When you have your birthday in early January and you fancy a day out, you have to put up with whatever the weather throws at you.

With the forecast promising sunshine a few days beforehand, I took a look at the map and thought that a drive to Saddell Abbey might be nice. Lovely sea views on the way down, with the chance of wildlife.

The views on Sunday morning, however, were rather less than crystal-clear. As we drove down to Lochgilphead and then headed further south towards Tarbert the mist gave way to fog, which was accompanied by soft rain. Daylight was questionable. Everything was shrouded in grey, with no distinct boundary between sea and sky. Nor were there many signs of life: hardly anyone was out and about around the scattered cottages and farmhouses. Along the winding coast road we met only a handful of cars, all with their lights on. By the time we’d passed Carradale we had broken into our packed lunch out of desperation, and were laughing about Paul McCartney’s ‘Mull of Kintyre’.

With the mist still rolling in from the sea, we stopped in a layby to take a brief wander on a pebbly beach. Three grey seals put their heads up and watched us curiously. The pebbles were pretty – hues of bright orange and pink, probably carnelian, mixed with basalt and granite. Then we pressed on, round another couple of hairpin bends, until a signpost directed us to the car park at Saddell Abbey.

I don’t really know what made me want to go there, and I only had a vague idea that the place was historically significant. I felt bad that I was dragging Colin around yet more ruins on the dreichest of dreich days. Optimistically, we clad ourselves in waterproofs and I made a mental note to keep my camera lens pointing downwards.

A short walk up a farm track, through a gate on the left, and a newish wooden building loomed in front of us. This, we discovered, housed a collection of medieval carved gravestones. If, by now, you’ve been reading my blog for long enough to develop a nervous tic at the mention of medieval gravestones, I’d advise you to look away now, or click onto another post, although I can’t guarantee that it will be any better. What I’ve got to say about these stones, however, is that the knight-effigies were very much life-size and more arresting than any I’ve seen to date.

They were all lined up neatly, with the remains of what looked like a high cross in one corner. The details proved quite tricky to photograph in the dim light, but Colin found a torch in his pocket and shone it onto interesting spots. Amazing details stood out. According to an information board, the knights are wearing distinctive West Highland armour, while priests are also depicted, kneeling in prayer; other recurring themes such as birlinns (galleys) and swords reminded me of other stones in Kilmory Knap, Kilberry and Kilmartin. Echoes of the Knights Templar again here? Maybe. There never seems to be enough written evidence, but sometimes I feel the symbols hold the key, if we could interpret them correctly.

It is thought that the figures may have been painted at one time, which would certainly have stopped you in your tracks. We can put a name to one of them: the largest effigy (above), of a man well over six foot, has a Latin inscription revealing that it was commissioned by Donald MacNair, in honour of his father, Neil.

Out of the building again, and up the gently sloping ground to the graveyard of Saddell Abbey, where the ruins themselves were looming darkly out of the mist. I stopped to look at some of the headstones, many of which were illegible or completely covered with moss and lichen. Hardly surprising, with woodland close by, and a mild but damp maritime climate! The ones I could read, however, turned out to be very interesting. One particular name rooted me to the spot. I’ll tell you more later on!

So what is there to see of Saddell Abbey? It was quite hard to make sense of it at first, because it seems that, of what was once quite a substantial building, only a few random parts remain. The abbey originally consisted of a church and three ranges of buildings around a cloister. The surviving walls represent the presbytery and the north transept of the church; a short distance away, the low walls of a room from the south range are also visible. They are just empty containers now, cold broken stone, and it’s hard to gain any sense of the atmosphere, the discipline and quiet industry that once must have pervaded this place. You can see why it was chosen, though: it is close to a stream which provided fresh water, and it is in the most serenely tranquil spot, far away from the noise of civilisation.

That’s not to say that Saddell was insignificant – far from it. There’s a connection here with one of Scotland’s most enigmatic warrior-heroes: Somerled of the Isles. It is believed that Somerled or his son instigated the abbey’s construction, and it may even be the place where he was finally laid to rest.

Who was Somerled?

The warrior Somairle or Somerled (literally, ‘summer-wanderer’, as so many of the Norsemen were) is thought to have come from a Norse-Gaelic family. He married Ragnhild, daughter of the Norse King of Man; in the mid-12th century, with his fleet of beautifully-built birlinns or galleys, he defied both the Scottish and Norwegian kings and rose to power, declaring himself Rí Innse Gall or King of the Isles, with a wide territory that stretched across the Hebrides and parts of mainland Argyll. Somerled’s descendants were the MacDonald Lords of the Isles, who ruled the west of Scotland until 1493, when their lands and titles were seized by James IV of Scotland.

There appears to be some debate about exactly when Saddell Abbey was established, but it is generally accepted that either Somerled or his son was the founder. Among 13th century manuscripts in the British Museum it is mentioned as ‘Saundell in Cantire circa 1163’, and ‘Sconedale MCLX (1160)’. These dates point to an act of foundation that would have taken place before the death of Somerled in 1164; but other sources suggest that Somerled’s son, Raghnall, was the founder, or even his grandson. “It is probable that the buildings were not completed, and the monks assembled, before Reginald’s [Raghnall’s] death in 1207, for it is not included in the list of Scottish abbeys in Gervase of Canterbury’s Mappa Mundi, written between 1205 and 1211.”

(Quotes from: ’A Chronology of the Abbey and Castle of Saddell, Kintyre’, by Andrew McKerral, pub. by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland)

The monks were of a Cistercian order, and the abbey was a daughter house of Mellifont in the diocese of Armagh. Historic Environment Scotland says: “The community was probably small in numbers and the recorded endowments are not extensive. Most of the property held was in Kintyre, but the monastery also had possessions in Gigha, Knapdale, Carrick and Arran.”

‘Saddell’ is from the Norse words meaning ‘sandy dale’ or ‘sandy bay’.

And was Somerled buried here, instead of on the island of Iona, as some historians have suggested? There is a distinct possibility, although no evidence has been found. Against this proposition is the likelihood that the abbey may not have been completed at the time of his death. But perhaps Somerled was re-interred at Saddell when it was finished: “If indeed Somerled’s remains were removed from their original place of burial – presumably by his son Ranald, but no less possibly by his grandson Donald – the most likely purpose in so doing would have been to confer prestige on the monastic foundation they had at long last brought to completion.”  (Somerled and the Emergence of Gaelic Scotland’ by John Marsden)

In 1470 is the last reference to be found of an abbot at Saddell, by which time the abbey “appears to have been in a state of dissolution.” (McKerrall). In 1507 James IV granted the abbey and its lands to David Hamilton, Bishop of Argyll. Using material from the ruins, Hamilton began constructing a new residence for himself – Saddell Castle, further down towards the shore.

Colin and I wandered – or squelched – happily around the dripping ruins, peering at carvings in the old walls. Although it can be quite a sad exercise, I do like reading gravestones and trying to understand the lives and losses of families, especially because sometimes this is all that remains of a human story. Next to one of the church walls I stopped to read a stone with light grey lichen covering a nicely rounded script, and found myself staring at the name ‘MacKinlay’.

MacKinlay stones

You might remember that I wrote about an old MacKinlay burial ground near Loch Lubnaig a few years ago, and out of this blog post came a wealth of friends and connections from all over the world. How strange, then, at the bottom of Kintyre, in another ancient burial site, to be looking at more MacKinlays! I have photographed the stones, which were grouped together as if in a family plot. If you’d like more information, I’ll be happy to supply it.

And there were other names too… John Shaw, a vintner from Carradale; Blackstock, Straughan, Galbraith, Blair, McCallum. These were just the ones I could read. Another stone, of a Campbell I think, must take the prize for the most elegantly moss-covered stone I’ve ever seen.

Above:  The information board told us that the largest burial monument in the graveyard is for Colonel Donald Campbell of Glensaddell, dating from 1784.

I’m quite glad I didn’t know this beforehand, but I came across one website which claims that the abbey ruins are haunted by “a huge black spectral hand”.  On one occasion, on a particularly dark night, this hand is supposed to have pursued a local tailor all the way down the lane to Saddell Castle, where some small indentations on the left of the doorway are still known as the ‘devil’s handprint’.  Worryingly, the story doesn’t reveal what became of the tailor.  Logic forces me to ask how a hand can actually pursue anything, but the ethereal quality of the abbey ruins, combined with the long path down to the castle, gloomily overhung by tall trees, makes me shiver all the same.

Something else intrigued me about the graveyard around the abbey.   Towards the lower end are some stones that struck me as looking more like a stone circle, or at least an alignment of some sort.  Although some were recognisable as headstones, others were irregular in size, shape and outline.  Old gravestones do crack and split quite dramatically, but these ones had a look of something more ancient.  They may just be especially old stones, placed in an arrangement of a family plot.    I haven’t yet found any suggestion of a more ancient site here, but I’ll keep looking.

From the abbey, we took a stroll down to Saddell Castle, former residence of the Bishop of Argyll. Blissfully ignorant that we should be checking behind us for signs of an approaching spectral hand, we lingered a while in the woods on either side of the path, photographing the first emerging snowdrops – what a joy to see.

Saddell Castle presented a deliciously romantic appearance. A four-storey oblong tower house dating from 1507, it has been beautifully restored, and is in the care of the Landmark Trust. There appeared to be occupants, so we tried not to stare too hard at the windows.  It is reputed to be haunted, too: its ghostly inhabitants include a white lady and a monk. Some sources suggest that these are the spirits of people laid to rest in the abbey graveyard, who were disturbed when stone was robbed from the site during the castle’s construction.  It stands so close to the shore that the sea must come right up to the curtain wall at high tide.

Our coats, boots, and cameras were dripping by the time we got back to the car, but it was an exhilarating little journey of discovery, despite – or perhaps because of – the weather. Our drive back was slightly quicker, because we went down to Campbeltown and then back up the west coast on the main road; I say ‘main’ road with some hesitation because a cow was sauntering down the middle of it, in the opposite direction, somewhere around Westport.

Sources and reference:

“Far have I travelled, and much have I seen…”  ‘Mull of Kintyre‘ was an incredibly popular release in 1977 by Paul McCartney and Wings.  In the video, the pipers are actually marching on Saddell beach.

Photos copyright © Jo & Colin Woolf