To Cumbrae and back through the Scottish borderlands

Last Monday we left our home near Berwick and drove over the country to the Scottish west coast, roughly on exactly the same longitude as our home in England. It has always fascinated me that we are so close, have so much in common … and yet are so different.To our delight, whilst English Berwick on the east coast was bitterly cold, Cumbrae, in Scotland on the west of the UK, was sky-blue – shorts and sandals weather! We waited for the ferry to take us from Largs to the Isle of Cumbrae.Our visit to the Isle of Cumbrae was prompted by my wish to visit West Kilbride and some very talented Scottish craftswomen there.  Stephen was tasked with finding us somewhere to stay in the locality … and he came up with the College of the Holy Spirit, which adjoins the Cathedral of the Isles on Cumbrae.These establishments were designed by William Butterfield in 1851, at the request of the 6th Earl of Glasgow, George Frederick Boyle. Boyle was an enthusiast of the Oxford Movement, believing in the reinstatement of older Christian traditions.  He wanted the College to train priests for the Episcopal Church – perhaps like the men enjoying the College grounds in this old print below.Alas, Boyle, an enormously generous and devout man (he was also pouring money into the building of Perth Cathedral at this time) depended too much perhaps on divine providence – Dominus Providebit (God will provide) is the Boyle family motto – and went bankrupt in 1885.Luckily the College Chapel had been consecrated as Cathedral for the Scottish Episcopal Church United Diocese of Argyll & The Isles in 1876, so the Diocese was already responsible for these buildings.

The Cathedral Spire towers over the island, even when glimpsed from the hills above.We first glimpsed it through the trees. You get an idea of Butterfield’s original concept from this drawing that appeared on the front of “Butterfield Revisited”, edited by Peter Howell and Andrew Saint, and published by the Victorian Society. The Cathedral stands proud, surrounded by manicured lawns, with a young avenue of lime trees.That’s not how it is now!  The Diocese may have funded the Cathedral buildings, but there was no money to pay for garden upkeep.

