Saturday 22 September 2018

Visiting some of the Knights Templar sites in Scotland

I’ve long been fascinated by the lives and history of the Knights Templar, not for any religious or masonic reasons, but just because I think it’s a very interesting period of history.  Their influence spread far and wide and I suppose my interest was first piqued when travelling around southern France and coming across some of their walled villages, towns and castles.  We plan to use the Templar sites as a basis for a future France tour in our campervan, probably dipping into northern Spain too.

Before our recent trip to Scotland, we popped into our local library in Llangefni, to pick some books to take with us; it’s September in Scotland, it’s bound to rain and so we’ll need something to read when sat in the van (it did and we did!).  My eye caught the title of a book written by Robert Ferguson - The Knights Templar and Scotland (ISBN 978-0-7524-5183-1).  A quick flick through showed they may gave spent some time in Argyll, where we were heading on our trip, so I took out the book and read it before we travelled, renewing it to take with us.  It proved to be an invaluable source and helped shape our trip, although I should add there is no hard evidence and much of what is written is speculative.  I’ve summarised the history below, although if you want to learn more please do get hold of a copy of the book and make up your own mind.

On 14 September 1307 King Philip IV of France signed an order for the arrest of all Knights Templar for heresy, as well as seizing all their lands and wealth.  The order to dissolve the Knights Templar was approved by Pope Clement V.  The order took effect on Friday 13 October 1307 and any Knights were rounded up without warning, imprisoned, badly tortured and then killed, mainly through burning at the stake.  Although many (including the Grand Master - Jacques de Molay) were arrested that night, many escaped, with evidence that they were tipped off a few weeks beforehand. This gave them time to gather much of their wealth and move it to the port of La Rochelle (where the Templars kept their fleet), where it was loaded on to ships and sailed, with a large number of Knights to Portugal and Argyll, Scotland.  Their escape to Portugal is well documented, but the trip to Scotland less so.

The alleged route they took to Scotland is not documented, but is known is that they probably sailed up the sound of Jura to Argyll.  It's possible to support this by the Templar gravestones in the churchyards at Kilmartin and Kilmory.  The theory is that they probably landed at Castle Sween, which is located on Loch Sween between Kilmartin and Kilmory and is said to be the oldest castle on the Scottish mainland.   There is much more to the history of the Knights Templar in Scotland, including their lands and settlements in eastern Scotland, south of Edinburgh and their alleged support of Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn.  But, given we were travelling the west coast and Argyll in particular, I was focusing my visits on Castle Sween, Kilmartin and Kilmory.  Our tour of Scotland took us along the Kintyre peninsula after visiting the Isle of Mull.  This area is one of the most important historic sites in Scotland, with evidence from the prehistoric, neolithic, iron and bronze ages.  It’s also this area that is purported to have strong links to the Knights Templar.

During our visit to Kilmartin to view the neolithic, bronze and iron age sites, I was also keen to check out the alleged Templar links to this village. Two of the old stone circles are enclosed within Temple Wood, an area that was planted up much later than the circles, so may have a link to the Templars, given its name (there is also a village in eastern Scotland called Temple that has confirmed links to the Knights Templar).  But it was Kilmartin church that provides the clearest possible link to the Knights Templar.  There are a number of grave slabs either in the display house or in the graveyard that would suggest strong links. One grave slab shows a sword with a scallop shell shape as the pummel (at the top of the hilt).  The scallop shell is the symbol of the Christian pilgrims, then and now seen carried by those pilgrims completing the Camino de Santiago Compostela.  The Knights Templar were originally formed as a warrior group of monks, tasked with protecting pilgrims heading to Jerusalem.  There were other grave slabs depicting religious knights and swords, although the link to Knights Templar remains tenuous and unproved.

I had planned to also visit Castle Sween and Kilmory the next day, but unfortunately Storm Ali was inbound and due to hit the area we were in, so we decided to cut short our trip and head for home ahead of the bad weather.  But we'll definitely return to this part of Scotland.  If you’re interested in the Knights Templar and are visiting Scotland, these areas are well worth a visit. On another trip I also hope to visit their settlements in the village of Temple and Rosslyn Abbey in eastern Scotland.

Grave slab in Kilmartin cemetery

Scallop shell pommel

Monday 17 September 2018

The historic Kilmartin Glen

Monday 17 September 2018

Nido’s parked up on the Ardfern Motorhome Park.  We’re ‘billy-no-mates’ again - just us here on a 10 pitch site next to Loch Craignash.  I’d booked this on, but we could have just turned up, as there’s an honesty box for payment.  It comes with electric and a decent wifi signal (hence a flurry of blog posts going out tonight).  Another wet and windy night!

