The Isle of Bute lies at the western end of the Firth of Clyde at the interface between the Gaelic-speaking Scots of Cowal and the Strathclyde Britons. Near the southern tip of the island at Kingarth the medieval church of St Blane’s occupies the site of an earlier monastery established in the sixth century. This monastery, known as Cinn Garadh in contemporary annals written on Iona, lay within the domains of Cenél Comgaill, one of the chief cenélaor royal kindreds of the Scots. A memory of Cenél Comgaill survives today in Cowal, the modern name of their core territory on the Argyll mainland.
Kingarth’s abbots cease to be mentioned by the Iona annalists after 790. At first glance, this might seem to suggest that the monastery was abandoned at the time of – or as a direct consequence of – an early phase of Viking raids. Archaeological evidence shows that this was not the case. A more likely explanation for Kingarth’s disappearance from the annals is that it ceased to be of prime interest to the clergy on Iona because its abbots were no longer appointed by, or under the patronage of, a Gaelic-speaking secular elite. A group of sculptured stones from the vicinity of St Blane’s indicates that the monastery’s new secular patrons were Britons from Strathclyde.
The stones in question were carved in the tenth and eleventh centuries. In this period, the Clyde Britons enjoyed a political revival under strong warrior-kings who were not, as some historians once believed, a line of Scottish princes installed by the mac Ailpín dynasty of Alba. These kings had Brittonic names and were members of an indigenous royal kindred that had survived the devastating Viking assault on Dumbarton Rock, their ancient fortress, in 870. In the aftermath of this attack, the Britons shifted their hub of royal power upstream to Govan and Partick where the waters of the Clyde meet those of the River Kelvin. By c.900, the British kings were extending their authority far beyond Clydesdale and were competing on equal terms with English, Scottish and Scandinavian neighbours.
Tenth-century Govan became the religious and cultural focus of the kingdom which, for the first time, appears in contemporary sources as “Strathclyde”. Craftsmen at Govan blended artistic elements from Scandinavian, Irish, Pictish and Anglo-Saxon sculptural traditions with indigenous British techniques to create a distinctive stonecarving style which we know today as the “Govan School”. During the tenth and eleventh centuries, the Govan style spread across Strathclyde to outlying provinces of the kingdom where it can still be seen on stones carved by British craftsmen in Ayrshire, Lanarkshire and Dunbartonshire. The stones from Kingarth were part of the same tradition. They were commissioned by wealthy patrons whose cultural affinities and political allegiances lay not with Gaelic or Viking lords but with the kings of Strathclyde. The implication of the Kingarth sculpture is that Bute had been wrested away from the Scots of Cowal by an incoming aristocracy of Britons who took over the ancient Gaelic monastery. One plausible context for such a takeover is a period of political disruption after the seizure of Cenél Comgaill lands by Viking warlords in the ninth century.
The Kingarth stones were noted by archaeologists at the end of the nineteenth century but, sadly, two of the most important examples have since been lost. One of these was a slab with a warrior carved on each side. One side depicted a horseman similar to the one on the Govan Sarcophagus, but the other side showed an unmounted warrior standing with spear and shield. Unusually for sculpture of this period, the standing figure faces outward rather than in profile, adopting a pose seen more commonly on the gravestones of medieval knights. He may indeed belong to a period after the demise of the Strathclyde Britons (i.e. after c.1100) and could have been added in commemoration of a twelfth- or thirteenth-century Scandinavian or Scottish lord. The loss of the stone means that art-historians and other experts cannot now examine this unique carving to assess its date. If, however, the unmounted warrior is contemporary with the Govan-type horseman on the other side and is not a later addition, he presumably represents a prominent member of the Strathclyde elite. Both figures might indeed commemorate the same person: a high-status Briton who exploited the uncertainties if the time to establish a lordship in former Cenél Comgaill lands on the Isle of Bute.
L. Laing, J. Laing & D. Longley, The Early Christian and later medieval ecclesiastical site at St Blane’s, Kingarth, Bute. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 128 (1998) 551-65.
L. Laing, The early medieval sculptures from St Blane’s, Kingarth, Bute. Pictish Arts Society Journal 12 (1998) 19-23.
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This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series: