Plague, Priests and Pirates on Islay

Islay’s intriguing past, a guest blog by Vivien Martin.

Mention Islay and for most people the first thing that springs to mind is undoubtedly whisky. But there’s much more to Islay than that. One of my own favourite parts of the island lies between Port Ellen and Kildalton, where, within a few short miles, you can discover sites that tell stories of the people, places and events that are part of the island’s rich, intriguing and often turbulent past.

Sitting at the ‘maritime crossroads’ between Ireland and the western seaboard of Scotland, for centuries Islay was where cultures met and new ideas arrived. Christianity, for example, reached Islay in the 6th century AD when Irish monks – perhaps even before Columba – sailed across from Antrim and established tiny chapels throughout the island.

For these early Celtic Christians there would have been little or no distinction between the spiritual and the political. All of life was bound together and they unflinchingly followed the command of Christ to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel”. The influence of these Christian missionaries is reflected in a multitude of ancient place-names on the island, many stemming from the old Gaelic word “cill(e)”, which means a church or a chapel. This later became the more familiar form “Kil“, seen in such place names as Kildalton, Kilchoman, Kilnave, Kilnaughton, Kilchiaran and many more. From tiny, humble beginnings these chapels grew into centres of worship and burial in parishes throughout the island.

Walking east from Port Ellen you soon reach the road to Kilbride Farm, and, passing an impressive 16-foot standing stone, you come to the ruins of one of these tiny chapels, this one still known by its more ancient name, Cill Tobar Lasrach, or Eaglais Tobar Lasrach, the Church of the Well of Lasrach. Sitting in a sheltered hollow, it is possible to see the outline of the small rectangular chapel surrounded by an almost circular enclosure. Continue reading....

Tradition tells us that the Irish St Lasair, daughter of St Ronan, was, like many early Celtic saints, associated with water. In this case it was a well, believed to have curative powers. Sadly there is no trace of it today.

However, the two stones that stand upright on either side of the enclosure opening are very much visible. One has a circular hole carved in it, the other an oblong hole. What their function was is not clear. Legend has it that they are “Marriage Stones”, through which the betrothed couple joined hands to cement their bond. A more prosaic suggestion is that they were some kind of socketed gate posts! But no-one knows for sure.

A little further up the road, again close to an impressive standing stone, are the remains of Cil Bhride, or St Bride’s Chapel. While the site itself is of very early Christian origin and dedicated to another Irish saint, St Bridget, the ruins are mostly those of a later 17th century church built to replace the medieval churches of Kildalton and Kilnaughton. This ‘new’ building, however, was itself short-lived, being superseded in turn by another new church, built in Lagavulin in 1730.

However, evidence of the site’s antiquity is plain. Tobar an t-Sagairt, the Well of the Priest, lies to the south of the burial ground and Crois an t-Sagairt, The Priest’s Cross, now in the National Museum of Scotland, is of very early Christian date. In pre-Christian times water sources - wells, lakes or rivers - were all regarded with especial veneration and missionaries interwove existing beliefs with their own.

Continuing east you come to the ruined 12th century Dunyvaig Castle, which sits on a promontory above Lagavulin Bay. It was a perfect position to guard the seas from Antrim to mainland Scotland, a most effective naval stronghold of the Macdonalds, sailing out on raids in search of land and booty. Although ‘gentry’ in name, they were like so many of their contemporaries, warlords of the seas – at times little more than pirates – raiding and being raided in endless tit-for-tat skirmishes.

Initially it’s puzzling to see how ships could navigate such a rocky and dangerous channel towards Dunyvaig’s sea gate. But it is said that a strategically placed lamp in the castle provided a narrow beam which, if followed exactly, would guide friendly ships to the safely of the sea gate. One story tells of Coll Ciotach, a 17th century chief, returning from a raid and following the light to what he thought was safety. But unknown to him the castle had been retaken by his enemy Campbell of Cawder. Coll’s piper, from the castle, managed to warn Coll of the trap by mis-playing a pibroch thus sending a coded message to his master. Coll escaped; the piper didn’t, and had his fingers chopped off!

Like many ancient Gaelic names there are variations in spelling, the most common today being Dunyveg, Dunyvaig and Dun Naomhaig, while possible meanings are ‘the fort of the little ships’ or ‘the fort of the holy harbour’. The ruins are now in a dangerous state of repair, but, armed with an old guide book, we made our way across the yawning gap over a natural cleft in the rock once spanned by the drawbridge and with a sheer drop to the rocks many feet below. On the way up it didn’t seem so bad - but the leap across on the way back down was a different matter, having to land on the “wrong” foot with nothing to hold onto – a “Bad Step” indeed.

Mentioning this later we were told of a dog that had bounded over the gap only to be unable to get back over again. Bridging the gap with a plank, its owner went over, attached a rope to its collar and made her way back. But the dog was still too terrified to move and had to be hauled across. As it was being dragged back it slipped and fell off the plank, dangling by its neck from the rope. But the rope saved it and it was pulled - unharmed - to safety, never to set “paw” in the castle again!

Another intriguing tale we heard concerned the so-called ‘plague village’ of Solam, a deserted settlement in the hills above Ardbeg. It was said that, in the 18th century, the villagers of Solam aided a shipwrecked sailor, who repaid their kindness with the gift of a mother-of-pearl necklace, little realising that the necklace carried the plague with it and disaster struck the small community.

To prevent the spread of this terrible disease the villagers isolated themselves. From a safe distance friends left out food for their stricken neighbours, placed daily on a large flat stone outside the village. When the food was no longer taken they knew the last villager had died and the village was burned to the ground. So went the tale, but was it true?

We knew that such tragic things did occur, for example in Eyam in Derbyshire. And there certainly were shipwrecks aplenty around the treacherous coasts of Islay. Investigation followed – The Museum of Islay Life, census records, Old Parish Registers, rent books, relevant websites (including Neil Gordon-Orr’s excellent Islay History Blog) – but every time we drew a blank. There seems to be no concrete evidence at all to substantiate the story.

Nonetheless we wanted to see the site for ourselves. We had been warned that the walk up could be so boggy as to be almost impassable, but we were there during a bitterly cold spell and crossed a frozen landscape. There was something very poignant about looking over the silent remains of a once thriving community. Were the story true, then it is sad that an act of kindness should have had such a disastrous outcome.

East of Solam and back onto the road you reach what is easily the best known chapel in this area, the now roofless medieval old parish church of Kildalton. Over the centuries, standing crosses, often intricately carved, became important ecclesiastical features. The Kildalton High Cross is the only surviving complete early Christian ringed cross in Scotland, carved in the 8th century from very hard green-grey epidiorite, quarried from the nearby Port na Cille. The magnificent carvings reflect not only the influence of Iona but also of Pictish, Celtic, Irish and Northumbrian cultures - different peoples yet bound by a shared belief and artistic awareness.

I find it both interesting and remarkable, that around one short stretch of road on this beautiful island so much is revealed about the events that have shaped the history of the island over many centuries. A now quiet landscape yet with a rich history. And there are - of course - three distilleries on the way!

Pictures and text with kind permission of Vivien Martin - Vival publications