A Gem of a Place

Paul McCartney knew a thing or two when he sang about the Mull of Kintyre, but a gem of a place awaits if you trust your instincts and head north. At journey’s end, you’ll be richly rewarded.

Over the years, I have been fortunate indeed to visit the Scottish castle of Saddell, and its nearby abbey, on the Kilbrannan Sound on the shores of eastern Kintyre.

Have you ever heard of Somerled, Lord of the Isles?  He figures strongly in the history of the area, and his remains rest at the abbey. Set beside a stream within a verdant glen, the monastery now lies in ruins. Irish Cistercian monks farmed their sheep here, trading with Flemish weavers. Surely, old monks, and perhaps even Somerled himself, must walk these paths. Why would anyone ever want to leave?

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I’m not sure what came first – the castle or the abbey but, much like the threads of an ancient tapestry, their tales are entwined. In the early 14th century, when the Knights Templar were hounded from France, rumours abounded that they, and their allegedly fabulous treasure, found sanctuary at Saddell. When the dusk heaves with shadows, silent and dense, it is easy to imagine such a connection for nearby, within a weather-proof shelter, effigies of faceless men set into old grave stones, stand at attention, proud in the distinctive suits of the time, swords at the ready. But these are much, much older – men of the isles, highland lords in full armour, perhaps even the men of Somerled, or his son, Ragnald, patrons of this abbey.

I imagine Somerled’s birlinn sweeping into the bay, his men leaping ashore. The Norse warrior skills of this “summer sailor” gained him the Hebridean islands all the way from the Butt of Lewis in the far north, to the Isle of Man in the south, forging a kingdom, independent of its closest neighbour, medieval Scotland. Somerled must have looked around him, counted his blessings, and set about earning heavenly favour by building an abbey – now sadly long gone.

But there is still plenty to see and experience in the area. Nearby, down a long treed driveway, you will come across an evocative castle, a more recent addition to this ancient landscape

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I particularly liked the walled enclosure and tangled mossy garden, hidden spaces aplenty. The gardeners amongst us might ponder upon this peaceful sanctuary, protected from the elements, and the plants grown here so long ago.

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Silhouetted against the fading sunlight, the crenelations of this Scottish tower house will take your breath away.

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Originally built in the 16th century as lodgings for a warrior bishop, David Hamilton – with wood-paneled chambers, vaulted ceilings, curved stairwells, a trapdoor or two, and a dungeon, this abode has known many owners. And with the ebb and flow of Scotland’s contentious politics, they must have heard the clash of sword and smelt the sickening stench of fire when the castle was sacked by opposing forces.

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In more peaceful times, seals and otters play in the shallow waters of the rocky shore and visitors can stay at the castle and estate cottages, courtesy of the Landmark Trust.It’s a gem of a place and, like me, you’ll be singing its praises.

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