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Roger McCann

Writer | Blogger | Photographer

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Mary King’s Close

2017-06-08 14:37:06

In Scotland’s capital, the Old Town thoroughfare running from Edinburgh Castle down to Holyrood Palace is often referred to as the Royal Mile. Castlehill leads down to the Lawnmarket which continues into the High Street. A short walk past John Knox’s House this becomes the Canongate leading to Horse Wynd which turns past the front of the new Scottish Parliament building. From the Royal Mile, a series of roads, narrow lanes and tight alleyways fall away to either side. These alleyways, or ‘wynds’ and ‘closes’, once had gates that could be locked at night to protect the inhabitants from thieves and vagabonds.

During much of the year the Royal Mile is busy, thronged with visitors. Some come to wave at the occasional parades of passing royalty. Others delight in spotting politicians or celebrities, busking musicians or street theatre performances. Treading in famous footsteps where dramatic events in Scottish history took place is also an attraction. Then there are those visitors who are prepared to venture below present day street level to learn about the lives of the ordinary people who once lived in the tenements.

Standing up to eight stories high, these buildings were known as the world’s first skyscrapers. Densely populated, they each housed up to 600 people of all classes and trades. Society was then organised vertically. The wealthy lived at the top of a building and the poor lived amongst the filth at the bottom. As there was a general lack of sanitation throughout the town, everybody suffered.

The entrances, or closes off the main street, were often named with a simple description of the businesses or activities carried on there. In Bakehouse Close you would smell baking bread. Fleshmarket Close and Skinner’s Close were less savoury. This was where the slaughtermen, butchers and tanners carried on their trades. A lawyer could be consulted in Advocate’s Close or a ship’s chandler in Anchor Close.

Other closes were named after prominent citizens who dwelt there. For example, Pearson’s Close was named after Alexander Pearson, 17th century merchant, while Stewart’s Close, was probably named after William Stewart, merchant, magistrate and resident in 1710. These names would change over time. Thus, Mary King’s Close came to be named after a comparatively wealthy business lady.

Night time in the Old Town could be dark and dangerous with robbers lurking to waylay the unwary. To help lessen the dangers, the Burgh Council, in the winter of 1554, issued a regulation requiring trades people to light a lantern each evening in front of their booths. It had to be lit between the hours of 5 o’clock in the evening and 9 o’clock the next morning. Failure to comply could incur a fine. Without this early form of street lighting, a walk through these crowded warrens of interlinked passages in falling darkness must have been a frightening prospect.

An apocryphal story that has been retold many times would have us believe that Mary King’s Close was sealed tight with the inhabitants trapped inside at the time of the plague in the 1600’s. This drastic action was supposedly taken to stop the disease spreading further.

The sealing of the building didn’t happen, but what is true is that in 1753, the Burgh Council decided to develop a new building on the site. The houses at the top of Mary King’s Close were knocked down and part of the lower sections were kept and used as foundations for the Royal Exhange Building, now known as Edinburgh City Chambers, on the High Street.The remnants of the houses that remain below have been re-opened, studied in detail and it’s now possible to wander through Mary King’s Close (with a guide) to gain an insight into the lives and times and ghosts of some of the past residents.

From documentary evidence a fair amount is known about Mary King’s life. She owned a market stall selling fine lace collars and dresses. Business was so good that she could afford to raise her four children in relative luxury. Her wood panelled home was higher than ground level and away from the waste and rubbish that would have run down the alleyways. Though her furniture was sparse, she did own a ‘long wooden settle’, the equivalent of a modern day couch or sofa.

Mary was also the proud owner of a ‘tappit hen’ and a quaich. From such fine silver drinking vessels, she enjoyed many a measure of wine or ale. This indulgence was another indication of Mary’s wealth. In her testament she left a number of belongings to her children including gold rings, silver spoons, gowns, considerable quantities of fabric ruffs, tin chamber pots and a velvet doublet.

