Inchmahome Priory is situated on the Island of Inchmahome which in turn is the biggest of three islands on the only natural lake in Scotland, the Lake of Menteith. (There are some man-made bodies of waters called lakes and those who would argue it is a loch called ‘The Lake of Menteith’.)
A trip on the cuddy boat ferry and in under 10 minutes you are on the island. When you land right beside the Priory you can head straight to it, or do what we did and firstly take a walk all the way around the island. It is a wonderful calm and peaceful place and rich in wildlife and an old wood full of traditional trees.
The Priory itself was founded in 1238 by the then Earl of Menteith, Walter Comyn and it is said that Mary Queen of Scots sought sanctuary in the Priory from the Black Canons of the Augustinian order in 1547 when she was still a young girl.
Yes we did manage a Castle or two during our holidays all be it they are few and far between in fact so few and far between one was one side of the country and the other the other side.
We visited Dunrobin Castle on a rather long way back home, home to the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland since the 13th century. Situated 52 miles north of Inverness it is surprisingly French and Disney like in its appearance, not like a traditional Scottish Castle at all.
It’s 13th century core is still there but can not be seen from the outside, for that you need to go inside the castle and look through into an internal courtyard. However, I have no pictures of that as Dunrobin, along with many other castles these days do not allow photographs to be taken inside (my guess it is some kind of condition that insurance companies put on them, well I hope that is the case I would be doubly miffed it was them just being silly). That being said it must also be said that the Dunrobin’s entry charge means that should you be north of Inverness and unsure what to do for a day then this is the place to go. There is of course the castle itself, a good number of rooms open to the public, although it still is a family home. Hubby loved the children’s playroom with some fantastic toys made by local people on display. There is copious amounts of wood panelling, wonderful bookshelves with each foot and a half shelf separately adjustable – project for Hubby, though not sure he will ever get around to it – innumerable family trinkets and memorabilia from down through the centuries all encompassed in a wonderful warm and welcoming feel.
The main rooms of the Castle face out on to the gardens and the North Sea:
It was a glorious day when we visited the sky was blue the sea aquamarine, the gardens are a lovely mixture of formal gardens and wooded areas and you can wander round them to your heart’s content as entrance to them is included in the price, as is one of the best falconry displays I have ever seen, and the fantastic family museum housing some stunning Pictish stones (warning to those of you who don’t like taxidermy there is quite a bit in there) which is in the once Summer house. (Don’t be fooled, it is probably at least twice the size of the Rectory.) We spent the whole afternoon at Dunrobin, but we could have easily spent the whole day (I could have spent the whole day in the museum), good value for its £9.50 entrance fee and what is more the nice gentleman who welcomed us did try every angle going to get us a reduced price. But we were too old, or too young and weren’t student, yes we were sure.
The other castle could not have been more opposite not only on the other side of the country but also a ruin. This picture – courtesy of Hubby – was taken as we headed north, we had planned a stop on the way back when I would have taken my pictures but it was raining and the end of a long day, so that is for another journey.
Ardvreck Castle is on Loch Assynt near, well near nowhere. Okay it is about half the distance north of Ullapool that Dunrobin is from Inverness but it feels and is totally isolated unlike Dunrobin. On the east the roads are wide mainly straight and in parts dual carriageway, in the west the roads are narrow twisty and in parts single track with passing places. Built in the 15th century it was the family seat of the Clan MacLeod. Next time we are up that way I would like to spend some time exploring both the castle and the near by Calda house, which is also in ruins, which Clan MacKenzie built in 1726 as a modern manor house after capturing the MacLeod’s castle and lands in 1672.
In Poolewe there is a graveyard and as I am rather fond of graveyards we had to go and take a look. Although it has been there for centuries it is also still in use today, this I like a lot. Inscribing gravestones with a name and date came late to Poolewe – the earliest is dated 1839, before named gravestones became commonplace burial plots were reused the circle of life and death continued for generations, so it is impossible to know how many souls have been laid to rest there. It is a place of serenity and calm, not far from the edge of Loch Ewe itself, with the mountains behind it and a river either side a pretty little setting set back from the modern road, but there is more to this than might at first meet the eye.
