An au­tumn break to the is­lands of Ar­ran and Bute

SCOTS Heritage Magazine - - Contents -

An air of mys­tery seems to shroud the firth of Clyde, now for the most part lay­ing eer­ily still, this stretch of wa­ter has seen bat­tles rage, mys­ter­ies con­jured, and myths born.

Tow­er­ing over this stretch of black wa­ter stands the Isle of Ar­ran, or should I call it Emhain Abh­lac: sea fortress of the an­cient gods?

Vis­i­tors will take their first glimpse of the is­land from the bow of the ferry when leav­ing Ar­drossan, and its crests and jagged coast­line make it an in­spir­ing sight. Ar­ran means ‘peaked is­land’ in Gaelic and is of­ten de­scribed as ‘Scot­land in minia­ture’. Ar­ran’s nat­u­ral diver- sity epit­o­mises the whole na­tion of Scot­land; with its rugged coun­try­side in the south, giv­ing way to lofty moun­tains in the north. But the com­par­i­son can be made on many dif­fer­ent lev­els, from Ar­ran’s food pro­duce, to its of­fers of sport. But a com­par­i­son that is not nor­mally made is Ar­ran’s rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Scot­land’s his­tory. The is­land has seen, and bears the ev­i­dence of, each phase and era of Scot­land’s past, stretch­ing from pre­his­tory to the modern age, draw­ing both his­tor­i­cal, and recre­ational tourists for many years.

There are many an­cient places on this is­land, over a hun­dred burial cairns, many forts and fortresses, and many more set­tings of leg­endary tales. The is­land has been a pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion for tourists since the Vic­to­rian era, when many of these fam­i­lies came to view the ev­i­dence of thou­sands of years of his­tory con­densed into an is­land less than twenty miles long. It is a his­tory that dates back as far as the Stone Age, per­haps as far as 7000BC: well be­fore Stone­henge and the Great Pyra­mid of Giza.

Step­ping into the ear­li­est records in his­tory, the

Bronze and Iron Ages, Ar­ran was orig­i­nally part of the Ir­ish king­dom of Dal­ri­ada; and the cairns and houses of these early peo­ple dot the is­lands south west. In the 6th cen­tury Chris­tian­ity ar­rived on the is­land with the found­ing of a monastery at Kil­patrick, and later on the Holy Isle in Lam­lash Bay. Trips out to the Holy Isle can be ar­ranged from Lam­lash pier. The view from the top of Mul­lach Mor is spec­tac­u­lar on a sunny day, and very well de­served af­ter the 1026ft climb from sea level.

How­ever the peace on Ar­ran was not to last and by the late eighth cen­tury there was a new power in the re­gion: the Vik­ings.

In the fol­low­ing cen­turies the Vik­ings, who came first as raiders and later as set­tlers, would con­test their new lands bit­terly with the lo­cals and the Scot­tish crown. Slid­dery, on Ar­ran’s west coast, is said to de­rive its name from the old Gaelic for ‘field of slaugh­ter’, as a gory skir­mish took place there, in which a Vik­ing war party was routed.

Alexan­der III of Scot­land’s vic­tory over the Vik­ings at Largs in 1263 ended the threat from the north, but though the Vik­ings gave up the is­land

ad­van­tage of the quar­rel over the suc­ces­sion to the Scot­tish throne af­ter Alexan­der’s death, English armies, un­der Ed­ward I, in­vaded Scot­land. All over Scot­land bat­tles raged to eject the in­vaders. On Ar­ran, Brod­ick Cas­tle was taken by the English, who held it un­til 1307 when it was taken back by Robert the Bruce’s forces.

How­ever, the is­land has a deeper his­tory with Robert the Bruce; ac­cord­ing to le­gend, Bruce, at one point on the verge of giv­ing up his fight to gain Scot­tish in­de­pen­dence from the England, had es­caped pur­suers by flee­ing to Ar­ran, where he had vis­ited as a child. While hid­ing out in a cave he no­ticed a spi­der on one of the walls. The spi­der span web af­ter web, only to have it col­lapse from the slip­pery stone.

Again and again the spi­der built its home, never giv­ing up no mat­ter how many times it failed, and even­tu­ally the web held. Bruce was said to have been in­spired by this to try again against his foes, af­ter­wards cross­ing onto the main­land from what is known as Kingscross Point and fi­nally lead­ing the Scots to the fa­mous vic­tory at Ban­nock­burn.