Her house was lit by lamps called ‘crusies’ in which fish oil or animal fat was burned. Adding to the aromas from these fuels would have been the smells emanating from the contents of a bucket which stood in a corner of a room. This was the early form of Edinburgh’s sanitation system!As well as being used as a toilet, this was a sick bucket and a receptacle for food waste. It was the job of the youngest able member of the family to take this bucket and empty it out – once in the morning and once at night! The waste eventually ran down through the alleyways to the Nor’ Loch – now better known as Princess Street Gardens. Death by drowning in the foetid water of the Nor’ Loch was a punishment handed down to those committing serious crimes such as murder.

On a present day tour of Mary King’s Close, your guide, dressed in period costume will give you more colourful details and ask you to imagine that you have stepped back in time to the year 1645 when the plague was at its worst. You are now standing in the Craig family home near the foot of Mary King’s Close.

You will learn that Mr. John Craig, head of the household, has died of pneumonic plague that very morning. His body lies on the floor, bound in a sheet, awaiting collection. John had been a gravedigger at Greyfriars churchyard and unfortunately, he infected the rest of his family. His wife Janet and three children, young John, Robert and Thomas will be taken into quarantine at Sciennes, a district outside the Old Town.

Pneumonic plague was the worst of the two forms of the disease, the other being bubonic plague. Symptoms were similar to modern day influenza – feelings of lethargy and nausea went with being sick every few minutes into that small bucket now placed by the side of a sufferer’s bed.

As well as internal bleeding, a victim’s skin would turn black. This discolouration gave rise to the common name of the plague - the Black Death.A high percentage of those who caught the plague didn’t survive. There was no cure for the worst form though there was a partial cure for the lesser bubonic plague. In many instances, the illness could be a slow death sentence.

Outbreaks of this ‘contagion’ were common place during the 16th and 17th centuries and over the course of many years, the Scottish authorities put great effort into attempts at protecting the country’s ports against infection. But though ships required a bill of health declaring them to be plague-free, the captains of some vessels were frequently fined for trying to sidestep the regulations.

Many people, particularly the wealthy fled the town, so a careful watch was kept on the remaining inhabitants who were threatened with fines and imprisonment if caught trying to leave. Certain everyday activities were banned such as wakes, penny weddings and the wearing of a plaid. It was thought that a person wearing a plaid, a length of tartan material wrapped round the body and often over the head, might be attempting to hide their sickness.

The Craig’s house, like those of other victims, would have been cleaned by specially appointed plague cleaners who wore grey tunics marked with a white saltire, the cross of St. Andrew, patron saint of Scotland. Goods, bedding and clothing were usually burned. The billowing smoke from the flowering shrub, Broom was thought to ‘cleanse the air’.

Whilst in their homes during the plague, families like the Craigs received charitable donations which included ale, wine, bread and coal. These provisions were delivered on a daily basis from residents who were still healthy enough but who went in fear. This practice was considered better for all concerned and ensured that the infected people stayed in their homes. Thus, the well enough members of the community had good reason to give generously.

If a household could afford treatment, they would send for Dr. George Rae. The good doctor would lance the buboes (abscesses) then cauterize and seal the wounds with a red hot poker. This entire operation was carried out without any form of anaesthetics – that particular process had yet to be discovered. The pain inflicted during this treatment must have been awful. On the other hand, there was a half chance that a life might be saved.

At the time, it was believed that the plague was spread by miasmas – foul smelling poisons in the air. To prevent these smells affecting him while attending to his patients, Dr. Rae wore a floor length, thick, black leather coat type of garment. Over his head and face he wore an equally thick, black leather mask with a long, beak shaped protuberance. The ’beak’ was filled with sweet smelling herbs and spices that acted as a crude filter.

As strange as his costume appears, it did work for Dr. Rae since he lived for another thirty years after the plague left the city. It is known that he was the second plague doctor to take up the job after John Paulitious, the first official plague doctor, who died, in June 1645.

Dr. George Rae was employed by the council on June 13th of that year and given the sizeable salary of £100 Scots a month. By November, incredibly, he had negotiated a further £10 Scots per month – he was not expected to live long!

