The ruins of the chapel at St Blane's
As the sun rises on Easter morning, singing can be heard echoing over the still waters of the Sound of Bute. While the rest of the world sleeps, a few hardy souls have risen early to climb the steep path through the field that leads to the ruined chapel of St Blane on the south side of the Isle of Bute. Little survives of the monastery itself apart from the bell, which once rang out over St Blane's as a summons to prayer. It is now in Dunblane cathedral.
Legend has it that Blane's mother, Ertha, could not explain his birth and she and her child were turned adrift in a coracle. Fair winds drove them to Ireland where Blane was educated by monks before returning to Kingarth.
Blane's influence on the early Christian church was extensive and his name can be found in many places throughout Scotland: Strathblane, Dunblane and Auchenblane to name a few.
All around the site are reminders of how the monks spent their days. As well as the usual domestic work such as tending sheep, they carved stones, using slates as sketch books. Some of these can be seen in the Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh.
They kept fish in the pond in the hollow south of the wicket gate and beyond the Cashel, or high wall, the foundation of the pilgrims' dormitory can be seen still. In the far corner is the stone basin where the pilgrims would have stopped to wash their feet.
Nearby is the Devil's Cauldron, a massive structure whose use is uncertain. Suggestions range from a place of penance, to a tower, to a building pre-dating Blane's settlement. Until it is fully excavated, one guess is as good as another.
Beside the Cauldron stands the 'Dreaming Tree' probably a corruption of the Gaelic 'Druim-en- tre'(the little ridge dwelling). At one time it was a favourite haunt of lovers as picking and eating the leaves was supposed to guarantee dreams of a future spouse.
The well beside the chapel was reputed to be the home of a 'sith' or fairy who could cure sterility when given gifts of silver or gold. As late as the first half of the twentieth century offerings were still being made. This blurring of the boundaries between Christianity and paganism is one of the fascinations of the site.
A 'hogback' tomb right at the doorway to the burial ground is said to be the tomb of St Blane, though it is more likely to be Norse or mediaeval and the burial ground itself would no longer be approved of as men are buried in the upper part nearer the chapel and women in the lower ground .
One explanation for this is that St Blane was bringing earth from the holy city of Rome up from the shore when the rope broke. He asked a woman gathering shellfish on the nearby seashore to help by lending him her girdle to mend the rope and she refused. In great wrath he cursed her and decreed that men and women should not be buried together but that women should have the lower place. He didn't always live up to his name of "Blane the Mild". Sadly for the story this segregation, even in death, was a common practice in many early Christian burial sites.
The St Blane's site
After Blane died, the site was a place of worship until 790 when the Norsemen reached Scotland, burning and ravaging as they swept through the country. St Blane's was one of the casualties of these raids, but it was such an important site it was rebuilt as part of the See of Paisley.
St Blane's is worth a trip at any time but if you want to experience it at its most powerful, it is worth rising early on Easter morning and climbing the path with the other pilgrims. As you stand in the dark in the ruined chapel, waiting for the first rays of the rising sun, you will feel the centuries roll back and the boundaries between past and present blur.
'Grave Matters at St Blane's' is now available on Kindle or as a paperback from the Print Point,Rothesay or Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com and to order from bookshops.
Photographs by kind permission of E.J.Weeple