Thomas Pennant on the Isle of Bute

Helen McCormack

The air in general is temperate: no mists or thick rolling fogs from the sea, called in the North, a harle, ever infested this island. Snow is scarcely ever known to lie here; and even that of last winter, so remarkable for its depth and duration in other places, was in this island scarce two inches deep.

Thomas Pennant, June, 1772

Thomas Pennant disembarked from the Lady Frederic Hamilton, a ‘ninety tun cutter’, and arrived on the Isle of Bute on a warm summer day in June 1772, during his second tour of Scotland. Arriving by ship, Pennant described the dramatic views of the Firth of Clyde, down towards the Kyles of Bute:

The view down the Firth now appears extremely great: the shire of Renfrew bounds one side: the hills of Cowal, sloping to the water edge, and varied with woods and corn lands, grace the other: in front are the greater and the lesser Cumbrays … the isle of Bute, with its fertile shores, lies oblique, and the stupendous mountains of Arran, soar at some distance, far, far above. 1

The view sailing into Rothesay Bay, on the isle of Bute, today, is still dramatic. The short crossing from Wemyss Bay on the mainland, by ferry, reveals some of the most beautiful features of Scotland’s West Coast, as witnessed by Pennant. To trace the naturalist’s steps on Bute, our group (a party of two adults, one child and a very excitable dog) drove from the centre of Glasgow to Wemyss Bay, a journey of around 30 minutes on a warm, clear, July day, with the ferry crossing only a further 30-40minutes. It is possible to recreate a more romantic voyage to Bute in the summer months by stepping onto the steamship, The Waverley, which departs from moorings on the Clyde, in the city centre, and sails serenely down the estuary, out to the Kyles of Bute, and beyond, passing the scenic, rugged, Dumbarton Rock and Castle, on the way. However, for convenience, with a child and a dog in tow, we opted to take the car along on this journey.

Pennant disembarked at Squlog (or Scoulag) and walked the short distance to Mount Stuart, the seat of the Earl of Bute. Scoulag forms a small inlet known as Scoulag Burn, which runs down to the beach, a natural landing point for access to the estate. Cheating, slightly, we drove from the ferry terminal at Rothesay to Mount Stuart, still the seat of the Earl of Bute, but now a Gothic Revival mansion, designed by Robert Rowand-Anderson (1834-1921), under the instructions of John Patrick Crichton Stuart (1847-1900), the philanthropist and third Marques of Bute. Mount Stuart has reinvented itself as a home of the arts, with a busy calendar of events and public arts programmes throughout the year. The house and gardens are incredibly attractive, comprising richly decorated interiors and lush, extensively cultivated grounds. When we visited, however, the house was closed for a wedding reception, even the café was packing up early. We walked down to Scoulag, from the house, trying to find the spot where Pennant would have stepped ashore. The Earl of Bute in Pennant’s day was John Stuart (1713-1792) the third Earl and great favourite of George III. As First Lord of the Treasury, this Earl of Bute suffered a very public humiliation when his close relationship to the court came under scrutiny during a particularly intense period of suspicion of Scots in London in the 1760s, following tensions after the defeat of the Jacobites in 1745.2 He was eventually forced to resign his position and lived the rest of his life looking after his estates at High Cliff in Hampshire and at Luton Hoo, in Bedfordshire. The Earl of Bute retained a strong interest in botany throughout his life and his Botanical Tables Containing the Families of British Plants, 1785, illustrated by John Miller (1715-1790), still considered to be one of the greatest contributions to botany, are held in the collections at Mount Stuart. When he died, he was buried at Rothesay. The house which Pennant would have witnessed, although he does not mention whether he entered it or not, was an earlier, classical revival mansion, commissioned by John Stewart (d.1723), the second Earl of Bute, which he describes as:

(A) modern house, with a handsome front and wings: the situation very fine, on an eminence in the midst of a wood, where trees grow with as much vigor as in the more Southern parts, and extend far beneath on each side. Throstle and other birds of song, fill the groves with their melody; nothing disturbs their harmony; for instinct often stronger than reason, forbid them to quit these delicious shades, and wander, like their unhappy master, into the ungrateful wilds of ambition. 3

The last line of this passage provides a commentary from Pennant on the third Earl’s recent political demise. This house, built in 1716, was destroyed by fire and replaced with Rowand-Anderson’s Gothic Revival manor.  