Though it took longer elsewhere, the worst of the plague was over in Edinburgh by the autumn of 1646. By then, the Council had second thoughts regarding the Doctor’s payment. George Rae was still chasing his money almost 10 years later. He won eventually and claimed an unprecedented yearly pension of £1200 Scots.

The Black Death, as we now know, was not spread by miasmas, but by fleas brought in on the backs of rats. The rats probably arrived from Europe on the ships that sailed into Leith harbour. The fleas would jump from the rats and bite into their human victims.

Some of the original passageways off the Royal Mile, as well as now having restaurants and bars, are still used as short cuts between streets. They have long been made safe with modern paving, lighting, and handrails where necessary. No longer will you hear the cry, “Gardyloo,” (from the French ‘regarde l’eau’) as some householder pours the contents of a bucket of filthy waste water from the height of an upstairs window opening. But it’s still possible to get a sense of the conditions that prevailed and the people who lived there hundreds of years ago.

First published in The Highlander

The Magazine of Scottish Heritage

Further Information: www.realmarykingsclose.com

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The Lords of the Isles

2017-04-24 15:13:03

Look at a map of Scotland. Notice the position of the Isle of Islay. It lies near the Isle of Jura, off the coast of Argyll. From this fairly central base, independent of the Kings of Scotland, the Lords of the Isles ruled over a vast territory. This included the Outer Hebrides to the north and the Isle of Man to the south as well as much of the northwest coast of the Scottish mainland.

Cutting into the Isle of Islay in the south, Loch Indall runs far inland. Similarly, Loch Gruinart on the north coast would have provided shelter for galleys seeking a safe harbour from that direction. It is likely that a retinue with horses would have met returning warriors, the nobility at least, to transport them the last few miles to the security of their island home on Finlaggan Loch.

Nowadays most people sail to Islay on a big, comfortable ferry. They leave the mainland from Kennacraig, at the top of the Kintyre peninsula, and disembark either at Port Ellen or Port Askaig. From Port Ellen the two lane road runs north, roughly following the shoreline of Loch Indall to Bowmore, the ‘capital’ of the island. A few miles on at Bridgend, one fork of the road turns south and heads down the west side of Loch Indall while the other branch leads to Port Askaig in the northeast corner of Islay.

Nearing Port Askaig, most drivers probably speed past the sign to Finlaggan. It points down a narrow farm road with a few widened places that allow traffic to overtake. The road ends at an old cottage, now refurbished as the Visitor Centre of the Finlaggan Trust, a voluntary organisation set up in 1984. The Trust works to combat the deterioration of this valuable site, encourages research relating to it, and assists in its preservation.

Behind the Visitor Centre, Finlaggan Loch is not especially beautiful or set in dramatic scenery. The surrounding hills are not overly steep or high. But it’s easy to imagine soldiers guarding the approaches to the islands in the loch. For it was here, on Eilean Mor (Gaelic: large island) that the Lords of the Isles had their headquarters. It is assumed they built on the site of an earlier Christian monastery established by Irish monks led by Findlugan, a contemporary of St Columba (born 521).

Today, from the Finlaggan Trust Visitor Centre, you can walk along a grass path to the loch side then cross by a wooden walkway onto Eilean Mor. The first noticeable ruins are the remains of the church. Inside the crumbling walls, gravestones found nearby have been laid horizontally. According to ancient tradition, Eilean Mor was the burial place for the wives and children of the Lords of the Isles while the Lords themselves were interred on the Island of Iona. The stones are now protected from the worst of the weather by sheets of glass. One carved stone shows an effigy of a man in armour clutching a sword with an image of his galley beneath his feet. He is wearing an aketon, a quilted garment that would have been worn over his armour. In one hand he is clutching a sword.

From the church, it’s only a few steps to the remains of the grand hall. Now a mere overgrown outline, it was once used by the Lords of the Isles as a place for feasting and social entertainment.

The next ruin, with gable ends still standing, is assumed to have been the residential quarters of the Lords of the Isles. Like the other structures, it appears to present - day eyes at least, to have been somewhat less than grand.

