Tuesday, 24 June 2014

A ribbon of history - St Blane's, the jewel of Bute

At the very end of the road from Kingarth there's a small parking area. A signpost points uphill towards St Blane's Church, although from the road the church itself is hidden. A short walk climbs a slope and over a lip into a dip sheltered on two sides by rocky outcrops and surrounded by large trees.

St Blane's is a favourite spot; when we lived on Bute we visited regularly and still try to come here whenever we have the opportunity. 

A monastery was founded here in the 6th century by one of the early Celtic monks, Catan, though the monastery and subsequent church are named after Catan's nephew Blane who succeeded his uncle as Abbot.  Blane became one of the best known of the Celtic saintss, his name is associated with several sites but most prominently with the church he and his followers established on the Allan Water at the edge of the Highlands - Dunblane.

There are some remnants of the original Celtic monastery including the outline walls of monk's cells placed up against the rocky outcrop which shelters St Blane's.  The monastery continued to flourish through the 6th and 7th centuries until the violent deaths of two of the Abbots, Maelmanach in 776 and Noah in 790.  This period saw raiding along the western seaboard by the Norsemen and it is fairly certain that the monastery was attacked several times before being destroyed in about 800.

The ruins which can be seen today are those of a 12th century monastery and later church.  There is a lower bank which is faced with stone and known as a "Vallum", a boundary separating the monastery both spiritually and legally from the surrounding land (behind me in this image).  Above are two churchyards - the lower was reserved for lay folk in the Dark Ages and later for women in the Middle Ages.  The upper churchyard was reserved for monks in the Dark Ages and for menfolk in the Middle Ages.

The small church is beautifully proportioned and constructed.  The Nave (the nearest part in this image) is probably original 12th century construction and was important as the only parish church in Bute at that time.

The arch separating the nave from the chancel (the part of the church reserved for the clergy) has fine chevron and dog-tooth carving which were prominent in church architecture of the period.

The chancel was rebuilt in the 14th century to replace the original, smaller building.  One can still see where the stone was interleaved with the original, and inside is an alcove which perhaps was a font or a reliquary.

Walking through the church and out into the upper churchyard, an inconspicuous hogsback grave-slab is traditionally described as the grave of St Blane himself, but is actually thought to be the grave of a Norseman.

A fine curving entrance way separates the lower and upper churchyards, perhaps the method of construction was designed to gradually reveal the church to those who approached it.

In summer the walls are covered with Ivy-leaved Toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis), a plant which favours old walls and seems to do particularly well on the walls of churches.

There is something new to discover each time St Blane's is visited; I'd not previously noticed this socket stone in the lower churchyard which would once have held a stone cross.

St Blane's remained in use as a church until about 1590, by which time the struggle between factions of Christianity were raging across Scotland and the centre of ecclisiatical life on Bute had moved to Rothesay.  The view remains the same as it must have been for the early monks, across the sea to Holy Island - probably no coincidence.

St Blane's remains a very special place - there is still an air of calm and tranquility that's hard to define - even in wild weather it's an oasis of quiet.  Whilst not a religious person, I'm fascinated by  places of faith and belief (of whatever kind) - and St Blane's is among the most evocative.  It's a true jewel in Bute.

All that now remained was to walk back along the road to Kingarth, back along the ribbon of history.

The walk as described is approximately 9 kilometres with a couple of short ascents.  I'd recommend returning to the road after visiting Dunstrone hillfort and walking down to Dunagoil along the road rather than traversing above the shore.  Bute is served by Calmac ferries from Wemyss Bay and Colintraive.


  1. A wonderful description of a "thin place", Ian. Such journeys through time and faith, touch something inside most of us, no matter where our deeper being calls "home". Warm wishes. Duncan.

  2. Thanks Duncan, I know that you'd be able to add some insight on any visit to St Blane's - we must put it on the list, especially now that you're amphibiously equipped!

    Best wishes

  3. I enjoyed a quiet hour out of the wind in the shelter of the church yard during some rough weather camped at the southern tip of Bute. A lovely spot indeed.

  4. Hi Peter,

    It is a special place isn't it? the Columban monks certainly knew a top spot when they saw one.....

    Very envious of your Irish adventure!

    Kind regards