CHAPTER IV

LITTLE CUMBRAE

    LITTLE Cumbrae may be reached by boat from the larger island in about twenty minutes. Sheannawally Point, or the point of the old cairns, is the name of the little headland which lies nearest to the pier of Millport. The distance by water from this "point of the old cairns" to the Auld Castle is not much more than a mile. It is now evident that the islet on which this old castle stands was formerly called Allinturail, that is, the islet of the noble's tower. Cravies-hole, or the creek of the devout folk, is at the north end of castle-island, and it is, at high water, a fairly good landing-place. But boats very often put in at the strand beside the farmhouse, and this is best managed when the tide is within two hours of reaching high-water mark. In order to visit

SANTA VEY,

    the ruined chapel of St. Bey (Latine Beya), let the traveller turn round the farmhouse, keeping to the right, and proceed due north to the old ruined barn under the cliff called Craigmillar; then still northwards for three hundred yards; after that, bend round sharply to the left while traversing a pass at the north end of the line of cliffs and advancing west by south towards Priest-hoy—a beaked or wedge-shaped cliff crowned with some stone wall, on the right. Turning now slightly to the right and "doubling" the point of the cliff, let him advance about eighty yards westwards and he will presently find himself by the side of the ruined walls of Chapel Santa Vey, having traversed from the sea-shore rather less than a mile of ground, but doing it all easily (though partly up-hill) in half-an-hour.
    This very ancient chapel has been planted in the green, fern-clad hollow of a rocky amphitheatre, the craggy ridges and cliffs of which completely shut off the prospect beyond, and confine the view to a mere bit of blue sky. Meet habitation for a hermit it is, and if ever the fashion of going into retreat pure and simple comes round again, we may feel sure that the green solitude of Santa Vey will be one of the first to invite the ascetic's choice. here, if anywhere, the solitary would find himself at home, for "in this calm spot remote from men" there is nothing to awaken the echoes from the cliff but the scream of the plover, as she rises from the covert of the reedy lake. It is just such a place as meets the requirements of the legend of St. Bey, and so far as this goes it affords internal evidence of its truth. Turning now to the chapel ruin we find that it had been a little fane 42 feet in exterior length, 20 feet of which belonged to the choir or channel. The choir was 20 feet in exterior width, and was divided internally into two sections so as to allow one of them to be used as a "prophet's chamber" or lodge for the priest in charge. The ruined form or outline of this little sanctuary is about sixteen yards from the foot of Priest-hoy cliff on the right or north-east ; and the tiny, rush-tufted lake of Gurag Meyre, or the lady-lakelet, comes within a few paces of the west end of the chapel. About twelve yards south-west of the chapel there a couple of rifled grave-kists, which have evidently been constructed of rude stone slabs after the manner of ancient, pre- Christian interments. Whether one of these formed the last resting-place of St. Bey, or is to be regarded as a pre-historic tomb of much earlier date it were hard to decide ; but this may be said that even Christians of conservative tendencies were not indisposed to adhere to the archaic mode of sepulture. The larger of the two graves is about 7 feet in length, and lies east and west. The stone which forms its western end is a large block of porphyry 30 inches above the bottom of this "full-length cist of flagstones set on edge." Since the breviary of Aberdeen does not say that the memorial chapel was raised over Beya's grave, we are tempted to think that this may have been the hallowed spot in which her ashes reposed. The other grave is within four or five feet of this one, lies about north and south, and shows a slab fixed in the earth, at the southern end of it. The little mere or lake (of the lady) is within three or four yards of this grave.