Lying further out in the loch is another smaller island linked to Eilean Mor by an underwater causeway. This is Eilean na Comhairle (Gaelic: Council Island), where the Lords of the Isles and their Council of fourteen members deliberated at a stone table. They issued edicts, instructions, and rulings affecting their territories, as well as administering justice.

The Isle of Islay had attracted settlers from the northern shores of Ireland from at least the 3rd century. They were known as Scots by the Romans but called themselves Gaidheil or Gaels.

From Norway came Viking raiders who sailed across the North Sea bringing terror and destruction. After them, in the late 8th century, came more peaceable Norse settlers to colonise the Sudreys, or Southern Islands, which included the Isle of Man. Islay was central in this island kingdom.

Where large scale Norse settlement took place, the intermingled population was given a new name by Gaels in neighbouring parts of Argyll free from Norse settlers – the Gall-Gael or foreign Gaels. Their allegiance, which included their military and social organisation, was to prove crucial as the Scottish and Norwegian Kings competed for territory in the Western Isles.

It was the offspring of a mixed marriage, the son of a Gaelic father and a Norse mother, who ‘turned the tide’ of Norse political and military influence and reasserted Gaelic control in the Western Isles. This was Somerled, universally acclaimed by Gaelic tradition as the founder of the Lordship of the isles.

According to tradition, Somerled’s father was Gille-Bhride, a descendent of Angus of Islay, the son of Fergus of Dalriada. Gille-Bhride took a Norse wife and their son was named Sumarlidi, the Summer Traveller – a common name amongst Vikings who used the summer months for their voyages. When Somerled reached maturity, so the story goes, he exhorted his father and supporters to action. They outmanoeuvred Norse garrisons in Morvern, and by AD 1156 had driven the Norse men out of mainland Argyll and defeated the galleys of Olaf, the ruler of the Isle of Man.

Marine historians have pointed out that the Hebridean galley, or ‘biorlinn’ (Gaelic: short blade), was eminently suited to coastal trading in the Western Isles and Irish Sea but could not hope to match the Viking longship as a fighting machine. Somerled seems to have built a fleet of newly designed ships incorporating features that made it possible to outmanoeuvre the Norse longships at close quarters. These new ships had a hinged rudder and a fighting top at the masthead, and were known as Nyvaig (Gaelic: Naibheag: little ship). The new design can be seen on Somerled’s seal on a charter given by his son Ragnall (Reginald - sometimes Ranald) to Paisley Abbey in1175.

In a subsequent settlement, Somerled made peace with Olaf, gaining control of the southern Hebrides, including Islay. He married Olaf’s daughter, Ragnild (Ragnhilda) to consummate the bargain. From this union are descended the MacDonalds and the MacDougalls.

Somerled was killed at Renfrew, near Glasgow, in 1164, on what is now the site of Glasgow Airport. He was assassinated in his tent during the night while preparing to negotiate with and, if necessary do battle with the Scottish King Malcolm 4th. Their argument was over policies of the Scottish court which had been put in place years earlier.

On Somerled’s death, his lands were divided amongst his sons. Dugall got the islands except for Islay, and the mainland district of Lorn - from him was descended the Clan MacDougall. Reginald (Ranald) ruled in Islay and Kintyre and inherited Somerled’s navy. The third son, Angus held Arran and Bute.

To protect the fleet, Somerled’s grandson Donald, (son of Ranald), from whom the MacDonalds claim descent, built a castle on Lagavulin Bay on the south coast of Islay. Nothing can be seen of this stronghold today but there are visible remains of Dunivaig Castle built later on the site, probably in the 16th and early 17th centuries.

The ruling line continued down the years. The 17th century historian, Hugh MacDonald in a much - quoted passage has given a valuable description of the ceremony of installation of the Lords of the Isles.

‘Sometimes seven priests were present but a bishop was always present along with the chieftains of all the principal families, and a Ruler of the Isles. There was a square stone seven or eight feet long with the shape of a man’s foot cut into the stone where the Ruler of the Isles stood, denoting that he should walk in the footsteps and uprightness of his predecessors and that he was installed by right in his possessions.

