island, and then a lengthy walk across the narrow stretch of water that separates Oronsay from Colonsay. Timing is crucial – starting the walk when the tide is almost out gives the visitor about two to three hours to paddle through the shallow water, walk across Oronsay to the priory, have a good look round, and get safely back to Colonsay before the water between the two islands gets too deep.

The little priory has survived remarkably intact – perhaps because it was too remote to be used as a quarry after the Reformation, and on a warm summer’s day, the whole experience of visiting it is delightful.

Several hours’ travel away, and in the centre of Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow Cathedral is about as different an experience as you will get – the huge exterior of the church blackened by centuries of smoke and grime. While the exterior of the church has been heavily influenced by the hand of the 19th century restorer, the Gothic masterpiece that is the crypt has survived largely unchanged since medieval times.

The abbeys and priories of the west of Scotland are fewer in number than the south west and the east of the country – and generally speaking their locations are more remote and their ruins less architecturally striking. They are certainly less picturesque, but their simplicity points to a basic lifestyle more in tune with the original ascetic principles of medieval monasticism.

There were large abbeys in the west – Crossraguel, near Maybole in Ayrshire was one of only two abbeys in Scotland founded by monks of the Cluniac Order. The other was at Paisley.

While Paisley Abbey church survives, with a much more recent choir attached to a largely medieval nave, all the monastic buildings have gone. The 14th century church suffered extensive damage in the late 16th century, when the tower collapsed destroying the choir. As a result, a wall was built to cut off the ruins, and the nave continued in use as the parish church. The present choir, albeit on the foundations of the medieval original and incorporation surviving fragments such as the sedilia, was not completed until 80 years ago.

At Crossraguel, although the church was a much smaller and simpler affair, the entire abbey precinct survives to a sufficient extent for us to be able to get a feel for what it must have been like in its medieval glorydays.

Crossraguel’s two most impressive buildings still survive to their original height.

The Tower House was built by the last abbot, William Kennedy, and the magnificent gatehouse probably started by Kennedy, but completed by his nephew Quintin just after the Reformation – by which time the abbey was a private residence. Almost a ‘castle’ this huge structure dominates the surrounding countryside.

Kilwinning Abbey traces its origins back to the 12th century, when monks of the order of Tiron – Benedictines who had reverted to the order’s original and austere lifestyle – arrived at the Ayrshire site from Kelso.

The monks are believed to have arrived sometime between 1162 and 1189, and they founded their abbey on a site with religious connections dating back to the eighth or ninth centuries. Much of their church, however, lies somewhere beneath the 18th century parish church and the tall early 19th century tower.

Judging by the remains today, they built their abbey relatively quickly – the surviving fragments date predominantly from the late 12th century through to the middle of the 13th. The exception is the west front of the church which dates from a 14th century rebuilding after an attack by the English.

The remains visible today comprise the south west corner of the nave of the abbey church, parts of the chapter house, and the foundations of several other conventual buildings. The 12th century Romanesque chapter house door is a significant and beautiful survivor.

Many of the west of Scotland’s real treasures are found on the islands. On Iona, of course, with the Abbey, the beautiful ruins of the Nunnery, and St Oran’s Chapel, the oldest church on the island. But also on Harris at the remote Rodel Church, and on Lismore where the little whitewashed parish church is all that remains of the island’s medieval cathedral.

From the outside, it looks like a hundred other 18th and 19th century rural churches, but inside the beautifully restored sedilia – the seat of the medieval bishop – reminds visitors that this was once the choir of the most remote cathedral in Scotland, a cathedral which can trace its origins back at least eight centuries, although the church today is almost certainly on a site with monastic connections going back a thousand years. Work on the present building commenced in the early 14th century.

The church then was very different from today’s simple remnant. The present walls are about 10 feet lower than they would originally have been, the result of rebuilding in the mid 18th century, so what today looks like a squat country chapel, was once a taller and elegant medieval choir.

Traces of the nave and a western tower can still be seen beyond the present west wall, suggesting a church which was more than 130 feet long and 30 feet wide.

Elsewhere in the region, remains of several other churches and priories survive. By the shores of Loch Etive stand the ruins of Ardchattan Priory, while a little closer to Oban, in the woods near Dunstaffnage Castle, the shell of Dunstaffnage Church can still be found. Fragmentary remains also survive of the collegiate churches at Kilmun on the Holy Loch, at Kilmaurs, while rather more survives at Castle Semple near Lochwinnoch, and at Maybole a few miles from Crossraguel Abbey.

The medieval relics of the west of Scotland may be scattered and often small, but are nonetheless well worth seeking out.


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