The King’s Cave is ac­ces­si­ble via a fairly easy walk from the vil­lage of Shisk­ine, and takes in the beau­ti­ful east­ern coast of the is­land along a sec­tion of the Ar­ran coastal way, a 65 mile long cir­cu­lar route tak­ing in all of the is­land’s coast­line; it is also a per­fect op­por­tu­nity to spot some of the fan­tas­tic wildlife Ar­ran has to of­fer. Bask­ing sharks and many species of wild birds have been spot­ted along this un­spoiled stretch of the Kil­bran­nan Sound.

Be­sides chang­ing hands be­tween war­ring coun­tries, Brod­ick Cas­tle has also been in the thick of many re­li­gious bat­tles. Baing held through the 1600s be­tween the Epis­co­pals and the Pres­by­te­ri­ans, Brod­ick Cas­tle was fi­nally re­turned back into the hands of James Hamil­ton in 1644, at the be­gin­ning of the Scot­tish civil war. Trans­formed in the early Vic­to­rian era to the stately home and hunt­ing lodge we see to­day, the house was given over to the Na­tional Trust for Scot­land in 1958, and is a pop­u­lar at­trac­tion on the is­land.

The cas­tle is eas­ily reach­able via bikes, hired from near the ferry ter­mi­nal in Brod­ick. Cy­cling it­self is an in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar way to en­joy the scenery of the is­land, and brings many tourists to Ar­ran ev­ery year.

A jump across the firth finds you on an­other an­cient is­land. Ly­ing low in the wa­ter, the Isle of Bute has ce­mented its place in Scot­tish his­tory thanks to its con­nec­tion with Scot­land’s royal fam­i­lies. The short ferry ride from We­myss Bay gives way to the im­pres­sive views of the is­land’s cap­i­tal town of Rothe­say, and cen­tral to the tale of the tur­bu­lent past of the is­land is Rothe­say Cas­tle.

Fol­low­ing the rise of the Ste­warts to the Scot­tish throne, the cas­tle be­came a favourite res­i­dence of

Again and again the spi­der built its web, and even­tu­ally the silk held

Kings Robert II and Robert III. Robert III made his el­dest son David Duke of Rothe­say in 1398, be­gin­ning a tra­di­tion of hon­our­ing the heir ap­par­ent to the Scot­tish throne with this ti­tle. This con­tin­ued be­yond the Union of the Crowns in 1603 and is held to­day by Prince Charles, among his other ti­tles. Bute has one of the finest Vic­to­rian man­sions in the UK; Bute’s Mount Stu­art is an in­tri­cate and am­bi­tious ex­am­ple of Vic­to­rian Gothic ar­chi­tec­ture. Com­pleted with a white mar­ble chapel that wouldn’t be out of place in Venice, this truly is a house of firsts; it is be­lieved Mount Stu­art was the first home in the world to have a heated in­door swim­ming pool, and the first in Scot­land to be pur­pose built with elec­tric lights, cen­tral heat­ing, a tele­phone sys­tem and a pas­sen­ger lift. Most of which are, quite as­ton­ish­ingly, still in use to­day. For the na­ture lover, Bute’s wilder­ness has much to of­fer, its coast­line pep­pered with se­cluded bays for pic­nics, pad­dling, and seal-spot­ting; and for when night de­scends, Rothe­say be­comes a vi­brant town, par­tic­u­larly in May, when the jazz fes­ti­val trans­forms the art deco Pav­il­ion each year. In all, there are not many places in Scot­land where myth and le­gend blend so eas­ily with his­tory, and his­tory with a way of life. The Firth of Clyde’s ma­jor is­lands are a must see for those want­ing to ex­pe­ri­ence all Scot­land has to of­fer on a con­densed scale.

The chapel would not be out of place in Venice


Im­age: Near the vil­lage of Machrie on the Isle of Ar­ran stand six Bronze Age stone cir­cles.

Above: Now a ruin, Lochranza Cas­tle dates back to the 13th cen­tury. Robert the Bruce landed here in 1306 on his re­turn from Ire­land to claim the Scot­tish throne. Right: Once home to the Dukes of Hamil­ton, Brod­ick Cas­tle lies on the east coast of Ar­ran.

Above: The cap­i­tal town of Rothe­say on the Isle of Bute was a pop­u­lar tourist des­ti­na­tion in the Vic­to­rian era.

Above: Mount Stu­art House is the an­ces­tral home of the Mar­quesses of Bute. Be­low: Robert III made his heir ap­par­ent Duke of Rothe­say, a ti­tle still held to­day by Prince Charles.

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