He was clothed in a white habit, to show his innocence and integrity of heart; that he would be a light to his people and maintain the true religion. The white apparel did afterwards belong to the poet by right. Then he was to receive a white rod in his hand, intimating that he had power to rule, not with tyranny and partiality, but with discretion and sincerity. Then he received his forefather’s sword, signifying that he was obliged to protect his people and defend them from the incursions of their enemies in peace as in war.

After this ceremony there was a Mass. After being blessed by the bishop and seven priests the people prayed for the success and prosperity of their new - created Lord.

When they were dismissed, the Lord of the Isles feasted them for a week thereafter; gave liberally to the monks, poets, bards and musicians. You may judge that they spent liberally without any exceptions of persons.’

John, First Lord of the Isles, known as Good John of Islay, largely because of his beneficence to religious communities, assumed the title Lord of the Isles from circa 1354 -1380. By paying lip service to the kings of the mainland, he kept his lands safe and by clever changes of support of various factions he expanded his territories by treaties as well as by marriage alliances.

John reroofed the chapel on Eilean Mor and is believed to have founded the churches at Kildalton and Kilnave on Islay, as well as encouraging the carving of stone crosses. He died aged at least eighty years old, at Ardtornish Castle on the Sound of Mull. He left behind a large and scattered Lordship linked by the sea. Peace reigned within its borders and continued for the next hundred years though increasingly there were wars on the mainland.

In the 15th century the Lords of the Isles claimed the earldom of Ross through marriage. The earldom consisted of the Isle of Skye and much of the north of Scotland. The claim was disputed which led to the Battle of Harlaw, a few miles from Aberdeen, in 1411. Donald, Lord of the Isles headed an army against the royal forces under the Earl of Mar. Though both sides claimed victory there seems to have been no definite outcome. The earldom was eventually acquired by Alexander, (son of Donald), in 1433.

John 2nd (Fourth Lord of the Isles 1449 – 1493) also became very involved in wars against the Scottish crown and was eventually overcome. The lands of the Lordship were forfeited in August 1493 and this time it became permanent.

Determined to put an end to a challenge that had been a thorn in the side of Scottish kings for two hundred years, James 4th of Scotland undertook a series of campaigns in the west after 1493. Unfortunately, but with the best of intentions, he distributed the forfeited lands amongst lesser lairds and chiefs who immediately set in motion a couple of centuries of unrest in their efforts to establish themselves in the struggle for power.

It was left to James 6th ‘the wisest fool in Christendom’ to sort out the bloody mess. In 1603, after the Union of the Crowns, James sent Lord Ochiltree to the Island of Mull to secure the castles and provide a safe base for further action against his fractious, unwilling subjects. Ochiltree then invited all the Hebridean chiefs to a conference at Aros Castle to discuss ways and means of bringing Hebridean violence to an end. When the chiefs duly arrived, being eager to air their grievances, Ochiltree slammed them into the hold of HMS Moon which had been anchored conveniently for that purpose. The chiefs were then taken to Edinburgh and imprisoned in the castle until they came to their senses. Eventually, reluctantly, they signed an agreement that would ensure peace in the Isles.

The title Lord of the Isles was inalienably annexed to the Crown in 1542 and is now one of the titles of the present Prince of Wales.

First published in The Highlander Magazine

The Magazine of Scottish Heritage

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Portpatrick

2017-04-24 14:50:19

In that dozy time between sleep and wakefulness, the squawking of a seagull was more effective than an alarm clock. The harsh cry prompted me to leave the warmth of a hotel bed, pull back the thick curtains and open the window to smell the salty air. Across the road an incoming tide was filling the harbour. Stretching up on tiptoes, I fancied I could make out the coast of Ireland, some 22 miles away.

I was in Portpatrick. The village is stacked in a cleft of the cliffs on the west coast of the Rhinns of Galloway. Behind, there’s a valley leading inland that allows easy access to the hills beyond, to Stranraer, Galloway, and the rest of Scotland.