We slept well in the total quietness of the wild camping spot and after breakfast reversed our route to rejoin the A816 for a mile to stop in the village of Kilmartin.  Kilmartin Glen is the most important prehistoric site in Scotland.  In particular, it’s linear cemetery, where several cairns are aligned for more than two miles to the south of the village were well worth the visit. They date back as far as 3000 BC and are thought to represent the successive burials of a ruling family or chieftains.  Our first stop was the Kilmartin Museum, next to the village church.  We paid to learn a little more about the history of Kilmartin Glen before following the well marked path to visit each of the cairns.  Close to the south cairn, there’s Temple Wood which is the site for two stone circles.  I was interested in the name of the wood, given the areas possible links with the Knights Templar in this area, but I’m going to save that for a separate post.  It warmed considerably as we walked to and from the cairns, before we visited Kilmartin church and cemetery, with links to Knights Templar again.

We continued south in the van, missing out one area of interest as the car park was too small for us, but parking up with plenty of space at the foot of Dunadd fort.  This ruined iron age fort occupies a distinctive 176 foot high rocky knoll, once surrounded by sea but currently stranded beside the winding River Add. It was here that Fergus, the first king of Dalriada, established his royal seat.  The stone carvings near the top (the originals are now covered by a concrete replica) show inscriptions in Ogham (an ancient alphabet of Irish origin), the faint outline of a boar, a hollowed-out footprint and a small basin.  It’s thought the footprint was used as part of the royal coronation rituals.  It’s also thought that the Stone of Destiny was used at Dunadd before being moved to Scone Palace.  The recently arrived wind and rain made it quite a difficult and slippery climb to the top but despite this the views were amazing and the site atmospheric.  

Back at the van, we dried off and enjoyed a hot brew before driving back north for a few miles to Ardfern.  On electricity, we’ve been able to ‘charge all the things’ and watch a bit of a TV series.  It also means hot showers tomorrow and toast for breakfast! 

Friendly natives!

Kilmartin Museum and Church

River Add and car park from Dunadd Fort

Footprint in stone

Washing up shack with a view

The Isle of Seil and the Bridge over the Atlantic

Sunday 16 September 2018

Nido’s wild camping just off a minor forest road, high up overlooking Loch Awe.  It’s peaceful and quiet and no doubt will be very dark tonight.  We’d just about given up on this road when a Wild Camping symbol popped up on the Sat Nav.  There’s easily room for several vans, but we’re on our own and I suspect it’ll stay that way.  Cathy’s preparing an alternative chicken dinner - a hot cooked chicken from Tesco, with potatoes and veg. 

Last night was very wet and windy at Crannich Farm, but there was enough respite in the morning for me to jump out to unhook the EHU and empty the loo before we set off.  The crossing to Oban was smooth and I was soon pushing a trolley around Tesco to top up with a few bits and pieces, before topping up with diesel and heading south onto the Kintyre peninsula.  It didn’t take us long to reach the Slate Islands, which at their peak in the mid-nineteenth century quarried over nine million slates per year.  The most northerly is the Isle of Seil, which was our destination.  It’s separated from the mainland by the thinnest of sea channels, which is spanned by the narrow, single-arched Clachan Bridge, built in 1793 and popularly known as the “Bridge over the Atlantic”.  We drove to the end of the road and the village of Ellanabeich.  It’s a small hamlet with two rows of small, stone, white-washed terraced cottages crouching below the black cliffs on the western tip of the island.  This land was once separated from the mainland by a slim sea channel until the intensive slate quarrying silted it up and become solid enough over time to build on.  The small island of Easdale is reached by a tiny ferry from Ellanabeich.  It has a Folk Museum, but is more famously known for hosting the World Stone Skimming Championships on the last Sunday of September; we were two weeks too early!  Just so you know, a legal ’skim’ qualifies as a stone that bounces at least twice and the championships are open to all comers.

We parked in a free car park right by the sea.  It had a sign say no overnight camping, although several large motorhomes look set for the night.  However, we prefer to respect the signs and local’s wishes, so our plan to stay there had to be changed.  We had a walk along the two small roads with the cottages either side, past the Oyster Bar and Restaurant and down to the harbour.  After a quick snack and a brew in the van, we were off again, south down the A816.  It took a while, but eventually we ended up at this lovely spot above Loch Awe, although the rain is sheeting across the water once more - that’s Scotland for you!

Ellanabeich cottages

Ferry to Easdale island 

Bridge over the Atlantic

The Atlantic!
Wild camping overlooking Loch Awe

Fish and chips in Tobermory

Saturday 15 September 2018

Nido’s parked up at Crannich Farm campsite, in a lovely valley inland on Mull. It’s raining and is forecast to carry on until the morning, but we’re on electric, we have stuff to watch on the laptop and we have cake!

