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Issue 67 - Due North

Scotland Magazine Issue 67
February 2013


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Due North

In the second part of his series, John Hannavy follows Bishop from Mull to Orkney

By June 7th Bishop Pococke had reached the Isle of Mull, by way of Loch Awe – crossing the loch at Portsonachan – and traveling north to Loch Etive which he crossed at Bonawe on his way to visit Archattan Priory on the north shore. From there he made his way past Dunstaffnage Castle and chapel, then via Dunollie Castle to Oban.

He did not, however, cross directly to Mull, spending a few days exploring south of the town – visiting Seil Island and Easdale’s slate quarries, before sailing to Colonsay to visit the ancient Augustinian priory on the adjacent island of Oronsay. Pococke described this remote and impoverished little monastery as an abbey, but its status never reached such lofty heights.

At the time of his visit to Easdale, the island’s slate quarries were at the height of their production. All that came to an end after the quarries cut deep into the rock were inundated during a severe storm in 1881. The water filled all the workings, creating the deep still lagoons which are the most dramatic features of the island today.

Of Duart Castle on Mull he wrote that it was “an oblong square building of which nothing is remaining but the outer walls; it is strongly situated on a rock over the water. Here is a barrack for one company of soldiers and there is one always here on duty.” Interestingly, the garrison had actually been withdrawn in 1751, and the castle would not be restored until the early 20th century.

In his fifteenth letter, Pococke described the journey across Mull towards Iona – or “I-Colm Kill” – and the letter ended with a description of the view along the coastline just after he had crossed to the island from “Ferryport” – Fionnphort – “I observed for about two miles the rocks are all of a bright red granite; and towards the little Islands and rocks near the Shoar. I also took notice of several hills about Ardscrinish which resembled the Giants Causeway in irregular Pillars, mostly of four sides, with several Joynts, and are much like the rocks between Ballintory and the Giants Causeway in Ireland, and it would be curious to know if there is anything of this kind in Ila which is directly opposite to the Causeway.” He kept his detailed description of the various religious sites on the island for a long letter to his eldest sister Dorothy – a letter actually written from Lismore after he had moved on from Iona.

Iona clearly lived up to his expectations – not always the case with some later travellers – for he explored the whole island and gave Dorothy a detailed history of every building he visited. The island traditions did not escape his notice. “I went to the south west part of the Island and in half a mile passed by a fine small green hill, called Angel Hill, where they bring their Horses on the day of St. Michael and All Angels, and run races round it; it is probable this custom took its rise from bringing the Cattle at that season to be blessed, as they do now at Rome on a certain day of the year."

He later described the hill and its story to Thomas Pennant – whose journeys I retraced in Scotland Magazine a couple of years ago – and Pennant retold it in his tour, saying “I conjecture that this usage originated from the custom of blessing the horses in the days of superstition, when the priest and the holy-water pot were called in, but in latter times the horses are still assembled, but the reason forgotten.”

It was ironic that this cradle of Christianity had, at the time of the Bishop’s visit, no church! The churches of both the abbey and the priory were roofless ruins, and St Oran’s Chapel was a cowshed. And yet, as Pococke observed “There are about 36 families on the Island who live in the Village at the Churches. I-Colm Kill is in the district of the neighbouring Minister in Mull, who performs service here once a Quarter in a private House.”

It seems to have been Pococke’s habit to write about a place after he had departed, and presumably after he had taken the time to digest and consider what he had seen. This habit was maintained on Lismore – no mention of which was made in the letter he wrote from the island, but which is described in his next letter, also to Dorothy, written from ‘Ardes in Argyleshire’ – probably Airds House in Port Appin.

It seems Pococke and his servants sailed from Mull up Loch Linnhe round the southern tip of Lismore and up the eastern coast of the island, probably landing near Achnacroish, from where they walked to Clachan, intent on visiting the remains of the medieval cathedral.

“Going up towards the Church”, he wrote, “I saw a rivulet which turns a Mill, and rises out of a beautiful lake which is in a deep bason [sic] and is about half a mile in length and a furlong in breadth and is edged with wood. Nothing remains of the Church but the Quire, the doors, and seats for the officiating priests; they are of the most plain and simple Saxon architecture I ever saw, which is a mark either of the Antiquity of it, or the want of art when it was built, supposing the Fabrick is of no longer date than the See. At the reformation this See was removed to Duno[o]n between Lough Fine and the Lake Heck as the most convenient situation for the Diocese.”

The church which Pococke visited would have been much more obviously medieval than the little whitewashed and harled building which serves the island community today. The church had undergone considerable modification in 1749 when the height of the choir had been substantially reduced and the building re-roofed. It would be substantially rebuilt in the closing years of the 19th century, giving it the appearance it has today.

The Sedilia in the south wall is a rare survival in a church so drastically reconfigured for Presbyterian use. Even more so is the intact piscina adjacent to it. Such obviously ‘Roman’ features were usually the first to be destroyed by the reformers – but perhaps in the cathedral’s rather remote island setting, the reformers’ zeal was better-tempered than it was on the Scottish mainland.

Indeed, when the choir of the cathedral was refurbished to serve as the post-Reformation parish church, the mediaeval carved stonework was simply filled in and plastered over. It was not revealed once more until a sensitive restoration as recently as 1956.

Pococke was a little out with his dating of the church, as the See was not established until the early years of the 13th century, and nothing survives in the body of the present church to predate the creation of the first Bishop of Argyll. The bishopric itself actually survived on the island only into the early years of the 16th century, several decades before the Reformation.

Crossing over to Appin, Dr. Pococke made his way to Fort William which, with a candour which pervades much of his journal, he said was “built by King William to bridle the highlanders.” His staunch royalist leanings are never in doubt; his dislike of highlanders and Jacobites manifest; and in strong contrast to his enthusiasm for Scotland – but a Scotland which he already saw as an integral part of an indivisible union.

At Fort Augustus he wrote of visiting Inverlochy Castle, which he had been told was built two hundred years before Christ. In that respect, whoever told him was a mere 1400 years out, as the castle dates from the late 13th century.

Throughout his letters, Pococke gave no sense that he talked to anyone along his route who was knowledgeable about the history which had been played out in such places. And yet he must have done so, for he was extremely well informed, but as to from whom he had gleaned his knowledge, his sister and we are left none the wiser.

On his first visits to Scotland he had preached in local churches – and presumably talked to the clergy he stayed with – but the third trip seems to have been purely about travel and exploration. His hosts were, presumably local landowners, and he had either done a great deal of preliminary reading, or had gleaned as much information as he could from them, from local historians and from whatever written local histories were available.

His tour took him to the battlefield of Culloden, where his Hanoverian sympathies were given full rein, referring to the government forces as ‘we’ and the Jacobites as ‘them’ and ‘the enemy’.

Letter XX contained a detailed account of the battle, together with drawings of the disposition of opposing forces, lavish praise for the victors, and no sympathy whatsoever for the cause of the Jacobites.

From Inverness his route took him to Dingwall and north to Durness, stopping at every broch he found along the way.

He spent some time in Ross and Sutherland, writing to his sister from Tongue with descriptions of the landscape and coastal views along the way.

Eventually he crossed the Pentland Firth to Orkney, arriving in Stromness, where he was fascinated by the bustle of the little port, and by the regular trade between the island and Canada.

And Stromness is where we will meet up with him again next time.