Historically, it was this ease of access, helped by the construction of military roads, which made Portpatrick strategically important. Its position was a factor when troops were being rushed to quell insurrections in Ireland. The soldiers however, must have discovered many times that this shortest of sea routes between Britain and Ireland was not necessarily the quickest. That was all of three and four hundred years ago, yet Colonel Street and Barrack Street are still faint reminders of these times.

Later, Portpatrick was the port of entry for huge numbers of Irish cattle and their handlers making the journey to markets in Scotland and England. In more recent times, it has been a terminal for the mail boats to and from Ireland and a landing place for catches from a once great herring fishing fleet.

Though huge amounts of material and effort went into making the harbour safe, it never really worked as a haven for passenger ferries. Regular poundings by the forces of nature couldn’t be mastered. In stormy weather travellers might have to wait a long time until calmer conditions allowed them to get clear of the harbour. Even then, they could still face a crossing lasting hours, or days in some extreme instances, when the sea was being whipped into a fury.

“Gone with the wind, my romance has flown away,” is a line from a once popular song. When the village was the Gretna Green for Ireland perhaps wild weather was the cause of some relationships faltering. In those days, proclamations were made in the church immediately upon a couple’s arrival. If they required a hurried or a secret wedding the ceremony was completed without delay as long as they could convince the minister there was no legal objection. In 1826 the Church Courts suppressed the practice.

Another old custom had ended a few years earlier. For years, infirm persons including children suffering from rickets were brought to a cave north of Portpatrick on the first night of May. It was believed they might be cured if they could be washed in the spring water flowing from the cave.

Today, walkers heading in the same direction go past the north end of the harbour, putting green, tennis courts and children’s play park before finding the first signpost for the start of the Southern Upland Way. This is Scotland’s only coast-to-coast long distance footpath. For the start at this western end a zigzag of wide steps lead up the cliff face.

At the top, vast views over Portpatrick, southwards down the coast and out to sea are worth the effort. Carved into one of the first steps, is the information that there is only another 212 miles to go (minus the fifty yards you’ve just done), to complete The Way at Cockburnspath on Scotland’s east coast.

The path here passes the golf course where, I can imagine golfers fuming as they compete against the wind. On a flat calm day, our route led back down to sea level, across pebble beaches, round fierce, fanglike towers of rock, then up more steps built into the cliff face. Here though, some aid is provided. On the seaward side there are lengths of strong chain to pull on that also act as a fence of sorts. Easy walking follows on grass slopes where sheep wander at will.

The Way leads past Killantringan Lighthouse which shines a warning to ships to steer clear of the dangerous promontory known as Black Head. The name aptly fits this treacherous headland. Other names including Hairyhorroch, Slouchnawen Bay and Cubbies Hole seen on maps of this coastline may need a bit more explanation.

Portpatrick derives its name from that great apostle of Ireland, St. Patrick, who according to legend crossed the North Channel between Ireland and Scotland in a single stride and left a deep footprint on a rock. Unfortunately, that rock was later removed during the construction of the harbour.

Near the south end of the harbour another scenic walk also starts with steps leading to a narrow path passing Dunskey Castle. On the seaward side, waves foam and gurgle far below filling inlets between great thrusts of rock. On the landward side there’s a deep canyon that must have taken huge amounts of dynamite and digging. Its floor carried the rail track to the harbour from the station at the top of Portpatrick’s Main Street. Unfortunately, right from the start, this line suffered from competition from the Stranraer to Larne Ferry. The last train left Portpatrick on 6th February 1950.

From records it would appear Dunskey Castle became a ruin early in the 17th century. Standing on a bleak site, its rocky base slopes quickly away on the seaward sides. In front, on the landward side, a moat would have added extra protection.

One story goes that in association with a castle in Ireland, Dunskey controlled the seas here and levied dues on passing ships. Galleys were kept in readiness for this nefarious purpose. The castle has featured in a few films. Its very bleakness was the attraction for filmmakers.

You may have seen other Portpatrick locations that have also appeared on cinema screens. Fans of the television series, 2000 Acres of Sky, might recognise the boat, Solstice, at anchor in the harbour. For that series, Port Logan, further down the coast, became an island, the mythical Ronansay.