We had a lovely sunny morning on Fidden Beach.  I made use of the hot showers on the site while Cathy prefers the equally hot shower in the van - perhaps it’s no coincidence the midges have stopped flying around us this morning!  The plan today was to visit the colourful capital - Tobermory.  The 50 mile journey was along a scenic route, following the road along a couple of lochs, with highland cattle slowing us down  on occasion.  The road meandered alongside the water, sometimes curling in to cross moorland, again all on a single road with passing places.  Only by Loch Na Feal were there any places to park and admire the view (and possible wild camping spots when drier).  The last few miles into Tobermory are on a wide (for Mull) two lane road, which felt very strange!  The town offers free parking and we were able to easily park Nido.  I expected it to be busy on a Saturday, but I guess we’re approaching the end of the season, so there were only a few people about.  After stopping to buy Cathy a headband for walking, we enjoyed some fish and chips from the van at the Fisherman’s Pier - very tasty - that was our main meal for today sorted.  As I ordered, Cathy took the cakes we’d bought back to the van - that’s tonight’s ‘dinner’ sorted!  We had a bimble along the main street, past the brightly painted shops, pubs and restaurants, before following a path for 2km to reach a headland with a lighthouse.  There had been a few landslips along the path; it must be a full-time job keeping it open.  

Our drive to Crannich Farm was short and we were soon pitched up overlooking moorland and the pine forests on the opposite side of the valley.  We have free wifi here but it’s weak and intermittent, so I won’t be uploading three days’ worth of blog posts today.  Tomorrow we leave Mull and start to head south down the Kintyre peninsula, but I think we’ll be back to this lovely island.

A sunny morning at Fidden Beach


Excellent fish and chips on the Fisherman's Pier

If you look carefully on the far middle left, you can just make out the head of the seal following this survey boat

Isle of Iona and Fidden Beach

Friday 14 September 2018

Nido’s parked up on a grassy mound overlooking the white sandy beach at Fidden Farm.  The sun has just set through the clouds and below the rocks and cliffs in the distance and the wind has dropped.  This is a lovely spot, a well-used campsite with a mix of vans and tents, all pitched close to the beach and facing the sea.  There’s a new facilities block with toilets and hot showers, but no EHU.

We were up and on the beach at Uisken at 0730 this morning; the rain had abated and we enjoyed a walk on the sand as the tide returned.  Our next stop, the ferry terminal at Fionnphort, was just a few miles away.  It was raining again when we arrived and we had to wait about half an hour for the ferry, but at least we were in a warm, dry waiting room, with a great view over to Iona.  The ferry crossing was only about 15 minutes but was a bit lumpy.  Iona is just three miles long and just over a mile wide.  It’s been a place of Christian worship for more than 1400 years and still has a vibrant religious community.

The rain was here to stay this morning, so we were glad of our waterproof coats with peaked hoods.  We walked around the ruins of the fourteenth century Augustinian nunnery, disused since the Reformation.  We took the road North, passing the large Iona Abbey and stopping off at the eleventh century, St Oran’s Chapel, Iona’s oldest building.  It stands at the centre of Iona’s sacred burial ground - Reilig Odhrain, which is said to contain the graves of sixty kings of Norway, Ireland, France and Scotland, including Duncan and Macbeth.  It’s also the final resting place of John Smith, the Labour Party leader who died suddenly in 1994 - a very peaceful spot.  Carrying on along the north road, past crofts, homes and hostels, we came to lovely white sandy beaches and turquoise waters.  It was still raining hard but it didn’t spoil the beauty and serenity of the place.  Back in the village we stopped to warm up and dry off with a hot drink and shortcake at the Iona Heritage Centre, before visiting the adjacent museum.  Had it been a better weather day, we would have walked over to the Machair, on the west side of Iona, to the evocatively named Bay at the Back of the Ocean, a crescent of pebble and shell-strewn beach and with a spouting cave to the south.  We’d then have continued on to the south of the Island to visit Port a’ Churaich (Bay of the Coracle, aka St Columba’s Bay), the saints traditional landing spot on Iona. But the weather was a bit wild so that’ll have to wait for another visit - and we will return.

The return ferry trip was kinder; the wind had died down and the rain stopped.  Fidden Farm campsite was less than 2 miles away, so (while our wet things dried in the van) it didn’t take long to get set up and head off for a long walk on the beach, through the rock pools and over the many large gatherings of seaweed.  The sun made the odd appearance - enough time to throw our shadow but not long enough to warm us up!  So the rest of today was spent in the van, reading, eating and looking out at the view.  Cathy stepped out to take some sunset photos, while I sat in the van, watching a pod of dolphins far out by the cliffs through my binoculars.  It’ll be another quiet night with no artificial light, so proper dark.   

Sunrise at Uisken Beach

Breakfast view

St Oran's Chapel - Isle of Iona

Iona Abbey

Knight's Grave Slab?

North end of the island

Fidden Farm campsite