Mother Ruth had pointed me in the direction of Phil Rickman’s series of books which follow the exploits of Merrily Watkins, and as those of you who follow me on facebook will already know I was reading them while on holiday. One of the books I read was ‘A Crown of Lights’, the story revolves around the site of a deconsecrated church which had been placed on the site of a pre-Christian ritual site and hence had an unusual circular graveyard. Yes you’ve guessed it, this graveyard too is circular, and like the graveyard in A Crown of Lights it too is surround by a ring of trees and what is more it too I believe has pre-Christian history. But I am jumping ahead slightly – or should that be back slightly – as before I talk about that a quick bio of the more recent past might be in order. The ruins of a church is in the north-east segment of the burial ground and has a number of later enclosures built along one side. This is not the original church which fell out of use during the Reformation, although it might have continued to be used as a private chapel. It was rebuilt in the 17th century and used for Episcopalian worship, but it is hard to know when Christian worship first took place on the site.
I was one of the final people who did what was known as ‘The Scottish Dimension’ – personally I think it is a great shame that it is no longer compulsory for those who come to the SEC from other shores but hey who am I to express such an opinion? – Any way, when I did it back in the 80′s part which I chose to do was to write a paper on Old Govan Parish in particular the change from a pre-Christian to a Christian site. I was reminded forcibly of it when I saw this:
Most people who take the time to wander round that graveyard probably pass this stone whose markings can not be read by, it is not very tall and you might say that there is nothing particularly impressive about it. Well I believe you would be wrong in that assumption for this is the typical shape of a Viking Hogback burial stone (there are some at Govan Old Parish) which rather than standing upright as this on is would be laid on top of a grave (or possibly a stone cut coffin) as the lid with the rounded surface facing outwards. The Vikings were in Wester Ross in quite large numbers using its natural harbours to great effect as a base for their raids further south. You don’t need to look too far in Wester Ross to find Viking place names, so it was no surprise to me to see what I think could very probably also be a sign of their burials. While I am speculating I think that this too might very well be a hog back this time upside down with the characteristic hump buried in the grass.
But there is more than this speculation than the circular nature of the graveyard and a couple of possible hogbacks, there is also the Font Stone that lies north-west of the chapel, partly buried in turf.
Now it might be called a font stone but it is the smallest font I have ever seen and I think local folklore gives us a clue to what it was originally. In the Highlands, and indeed in Argyll and the Isles, hollowed cup stones were associated with sacred water, used for coronations like at Dunadd in Kilmartin Glen, for the blessing of people on the verge of major milestones of their lives, for catching the full moon at the solace, or a sunbeam at mid summer, and the water that was in these cups were often said to have healing powers. Local folklore says that the water in the stone at Poolewe cures warts and locally it is known as the Wart Stone. Well to me it sounds much more likely that this stone has a pre-Christian history as a Pictish cup stone, that in centuries past the water contained in it was as likely to have blessed a young woman so that she might be like some mother earth god and bear strong healthy sons as blessing a new-born in the name of the Trinity. Now before you think I am getting too fanciful then take a look at this:
This is a Pictish stone which would have once stood upright but has later been used as a burial slab. Some of the original carving can still be seen, it is not the usual Pictish symbols that are commonly seen but rather geometrical ones.
There is a weathered crescent and v-rod symbol decorated with a curvilinear design and an arrangement of dots. Pictish stones are traditionally found in northern and eastern parts of Scotland. The stone at Poolewe is one of only two symbol scones discovered on the west coast of mainland Scotland. Taking into account this rare stone being here says to me that this must have been an important site for the Picts.
A place of rest for centuries, a place of circles upon circles and I am left thinking of those who rest there, be they Viking, Pict or Christian, in the words of a Roman gravestone:
May your bones rest quietly
and may the earth lie lightly on you.
As I said yesterday Hubby and I have been on holiday, the destination wasn’t some distant shore or cultural hot spot but rather the beautiful, stately, awesome ruggedness of Wester Ross. A corner of this wonderful country where the barren mountains and heather covered peat bogs meet the soft sandy beaches and jagged harsh rocks; where the silence is still and deep and real; where you can drive for over 50 miles and not meet another car; where you can walk for over an hour and not meet another person; where you can have the whole of a sandy beach to yourself and sit in the warm sunshine eating your picnic, even in April; where you can stand in the biting wind and watch the aquamarine crystal clear water turn white as it crashes upon the rocks; where the wildlife claims its right to be there, because it was there first; where God abides. You might have gathered by now that I am very fond of this far western corner of Scotland, however Hubby had never been so off we went and almost straight away he too fell in love with the place, in fact it didn’t take him long to declare that he could quiet happily live there.
So at the end of a long single track road, with the mountains behind, a sandy beach in front a rocky outcrop to the side and the Isle of Skye in the distance this development opportunity really caught our imagination.