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Issue 86 - On a Hilltop on Bute

Scotland Magazine Issue 86
April 2016


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On a Hilltop on Bute

John Hannavy explores a hidden medieval gem

I often suspect that a healthy measure of pessimism is an inherent part of our Celtic character – if we never expect too much, then we are rarely disappointed, and sometimes thrilled and surprised. I have never understood the ‘glass half full’ as opposed to ‘glass half empty’ maxim; neither seems entirely satisfactory, especially if the glass contains malt whisky, for whichever it is, the glass will inevitably soon be completely empty. If it’s pouring with rain, I resign myself to the fact that it is never going to stop, and if the sun is shining, I fear it is not going to last! These are not particularly good character traits in the makeup of a travel writer and photographer, but as I sat on the slipway at Wemyss Bay waiting for the ferry to Bute – an island which was then completely hidden by torrential rain and low cloud – I think I could be forgiven for my lack of optimism. The rain was bucketing down with what H. V. Morton once wonderfully described as ‘the nagging persistence of toothache’, and any expectation that my trip might result in any photographs whatsoever seemed entirely ill founded.

With my other hat on, I am a photographic historian, and this trip to the island had been built around a rare and privileged opportunity to do some research in the Bute Archives at Mount Stuart, for a new book on mid- Victorian photography. (The Victorian Photographs of Dr. Thomas Keith and John Forbes White is out now – Editor.) There was no need for good weather for that, but the icing on the cake was going to be the opportunity to explore one of the very few medieval churches in Scotland that I had not already visited and photographed.

More than fifty years earlier, in a burst of teenage enthusiasm, I had promised myself to explore and photograph every medieval church, abbey, priory, friary and cathedral in the country and, over the years, one by one, they have been visited and ticked off my list. As the car was buffeted by wind and rain on that exposed slipway, I suspected that this trip, too, would end with no pictures in the camera.

The ferry, MV Bute, was almost at the end of the linkspan before it emerged from the mist and spray, slightly crabbing its way towards the pier. After what seemed like an age, the ramp came down and what I imagined to be just about every car on Bute rolled off. I couldn’t blame them, really; Bute certainly did not seem like the best place to be that day. After half an hour of rolling on the waves and feeling a certain sadness that recent Caledonian MacBrayne ferries had been built in Poland or Germany, rather than on the Clyde, we arrived. Incidentally, shortly after writing this piece, as if hearing my silent lament, it was announced that the £97 million contract for two new large ferries would be awarded to Ferguson Shipbuilders of Port Glasgow, a contract that will result in the largest new ships to be built on the Clyde this century. Entering the relatively calm waters off Rothesay, the rain showing no sign of abating. It looked bleak and almost deserted, apart from dozens more cars waiting to leave the island. I was reminded of Neil Munro’s wonderful stories and his character Para Handy’s regular warning that “It’s a terrible place, Rothesay” every time his boat, the Vital Spark, approached the jetty.

Two wet days later, with my research completed – and two very good nights’ bed and breakfast at St. Ebba’s Guest House enjoyed – the sky was now blue and the temperature soaring. Rothesay didn’t seem like such a terrible place after all; even the imposing edifice of Rothesay Castle looked cheerful. All seemed well with the world, despite the nagging sense that it probably wouldn’t last. But it did last, and as I drove south down the island towards Kingarth and Kilchattan, the ruins of St. Blane’s monastery awaited me.

As one approaches the parking place next to a farm gate, just three kilometers south of the Kingarth Hotel (an excellent place for lunch, by the way), there is nothing to suggest that anything particularly special awaits; but it does. Up a steep path along the edge of a field – with spectacular views back across the Sound of Bute to the northern tip of the Isle of Arran – the visitor is almost at the top before the ruins of the monastery, which are nestled in a secluded, magical dell and surrounded by trees, start to reveal themselves.

According to tradition, a Christian community may have been established here as early as the 6th Century, which if true, would make it one of the oldest such sites in Scotland. St Catan is said to have established his monastery here in the closing years of the 6th Century, eventually being succeeded as Abbot by his nephew, the St. Blane to whom the present church was dedicated. He is said to have gone on to establish a religious community at Dunblane.

Scant traces of that early occupancy remain: some caves reputed to have been hermits’ cells, a well, and evidence of early organization of the site. This area, outside the enclosure wall of the ruined church, revels in the singularly un-Christian local name of the ‘Devil’s Cauldron’. It is said that St. Catan’s original monastery was abandoned after repeated Viking raids, but the religious importance of the site was not forgotten.a The majority of what remains visible, however, is a two-chamber 12th Century church, extended in the 14th Century, of simple beauty. It was partly restored and rebuilt under the auspices of the 3rd Marquis of Bute in the 1870s; his architect, with particular sensitivity to the heritage of the place, clearly identifying which stonework courses were original and which reconstructions. It stands on an elevated grassy platform, and has a lovely Romanesque chancel arch with dog-tooth and chevron mouldings. The surrounding graveyard – at a slightly lower level – has numerous gravestones from the 12th and 13th Centuries.

But it is the place, its atmosphere and its spectacular views, rather than just the remains of the church, which draws visitors to this enchanting spot on the southern tip of Bute. And if the sun hadn’t shone that day, I would probably still not have ticked it off my list.