Pennant writes that on Bute, ‘the country rises into small hills, is in no part mountainous, but is highest at the South end. The strata of stone along the shore from Rothesay to Cil-chattan, (Kilchattan), is a red grit, mixed with pebbles; from the first, transverse to Scalpay bay, is a bed of slate, which seems to be a continuation of that species of stone, rising near Stonehive [Stonehaven?], on the Eastern shores of Scotland, and continued, with some interruptions to this island; but is of a bad kind at its origin and termination. In the South end is some limestone: some spotted stone, not unlike lava, is found near the South End’.4 Walking along the shoreline at Scoulag, this is evident in the colour and consistency of the landscape (fig. 1).

Fig. 1. An example of the mix of ‘red grit …. And stone not unlike lava’ on the shoreline at Scoulag.

Among the abundant cow parsley and wild flowers, we came across the ruins of an old boat house, elaborate in its construction, with castellated roof, heavy corner buttresses, and a fine portcullis gate lying off its hinges and rusting on the floor. (fig. 2) This was clearly, at one time, an important addition to the estate, perhaps contemporary with the Rowand-Anderson rebuild. However, with obvious damage to its slipway and parts of the internal workings of the house abandoned and decomposing, it seems that this kind of industrial architecture is easily overlooked in historic conservation enterprises such as Mount Stuart, and we were sorry for the little house as we speculated on how it might be revived as a disembarkation site for smaller boats sailing in and around Bute’s shores.

Fig. 2. The Derelict Boat House near Mount Stuart.

As the boat house is a feature of the landscape that belongs to a period after Pennant’s time, we decide to press on to Kilchattan, an area of the island that held a particular fascination for the naturalist because of its associations with the ancient people of Scotland and their religion. We hopped in the car to drive to Kilchattan bay but parked at the bottom of the hill, known as ‘Little Dunagoil’ and followed the signposts up a steady climb to the site of St Blane’s church and the remains of its ‘dark age’ monastery. As the weather stayed fine, warm with just a gentle breeze, we looked back toward Kiltachattan bay and the sun really did sparkle on the water. We could see the outline of the hills of Great Cumbrae, and, perhaps, a glimpse of the mainland beyond. (fig. 3) Pennant makes no mention of St Blane’s but writes of this part of the island:

Fig. 3. Near Little Dunagoil, looking out over Kilchattan Bay and over to Great Cumbrae.

Visit the south part of the island: ride to the hill of Cil-chatten, (Little Dunagoil) a round eminence from whence is a vast view of all around, insular and mainland. Observe, on the face of the hills, that rocks dip almost perpendicularly, and form long columnar stacks, some opposing to us their sides, others their angles; are hard and cherty, but not basaltic; a term I apply to the jointed columns resembling those of the giant’s causeway. 5

Fig 4. Little Dunagoil.

This feature of the landscape was not visible to us, as we veered off to the left of the hill, (fig. 4) past some grazing sheep and, being careful not to disturb them, quickly attached our highly energetic dog to his lead. Pennant’s ascent up the ‘hill of Cil-chatten’ provided him with a comprehensive view of the surrounding area and in this paragraph, he dismisses any evidence that the isle of Bute might extend to form part of the subterranean basaltic structure that he imagined existed from Ireland, beginning with the Giant’s Causeway, to the West Coast of Scotland. Little Dunagoil is now recognised as an ancient hillfort that has been surveyed in recent years to uncover many of its long-hidden artefacts that evidence human life and habitation, including:

Part of a shale ring and 40 sherds of pottery from the rear of the ramparts on the SE; a fragment of a comb and five sherds of “grass tempered” pottery and unstratified fragments of a mould for a Late Bronze Age axe … from the W sector of the interior; and a pendant and armlet fragment of shale; a serpentine ring, and a whorl, an awl, a pin and a knife handle of bone from the northern sector … and two heavily worn shards of Samian ware. 6

Such findings were unknown to Pennant, of course, and so we try to revert to his path through these fragments of earliest times, but while Pennant explains: ‘descend to the ruin of old Kin-garth church’, with its two separate cemeteries, before describing the ‘Devil’s Cauldron’, our path takes us first to the ruins of St. Blane’s, then the Cauldron and further on to the two cemeteries belonging to the old church. It feels like we are always walking in the opposite direction to Pennant.