    About eighty paces south by west of the chapel, and near to the rocky brow which overhangs the deep-lying lake of Langmere, are the ruins of a very old house of considerable size and strength, it being 22 feet square. As this 'lerrock' or ruin is near an ivy- clad rock beside the precipice we may call it Ivy-crag ruin. Passing onwards over a smooth rocky eminence somewhat like a bare scalp of rock, and now in a south-easterly direction, a short walk of fifty paces brings one to another ruin about 30 feet in length, in the eastern corner of which stands the stump or butt- end of a round tower, most probably one of the kind so often found associated with ancient churches and (according to Dr. Petrie) used as bell-towers, some of them built as early as the middle of the seventh century. This round tower stands due south of the chapel, and may thus be quickly reached by the aid of a compass. Sometimes the writer has been ready to regard it as a square tower about ten feet square externally, but whatever its exact form it was probably used as a bell-tower. Anyone standing near the chapel can, in clear calm weather, distinctly hear the striking of the hours on the clocks of the parish church and the cathedral, in the Greater Cumbrae, although the latter church is about 2 miles distant as the crow flies. The fact was proved in the personal experience of the writer, who along with his brother stood on the spot referred to on the afternoon of Dec. 9, 1872. One of these ruined buildings may have been used long ago as a hospice for the reception of pilgrims visiting the shrine of St. Bey. No ancient slab-crosses such as those on Sanda island, Cantyre, have been heard in connection with the chapel which has been engaging out attention.
    The South Chapel.-Walk from the supposed round tower for about ninety yards in a north-east direction and come upon the ruins of what has probably been another chapel—one of perhaps later date. It lies very nearly due south of the conspicuous southern point of Priest-hoy, from which it is distant fifty-five paces. Indeed, that high nib or point is like an index finger pointing straight to this ruined chapel, for such (by the testimony of competent judges) we must conclude it to be. And since no name has hitherto been found for it, it is now suggested that it be called Markle, that is, the chapel-ruin. As to length and breadth it seems to have been the almost exact counterpart of Santa Vey, and may possibly have been a reproduction of the latter upon a fresh site. Markle has good lime cement in its walls, one of which (the north) is three feet thick, and is still well seen. The priest in charge had a pretty large house or chamber attached to the north wall of the choir, but outside of it. The remains of this chamber show it had an interior area of about 18 feet by 10. Close to the north wall of this exterior dwelling there is a squared block of sandstone fixed in the earth, while all round no rock but hard trap or clink-stone (of which the chapel is built) can be found. A little way north a cairn may be seen, and not far from it the site of an ancient homestead.
    The Bel Stane.—Going southwards from Markle, a short walk of 96 paces brings one to this interesting stone, where the games and sports (devotions being over) were held on the festival of the saint. Approaching it from the chapel, this great stone shows the form of a finely pointed pyramids five feet in height. It rests on a bare patch of rock surrounded by greensward and bracken. Seven paces to the right, or due west of it, will be seen what may be called the Cup Stane, because of the cup-like hollow on the centre of its south face. this stone has the form of a hemisphere, with cup sculptured on its "plane" face looking towards the true south, the diameter of which face is 3 feet 3 inches, that of the "cup" 4 inches, and the depth of the latter nearly 1 inches. A work of man's art it is, but its meaning or purpose remains a mystery. Not so with the Bel Stane, for no tool has been lifted upon it, and its name it certainly has from the old term bel, buil, billie, a festival, feast, play. These two stones form a combination that is unique, and have attracted savants from distant places. Banclan-toye, or holy-woman's hillock, is one-third of a mile to the north of these stones, and may be seen on the right bank of a rivulet which runs westwards. The name evidently refers to St. Beya of this island, who was honoured with a church at Dunbar, (Bae's Well is there,) another church at Kilbucho, and a third at Kilbagie. Besides these, there is reason to believe that the ruined chapel of Kilbaig in the Lewis was named after our lady-saint, whose day is the same as that of Maura. When the name of St. Bey has cill [keel] prefixed, it is pronounced Vey by the Gaels.
    Here are a few verses which the writer lately penned in illustration of the ancient chapel of St. Bey:—