Lots of people have reasons to be grateful for another boat berthed in Portpatrick harbour - that’s the lifeboat. Nowadays, around the country, volunteers from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution are called out as often as 5000 times a year. Some 1500 lives are saved and hundreds more helped out from potentially dangerous situations.

On the lifeboat station information board I read that 540 services (until then) had taken place from there since 1877. The most recent happened just a few days before my visit.

Time: 6.00 a.m.

Weather conditions: slight.

Type of casualty: yacht.

Rescued: 3 men

Details of service: The yacht ran ashore on rocks at south side. Boat towed off next morning but sank within two minutes.

In the middle of Portpatrick, by the round tower of an early parish church, gravestones commemorate sea captains, crew and ship’s passengers who weren’t so lucky.

There have been many shipwrecks on this beautiful but, at times, savage coast. We all know the sea can be cruel but thankfully storms can also offer lighter moments as I learned from the following tale.

The width of the roadway separating Portpatrick’s houses from the harbour doesn’t always keep the sea at bay. During severe gales, spray from waves has been known to splatter on the house roofs. This once benefited a local fisherman. One stormy morning he was wondering what he would be able to get for his breakfast, “then surprise, surprise, a fine cod came down the chimney with a swirl of water.”

Portpatrick stands in a quiet, beautiful part of Galloway in south west Scotland. The whole area is well worth visiting.

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The Beauty of the Isle of Bute

2017-03-27 16:34:33

There had been no need to rush on this warm sunny afternoon. Relaxing into ‘Bute time’, I was happy to drive a stretch of one of the island’s narrower roads particularly slowly – there was no other traffic but I was behind a large hare. It had taken up the middle of the road and just kept on going, straight down the middle, seemingly unconcerned.

Now I was on a well-defined, sign-posted path leading up a hillside. With each step of the way I felt I was reaching back in time.

The path ends at a flat walled area with a graveyard and the remains of a small church. This ruin dates back mainly to the 12th century. It was built on the stones of a much earlier monastic settlement founded by St. Blane and is thought to have been in existence in 574.

It’s believed Blane was born on Bute. At some point he travelled to Bangor in Ireland where he was educated before returning as a missionary. He would have been familiar with this hillside.

From his churchyard he could look over the fertile land sloping down to the sea and across the water to the mountains of the Isle of Arran that fill the background. It’s an impressive sight and probably little changed from Blane’s day.

The pioneers exploring Bute some five or six thousand years before Blane also left their marks on the island. Now we can only make an educated guess at the significance of their standing stones.

Not all visitors were welcomed wholeheartedly. Eight years after the last abbot died in 790, Viking raiders set fire to the monastery. However, they weren’t all bad. Many of Bute’s place names suggest some of these Norsemen were farmers who stayed to work the land and fish the surrounding sea.

More recent visitors to Bute have included the wealthy Glasgow merchants who built large houses along the seafront, or, perhaps because their view was obstructed, further up the slopes behind Rothesay Bay.

Whole families, including domestic staff would have arrived in their own yachts. As well as a grand holiday home, a yacht was the other status symbol of the day.

Sea bathing, donkey rides and hydrotherapy treatments, including cold baths and drinking the water from a mineral well on the shore, were popular pastimes then.

After the days of sail, when steam ships became the usual way to get to Bute, the island became the holiday destination for huge numbers of people, especially from the central belt of Scotland.

These were busy days for Rothesay when some families booked accommodation with the same landlady year after year. It’s said there were certain landladies, though this tale might be apocryphal, who would fill their rooms to bursting point by drawing chalk marks on the floor – sleeping arrangements by number!

If even more people wanted accommodation, the chalk marks got smaller! It was even known for families to sleep out in the woods having arrived to find all the accommodation taken.

At that time, visitors would have been transported to other parts of the island in horse drawn vehicles and later in electric tram cars.

Today it’s much easier getting to the Island of Bute. Trains run from Central Station, Glasgow to Wemyss Bay, from where Caledonian MacBrayne car and passenger ferries sail across to Rothesay in thirty five minutes.

