Monday, 12 September 2016

The "stone men" of Saddell Abbey

After breakfast at Saddell Bay we took down our tents and packed up our boats on the shore. One of the pleasures of sea kayaking for both Douglas and I lies in exploring a little of the places we kayak to, and close to where we'd camped was the ruin of the historic Saddell Abbey which we hoped to visit before moving on.

Walking along the track above the shore we first passed Saddell House, one of the properties owned by the Landmark Trust.  The Trust was formed in 1965 with the aim of preserving historic buildings which weren't in the care of either the National Trust or Historic Scotland (then part of the Ministry of Works).  The buildings weren't to be preserved as museums though, one of the key aims was to enable public enjoyment of the properties and in many cases this has been achieved by offering them as holiday rentals.  Saddell House was built in 1774 by Colonel Donald Campbell who had earned military fame as well as considerable wealth in the Indian service.  Built in a light and airy style , one of the most distinctive features of the house are the large chimneys.  In 1899 a fire in one of the chimneys spread to the attic and burned the roof.  Rebuilt almost straight away, it remains an impressive house.

At the western end of the curving bay is the older Saddell Castle, another Landmark Trust property. Built in 1508 by the Bishop of Argyll at a time when bishoprics were hereditary or granted by royal favour and the bishop's robes were interchanged with chain-mail, the castle was described in a contemporary document as "A fair pyle, and stronge".  A fairly typical Scottish tower-house, by 1600 it was held by the Campbells and continued in the ownership of that powerful clan for 400 years.

A long driveway leads from the castle up towards the public road which had a cool, green atmosphere on this morning of sunshine and showers.

The damp climate and shady wood give ideal growning conditions for mosses and fungi which were growing in profusion along the banks lining the drive.

It's a short walk from the end of the castle drive to the ruin of Saddell Abbey, of which comparatively little remains.  Somerled, Lord of the Isles granted land here to Bishop Malachy of Armagh in 1140 to build a Cistercian abbey and work commenced in 1148, the monks came from Armagh also.  Somerled's son Ragnald re-endowed the abbey in 1160 and it remained in use for probably another 350 years, finally being abandoned some time after 1493 when James IV took control of Argyll from the Lords of the Isles.

The ruin lies on a slight rise in the midst of a graveyard. the only really identifiable parts are the interior of the choir and the north transept, all the rest is gone.  But actually it's the graveyard and the stones within which are the main historical interest at Sadell Abbey.

Housed in a very well-made shelter of stone, glass and wood which sits well in the context of the site are a remarkable collection of stones, grave-slabs and effigies which marked burials at Saddell and show what an important place it once was.  On this fragmented stone a highland Birlinn (galley) and a sword are clearly marked, the means by which the Lords of the Isles exercised power.

There are twelve grave-slabs displayed back-to-back within the shelter, most of which are believed to have been carved on Iona and transported here to mark the graves of great men and churchmen (women are rarely depicted on such stones).  All are thought to date from around 1300-1400 and are beautifully made with distinctive Celtic motifs which may once have been painted.

The most striking of the stones are five grave-slabs bearing life-size effigies; two probably represent priests and three are effigies of Highland Lords in full armour.

The detail and craftsmanship with which these "stone men" were carved has endured over 700 years - it's possible to get an impression of how the nobility of the day would have actually looked.  In most cases the faces are somewhat blank, but there are other fine details which emerge as the stones are examined more closely.  On two of the stones, figures are displayed at the shoulder of the which may represent wives, and at the feet of the central figure in this image an inverted figure of what appears to be a dead child is depicted in quite explicit detail.  A faded Latin inscription states that this effigy is of Neil McNair, and was commissioned by his son Donald - it's a fascinating window into a past inhabited by identifiable people.

Items of clothing and weapons are carved in superb detail, right down to the decorative elbow guards worn by the Lords and individual scales of chain-mail.  Weapons are carried by all (including the clergymen) and some of the slabs seem to have been carved with provision for an actual or decorative spear - the right hand of this Lord clasps an empty socket with a recess in the stone showing where the weapon would have been.

The shelter housing the effigies has been thoughtfully designed to allow light to flood the stones, enhancing the details.  A nice design touch can be found on the metal frame containing the stones where the separating uprights are made in the style of a Birlinn's bow.

We found the "stone men" of Saddell Abbey fascinating; the site is very well worth a visit.  I'm not sure whether Sir Antony Gormley visited the Abbey when designing his "Land" series of sculptures, but there's maybe a hint of these figures in his work nearby which looks out to Kilbrannan Sound.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks Dan, the stones are remarkable - and learning more to put on the blog is part of the pleasure of it for me :o)

      Kind regards