SANTA VEY.

Far up among the rocky heights and scars
Which stud the rugged breast of Cumbrae's Isle—
Erst called 'of Santa Vey,' but 'Lesser' now—
One spot of sweetest green attracts the eye
And bids the wanderer pause. For all about
Rise terraced steeps and craggy walls of trap
Which make of it a quiet sanctuary,
And shut one off completely from the world.
A calm retreat in ancient times it was
When good St. Beya chose it for her cell,
And made it hallowed ground for evermore.
A tiny lakelet here called Gurack Mere,
Whose straightest English is the Lady Lake,
Reflects the grassy verdure of its rim
And shows, in its clear mirror, chapel walls
Which dwellers on the isle call Santa Vey.
A shrine it seems within a natural shrine
To which the pious folk did oft repair
With reverence due to Him who framed this wild—
As for a lodge in lonely wilderness—
And with a grateful feeling in their hearts
Towards that good lady who, for many years,
Did teach with zealous mind and kindest love
Their daughters and their wives throughout the West.
The blest Evangel was her daily theme,
And well may we believe that many hearts
Received th' engrafted word which quickly grew
And proved to be those goodly plants of grace
Which, watered by the dews divine, bear fruit,
Some thirty, sixty, or an hundred-fold.
Strong time has laid its finger hard upon
The crumbling remnants of this little church
Which for a thousand years or more has borne
The shock of tempests and the blows of fate.
For long before the hardy Norsemen came
In gallant ships which raven-pennant bore
And deeply scored the billows of the Clyde,
Our sainted Beya and her close-knit friend,
St. Maura of the greater Cumbrae's Isle,
Had taught together in their mission schools
Those holy truths which tell us 'God is love.'
No mere recluses they in earlier years,
But ever active heralds of the Cross,
And making all their influence deeply felt
From high St. Bees to fair Kilmaurs in Kyle
As well as in the Isle of Cumbrae hight.
Now after years of labour thus were spent
St. Bey resolved to seek seclusion deep
Within the lone recesses of that isle
Where relics of her chapel still remain.
In perfect calm and meditative mood
She daily sought by prayer and fastings oft
To win that crown of truest sanctity
Which evermore grew fairer to her faith.
To none free access to her isle was given,
Save only to her friend of former days,
That faithful Maura, who did often claim
One hour's brief converse on some sacred theme.
Of these two friends the latter went before,
And soon thereafter to her rest was called
The venerable Beya, whose remains
In that same isle were decently interred.
Forthwith a chapel in her honour rose
And pious pilgrims to it came in troops,
As if the sight of their old teacher's grave
Would quicken their devotions, and create
A sense of joyous comfort in their prayers.
So with the circling years the custom grew
To have some play or game on our saint's day,
And, strange to tell, the Belstane on the green,
not many roods away, remains to mark
The chosen scene of their high festival,
Where possibly the feat of miracle-play
Was oft performed ; and afterwards the games
And minor sports which please the laic heart.
    Cravies-hole, or creek of the devout folk, is beside the old castle, and shows the spot where the pilgrims landed. Monks Cave is two-thirds of a mile south of the old castle, and will be found at the base of the lofty cliff of Storrils—a cliff, which is on the west side of the lower part of Cosey-glen, the glen of caves. This cave of the old monks or "Reimkennars" (Culdee clerics or hermits) is over one hundred feet in length, and quite dry. The entrance to the cave is effected through a deep rift in the cliff, and is somewhat difficult to discover. Secure within its hidden recesses (where are high ledges to sleep on), the peapar or clerical fathers of Santa Vey must have often lodged here in evil times or when violence was feared. The polished smoothness of the sides of this cave is held to indicate the frequent inhabitation of it. There are several other caves in the vicinity, and there is also a pretty large one at Waterloo-bight called Ryssel-cave, or cave of the champions. Ocregman's Cave, or cave of the bedesman, must be mentioned, if it were only for the opportunity it gives of interpreting a very remarkable name. The name of this old hermit bedesman's cave is formed by adding the common term "man" to a Gaelic compound signifying the cave of the man of prayer—uagh fhir ghuidhe. The Magga-clagh [claff] Cairns on the northern point of this "Little Isle" are clearly shown by their name to have been the reputed burying-place of Picts. When the largest of these cairns was opened in 1813, the Earl of Eglinton's men came first upon a sword of great length and weight, and having a guard for the wielder's hand ; next, a hauberk of scale armour with iron byrnie or breast-piece, and iron guards for the wrist and back of neck. An iron casque or helmet was found along with these ; also a second sword so corroded by rust that it fell to pieces directly it was touched. Going farther down into the cairn the workmen came upon a short kistvaen, or chest of stone slabs, in which was found an urn, containing some brown dust and four or six fine white teeth. The two swords and the other pieces of armour belonged to one or more secondary interments, but the cinerary urn must be referred to some ancient chief of the Gadini or the Firbolgs (see Landmarks pp.117, 299). The Mariners' Chart, by an error of the press gives the name under consideration in the form of Muggie-point, but Magga-clagh is the only proper spelling. Sheannawally is the name most frequently applied to the great cairns just described, and which are well worth a visit (Compare Magga-law in next chapter.) There are vestiges of a fort on the cliff-top a short distance south of these cairns. Millar-fort, a very old ruined stronghold, is on the hill to the west of the farmhouse, and its vestiges may be seen near the north margin of a small lake— Tammis-loch.
    THE AULD CASTLE was built prior to the year 1375, for in the spring of that year King Robert II. made it his place of abode for a season. The fact is proved by a charter which the king, in the midst of his hunting and fishing expeditions, found time to seal and authenticate by the royal sign manual. Again, in the spring of 1384, the king is sojourning in the same island, and from his royal residence there dates another charter. Perhaps the castle was built by his father, Sir Walter, the High Steward, who married Marjory Bruce the only daughter of the patriot king. In that case, he is the nobleman referred to in the name of Allinturail. What a pity that the Bishop of St. Andrew's, or other churchman attending the king's insular Court, did not indite a little book, telling us all about the hunting, and the eagles, and the hermits, and the old chapels on the isle. During the period of the king's visits, and for long afterwards, Hunter of Hunterston was custodian of the island and its lordly castle. Cromwell's soldiers are reported to have surprised and burned the castle in the year 1653,—an act of revenge, probably, for having confined in the dungeon of the old keep, and afterwards hanged, Archie Hamilton, one of the Protector's chief correspondents. "On his [Cromwell's] arrival in Glasgow, 'the ministers and magistrates flee all away. I got to the Isle of Cumbrae with my Lady Montgomery, but left all my family and goods to Cromwell's courtesy, which indeed was great." —Baillie's Letters, iii., 29, cited by Hill Burton.
    The Light-house should be visited, and the whole of the truly romantic scenery near Bolls Rock explored. Barr Hoy is the highest summit, and on one of its western ridges is the Whistling Stane. let him who hears the whistle try to solve the mystery of it!

 


email

 

email