The attractions of the Isle of Bute haven’t changed all that much over the years and though Rothesay may be crowded in the summer months there’s plenty of space at any time for everyone.

To enjoy the splendours of the south side of the island, drive off the ferry, turn left out of Rothesay and head along the shore road.

Your passengers may want to keep a look out for seals lazing on the seaside rocks and for the sign for the entrance to Ascog Gardens.

The private house, Ascog Hall, once belonged to Alexander Bannatyne Stewart, a prosperous, philanthropic Glasgow merchant with Rothesay roots who became Convener of Bute County.

About 1870, he commissioned Edward La Trobe, the designer of the Botanic Garden in Melbourne, Australia to landscape the garden in front of the house and construct a fernery.

Over time however, the fernery fell into disrepair and when it was uncovered in 1997, was found to be in a near ruinous condition. Amazingly, one fern from the original collection had survived – a Todea barbara or King Fern. When that same fern was dated in 1879, it was reckoned back then to be more than 1000 years old.

King ferns are indigenous to the damper areas of New Zealand, South Africa and parts of Australia. Some of the many other sub-tropical fern species thriving in the nooks and crannies in the fernery’s weathered sandstone rock walls have equally exotic origins.

With a grant from Historic Scotland, the sunken fernery with its glass roof was rebuilt to the original design and replanted with knowledgeable help from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

It had obviously been constructed and planted with care; each rock carted from Bute’s beaches, as well as each pebble making up the path, appears to have been specifically chosen to enhance the overall setting.

Wander round the garden and you might imagine you’ve been transported to somewhere tropical. There are a number of different ‘rooms’ with profusions of candelabra primulas, yuccas, azaleas, rhododendrons and the very large leaves of Gunnera mandicata providing a backdrop behind the formal pool.

This is a haven full of delights. Before leaving, take a few minutes to read the information on boards dotted round the garden which give an insight into the indefatigable plant hunters who sent back seeds and plants from far corners of the world to make such gardens possible.

From Ascog garden, your next stop should be Mount Stuart House.

The surrounding woods and gardens are vastly more extensive than those at Ascog, so you may decide to concentrate on one aspect only, be it a woodland walk, the kitchen garden, or rock garden before going inside the house for a guided tour.

The first Mount Stuart House was built by the 2nd Earl of Bute between 1719 and 1721.

After a fire destroyed the central section of the building in 1877 the 3rd Marquess of Bute, who has been described as ‘the greatest architectural patron of the Victorian era’ embarked on his hugely grand, expensive undertaking.

Everything about the building is lavish.

The workmanship and artistry involved in creating the carved wood features, the tapestries, the white marble chapel, the brilliantly coloured stained glass windows and star spangled ceilings has to be seen to be believed.

After being shown around this ostentatious display of serious wealth you might crave a few simpler pleasures.

From Mount Stuart it’s no distance to Scalpsie Beach on the west side. Build a sandcastle, paddle in the sea or just sit and marvel at the views out to Arran before heading back to Rothesay.

Leave a visit to Rothesay Castle and the north end of the island for another day.

But before you leave Bute, give a nod to the raised statue of Alexander Bannatyne Stewart which overlooks a section of the formal floral gardens on the seafront.

Then like thousands of other visitors before you who have enjoyed a trip ‘doon the watter’, make time for a game of putting, a last stroll round Discovery Centre for any last minute information or gifts and a visit to the nearby Victorian Toilets.

Understandably, public conveniences are not usually a visitor attraction but this building and its fittings are an example of Victorian munificence – for the men at least - all gleaming copper pipes and highly polished black marble.

Nowadays though, it’s hard to believe that women weren’t provided for at that time - it was much later before a separate section was added to complete this facility.

Back on the ferry take a few moments to study a map hanging on one of the lounge walls – then step outside. As other smaller islands and mountainous parts of the mainland disappear into the distance you may more readily appreciate Bute’s favoured, sheltered position in the middle of the sea lanes in the Firth of Clyde.

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