St Blane’s Church and an early Christian Monastery are well signposted and labelled in the area. The information board now at the site explains:

Tradition records that St Catan founded the monastery here at Kingarth in the later 6th century. The tradition continues that his sister Ertha became pregnant by an unknown man and she and her new-born child, Blane, were cast adrift in an oarless boat by the enraged Catan. The boat was eventually driven ashore on the Ulster coast where Blane spent the next seven years. On his return to Bute, Blane was reunited with his uncle and succeeded him as abbot of the monastery and bishop of the surrounding area. 7

Despite the information signs acting as reminders of the contemporary world, the site around St Blane’s is remote, intensely peaceful and quiet, sheltered by a circle of trees. A sign attached to a stone wall describes the area surrounding the monastery as ‘vallum’, (fig. 5) indicating the spiritual division of the land between the sacred monastery and the secular world beyond. There are remnants or religious devotion scattered over the field, including a cross-base, ‘a stone base with a socket to hold a tall upright cross’; all of which Pennant would have seen (fig. 6). Nestled within this grove is the mysterious structure known to Pennant as the Devil’s Cauldron, an ancient building removed from the main location of the monastery but clearly belonging to it, now simply called ‘the Cauldron’. (fig. 7) Pennant remarks:

Near this place is a circular inclosure, called the Devil’s Cauldron: it is made of stone, of excellent masonry, but without mortar, having the inside faced with the most smooth and regular manner. The walls at present are only seven feet six inches high, but are ten feet in thickness: on one side is an entrance, wide at the beginning, but grows gradually narrower as it approaches the area, which is thirty feet diameter. 8

Fig. 5. Wall marking the perimeter of the Monastery at St. Blane’s.
Fig. 6. Cross-base on the grounds of St. Blane’s.
Fig 7. The ‘Devil’s Cauldron’.

From Pennant’s description, the Cauldron appears to have been in better shape in the 1770s, with an entrance and interior finish still discernible. The walls of the Cauldron are not seven feet high any longer but their width, at ‘ten feet’, mentioned by Pennant, can still be appreciated. (fig. 8) We sit in the Cauldron and imagine, as many others have, what the purpose of this building might have been. Pennant alludes to its use as a sanctuary of some kind, given its location at Kingarth, ‘Kin-garth implies, Kin, for chief or head, Garth, a sanctuary; the common word for places of refuge, Girth, being corrupted from it’. It could not, he suggests, be a defensive structure, ‘as it is situated beneath a precipice, from whose summit, the inmates might instantly have been oppressed by stones, or missile weapons’.9 It is difficult to imagine on a warm summer’s day, when the place offers some welcome shade from the unusually hot Scottish sun, that the Cauldron might have been a building designed for penance, for punishing the soul, hence the Devil playing a role in its name. Others have speculated that the Cauldron was a cell, entered voluntarily to experience self-inflicted punishment and repentance. In 1893, James King Hewison, Minister of Rothesay, recognised this function and described it in his book, The Isle of Bute in Olden Time:

Tradition characterises it as a place of penance. It might thus be enumerated among those primitive structures called Clochans or Carcairs, which formed part of the Celtic monastic settlements, and were set apart for cells for undisturbed devotions, or for the suffering of punishment enjoined in terms of the monastic rule. It is a desert or solitude within the abbacy. 10

Fig. 8. Interior wall of the Devil’s cauldron.

The original purpose of the Cauldron remains mystifying but there is little doubt that it represents an impressive building type and its presence has a similar effect on the visitor, as it seemed to have on Pennant, to that of other ancient monuments as simultaneously remarkable, affective and moving.

Unlike Pennant, we spent some time exploring the ruined church of St Blane’s. (fig. 9) The nave of the church is dated to the twelfth century and the information signs explain how these remains were preserved and conserved by the architect Robert Weir Schultz (1860-1951) in 1896 who was commissioned by John Patrick Crichton Stuart, the third Marques of Bute, as part of his project to protect the island’s heritage. The architect used local slate and inserted this material within the walls of the nave to indicate the old masonry from the new stones. (fig. 10) St Blane’s was once the parish church for the population of Kingarth and we noticed that some visitors left their own devotional objects within the church’s walls. (fig. 11)

Fig. 9. The nave of St. Blane’s 12th Century church.
Fig. 10. Slate inserted into the walls of St Blane’s, marking the architect’s conservation work.
Fig. 11. A devotional object left by a visitor to St. Blane’s.