By a magical transformation, those uncared gardens have become wild and more beautiful than one could imagine. Trees have grown up everywhere – the lime avenue is enormous. Underneath the trees, are masses and masses of flowering ramsons (wild garlic).The fine lawn banks host bluebells as well as the ramsons.I do so hope George Boyle is not turning in his grave as he contemplates the changed garden!  He is indeed buried here – in the large flat tomb in the foreground of this picture. He must have loved this place very much. It is extraordinary to find such buildings on such a tiny island. Butterfield’s vision of this small group of buildings is harmonious and elegant.  Here you have the windows of the Lady Chapel, the Cathedral and the Refectory – all varied in pattern and size, but united in stone and form. And look how very deftly Butterfield has highlighted the Cathedral window with the descending dove of the Holy Spirit above it.We stayed in the North College which had once housed the choristers. Our room was the upper left hand window, set amidst the tiles.  We had the place to ourselves for the first couple of nights, and after that only another couple came and stayed at the other end of the building. It was extraordinary!The rooms are called after Christian virtues.  Ours was Fortitude ……hmmm.Inside was all dark wood and heavy carving. The corridor …The fireplace in our bedroom ….. huge and cumbersome!The common room …What I didn’t like was the inside of the Cathedral.  It looks OK from here …But once you go up into the Chancel, you get tile madness!  I don’t care for the Victorian tones of green and brown anyhow, but, that to the side, it looks to me as though some student was told to see what variety of patterns they could come up to fill the space available. It’s truly tile pattern madness!Sometimes we joined Warden Amanda and Lay Chaplain Alastair for morning and evening prayers – quiet and peaceful, though the Scottish rite (just slightly different from the Anglican one we know) caught us out a bit …Outside the calm inner sanctuary lurked danger … In the evenings we explored Millport.  I don’t think the authorities meant us to take this image away with us ….And we chuckled at this …..There are lots of boarded up properties round Millport, looking just a little bit sad and unloved … Masses of rabbits everywhere … (not an easy place to be a gardener, I guess) …Including several black ones (or was it the same one and it just got round a lot?)  …After our evening walks, we went back to the College and lowered the ecclesiastical tone, sitting in the warm, evening sunshine with a bottle of wine …The road round Cumbrae is perfect for cyclists of all ages.  This looks like a 1960s group setting out to enjoy a bicycle ride en famille.You can hire all sorts of cycles …We hired two quite ordinary bikes to get round the island.  This was extremely brave of me since I haven’t been on a bike for well over 15 years.  It was a glorious ride, and despite much moaning on my part (the seat was horribly uncomfortable), it was a wonderful experience.Picnic lunch and an opportunity to enjoy the view of the islands of Bute and Arran (grey and lowering in the far distance).I don’t think I have ever seen a war memorial as powerful as this. It is dedicated to the men and women of the British and Allied forces who have no known grave.After our bicycle tour of the island, we spent a couple of days on the mainland about West Kilbride. I got to do the workshop that I have longed to do for so long with lovely Lorna of Chookiebirdie.  We spent an entire day sewing together …. Oh, just look at this sewing heaven!Lorna was teaching me to make paisley botehs like these ones of hers.And I was so thrilled with what I made that I have only just stopped carrying it round with me!Another day I finally got to visit Old Maiden Aunt’s yarn shop in West Kilbride – somewhere else I’ve longed to go to for ages! So many gorgeous colours.  And we got to peak into her dye studio too. As an amateur dyer, it’s fascinating for me to see her professional systems – though perhaps the multi-coloured spatters behind the pots is the give away that Lilith herself might not call it that …I have to confess that I find yarn buying overwhelming.  I may have decided that I am going to make a green scarf, and need green wool, but when I see the yarns available, all my carefully thought out plans go awry.  This is what we came away with – all lovely stuff, but not a lot of green, and certainly not the grassy-greens I had in mind …At the Barony in West Kilbride we found an amazing exhibition of Radical Craft. Doesn’t this Landfill Tantrum by Pinkie MacLure just say all you really long to say about waste and rubbish and pollution?!!Who could not love Rosemary McLeish’s What I Do When I Don’t Do The Ironing ?! Dedicated I think to all those who hate this chore …But the pièces de résistance for me were these two works paying homage (as it were) to Angus McPhee.  They were both made by Joanne B Kaar – the boots are copies of Angus McPhee’s orginal boots (those too fragile to be exhibited now) and she made the hats in the spirit of his work. I came upon the story of Angus McPhee from Donnie Monro’s song, Weaver of Grass.  As far as I can see the pop song world is dominated by mostly saccharine love songs, so  it amazes and delights me to hear such a glorious song about a mentally ill man. Perhaps it is really a love song in another guise …..

Time then to say goodbye to the little Isle of Cumbrae. The weather was changing as we headed back to Largs …On to sunny Sanquhar – another place I’ve wanted to visit for a long time because of their famous knitting designs.  The little Tolbooth Museum there is a gem …Holding information about and examples of lots of historic Sanquhar knitting patterns …..We were also interested in the displays there about the local brickworks.As it happens, we have a small collection of lettered bricks.  This started with us finding them on our local beach at Spittal.  There is an entire history of northern English and Scottish collieries and brickworks to be revealed from those names.  Luckily the lovely museum attendant at the Tolbooth Musuem knew just where to send us!And so we found ourselves quite unexpectedly rooting around the old Sanquhar brickworks.There were the sad remnants of the buildings ….And we found a brick or two …..Most poignantly, Clarks Little Ark, an animal rescue shelter at this site, have constructed a memorial wall of the old bricks for those dear ones they have lost.Time to go home now – perhaps crawl would be a better description for our heavily-brick-laden car. The weather got nastier and nastier as we travelled up through the Lowther hills …Still extraordinarily beautiful ….We had decided to travel back via the source of the River Tweed, high up in the Lowther Hills. There, masked in the mist and murk, we found this sign. From this point, a tiny stream and all the little tributaries that run into it flow eastwards to where it meets the sea on Spittal beach.This is an iconic spot to many (including us) because it is a great river. Appropriately there is a finely ornamented stone, incorporating words that speak off the Tweed: “it is one of Britain’s cleanest rivers …”Sadly, it was not a clean site.  The rubbish was disgusting and a terrible reflection on lazy, casual visitors. I have an uncomfortable idea that people feel they have license to behave so because Dumfries and Galloway council have not provided a litter bin ….Oh dear, what a negative way to end a great holiday!  So I won’t.  As we travelled through the Borders, the sun shone through the damp leaves, and we slowed down to enjoy the wonderful countryside …. and an antique Rolls Royce … Festina Lente!


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17 thoughts on “To Cumbrae and back through the Scottish borderlands”

  1. Thank you for providing a lovely virtual trip to accompany my morning coffee! The boteh is beautiful, and the yarn shop looks inspiring. I love the way you include bits of information on so many different topics – architecture, history, weather, travel logistics, and art!


    1. Glad you enjoyed the virtual trip with your morning coffee! I guess it’s partly because there was so much variety in the holiday that we felt it was such a good one …. all my favourite things – heaven! Just starting to make some more botehs on my own ……. 🙂


  2. That was a wonderful trip to take us on. I liked the fact that the boteh co-ordinated so well with your nails! I’ve been fascinated by Sanquhar knitting patterns for some time, so I’ve had a yen to visit and now even keener. Off to follow some of your links now.


    1. I hadn’t planned on matching the boteh to my nails! But I think I had a bit of a green thing in my mind – perhaps influenced by the wonderful greens in the trees at this time of the year. I’ve been fascinated by Sanquhar knits since we moved here some 6 years ago – I can’t work out why these patterns are so localised, and even though posh folk like the Prince of Wales wore their knits, the patterns didn’t really spread. I did try knitting some gloves – but they used much much finer yarns than mine, and it just didn’t work for me. We were disappointed in Sanquhar that the local knitters (who might have given me more ideas for knitting these patterns) do display knitting – but not on Fridays or weekends when we were there!


    1. Haha! …. we’re not sure we’re ever going again because it was so perfect with weather, interest, variety etc that we think we might be tempting fate if we went again!


  3. It sounds like you had an action packed week and weren’t you lucky with the weather! Very brave of you to stay alone at the North College. Were there any ghosts? So many interesting things in this blog … particularly liked the woven shoes (how uncomfortable) and the ironing board (think I would have just lay down on it). And yes, the tiles, what a clash with the stained glass windows! Probably listed though, like our neighbours’ crittall windows ….

    You’ve definitely sold the trip to the rest of us!

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    1. Intriguing that you think it might have been haunted at North College, Mandy – I was awake one night into the early hours and walked round the College buildings and gardens (moonlit – magical) all by myself. I felt it to be the friendliest place I have ever known – not at all scary. This from one who is quick to avoid ghost stories! Whole trip was magical really …..

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  4. What an epic trip! The nature, architecture, textiles – everything is fascinating! I would love to stay in the North College someday – it looks absolutely beautiful. Thank you for taking me on this visual trip – was the perfect start of Sunday morning.

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  5. Beautiful post filling me with wanderlust. The paisleys are delightful, so fat and material for something I know only as a 2D pattern.


    1. Aaaah – I recognise that wanderlust inspired by internet cruising …. So many gorgeous places to go! Thank you for your kind comments on the paisleys – they were such fun to do, that I haven’t stopped making them since I got home! I do hope Lorna will one day produce a book with instructions to make these and other treasures because she has some wonderful ideas.


  6. J > That’s a trip D and I would have loved to make. Some years ago I was working away from home, based in Glasgow during the week, and stopping over some weekends. One lovely day I went over to Cumbrae, exploring entirely on foot. Too much walking, not enough time spent at any one spot, but I did prioritize the Cathedral of the Isles, which I absolutely loved. I would have gladly spent all my time there – or an entire weekend or more. Your stop at Sanquahar and travels through the Lowther hills reminds me of our time living in Dumfries & Galloway, back in the early 1990s. D made some Sanquar gloves, though I don’t think we have them any more. Thanks again for taking us with you on your curious and thoughtful travels!


    1. Gosh, you have lived in some very interesting places! Cumbrae is wonderful, isn’t it – and so little visited. We were amazed at the many people we know here who didn’t even know where the island is. And we loved our travels back through Dumfries & Galloway – all definitely on our “To return” list.

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