On Bute, Pennant does not remark on the detail of the local flora and fauna; due, perhaps, to the similarity of this with the other islands he described.  Among the plants growing in and around St Blane’s and the monastery, we cannot help but notice the number of common foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea), and their bright pinky-purple colour, appearing in sharp contrast to the predominantly lush green grass, ferns and nettles. (fig. 12)

Fig. 12. Foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea).

Foxgloves appear to have been common in Pennant’s time too. John Lightfoot (1735-1788), who accompanied Pennant on his second journey through Scotland, describes the plants in Flora Scotica, 1777. They are found:

In rough mountainous places not uncommon, as upon the Corstorphyn hills near Edinburgh, and on the hills about Loch-Rannoch in Perthshire, and many other places … The flowers grow pendulous, in a long spike, all on the same side of the stalk. They are of a purple colour, very specious and marked internally with white flowers, but rarely. The plant has a bitter quality: six or seven spoon-fulls of the decoction is a strong emetic and cathartic. It has been found serviceable in scrophulous cases, taken internally for some time, and the bruised leaves or an ointment applied outwardly. 11

Medicinal use of the Fox-glove was revived in the eighteenth-century, with physicians such as William Withers, based in Birmingham, advocating its effectiveness as a purgative and diuretic. In An Account of the Foxglove, Withers combines his case notes with botanical information on the origins of the plant and its common name. Withers quotes naturalist John Ray’s (1627-1705) description of the effects of ingesting Fox-glove: ‘It purges very violently and excites excessive vomiting’, he writes.12 William Curtis, of Chelsea Physic Garden, remarked in his book, Flora Londinensi, in 1777, thatFoxgloves were so common in Britain that their aesthetic qualities were often overlooked:

Was it not that we are too apt to treat with neglect the beautiful plants of our own country, merely because they are common and easily obtained, the stately and elegant Fox-glove would much oftner be the pride of our gardens than it is at present. 13

Despite these fashionable reconsiderations of this particular species, Pennant does not mention these plants in his assessment of the kinds of landscape development or land management undertaken by the third earl during this period. He does indicate that progress is visible in the effects of enclosures, recently introduced: ‘… the hedges are tall, thick and vigorous: the white thorns and wicken trees now in full flower; and about two thousand acres have been thus improved.’ However, improvement exists for Pennant alongside historical myth and legend of the island and one of the most intriguing passages in Pennant’s description of this area is his retelling of the story of two separate burial plots in the parish of Kingarth, (fig. 13) one for men and another for women:

Descend to the ruins of old Kin-garth church. Two cemeteries belong to it, a higher and a lower; the last was allotted for the internment of females alone because in old times, certain women being employed to carry a quantity of holy earth, brought from Rome, lost some by the way, and so incurred this penalty for their negligence, that of being buried separated from the other sex. 14

Fig. 13. Kingarth Cemetry (higher ground).

The legend is repeated in John Reid’s account of Bute in 1864:

Tradition asserts that the upper portion of the burying-ground was formed of consecrated earth, brought by St Blane from Rome; and it is added that the women having refused to assist in bringing the earth from the ships, or having spilled some of it by the way, their sex was denied the privilege of burial in the upper or consecrated portion of the ground; and it is recorded that in consequence of this superstition it was the practice to bury the males and females separately, and that this custom prevailed till 1661, when it was abolished by an order of the Presbytery. 15

Looking around the two cemeteries today, there is little evidence of the gender divide, although it is satisfying to think of the island’s women disobeying the church and behaving in such subversive ways; and whether they would have considered their final resting places away from the men as truly a punishment!

When Pennant visited, Kingarth Church, he would have seen ‘mid-kirk’, completed in 1680 and depicted on Roy’s Military Map (1747-1755) but destroyed by a fierce storm in 1795. A new church, built in 1826, designed by William Burn (1789-1870) and described as ‘an elegant and modern building’, was also damaged by storms which blew its roof off and led to its eventual demolition in 196816. Unfortunately, there is nothing of either church visible today. (fig. 14)  

Fig. 14. Plaque marking the site of two former churches at Kingarth.

Despite its temperate climate, which Pennant remarked upon, Bute is renowned for ferocious and severe downpours: ‘The evils of this place are winds and rains, the last coming in deluges from the West’.17

It is hard to imagine gales and rainstorms on the day we visited, the sun was still shining when we set out for home. (fig. 15) Leaving Kingarth cemetery, we walked onto the main road to find our car for the drive back to Rothesay to catch the ferry. On the way, we stopped at a beautiful but small beach, at Kerrycroy, the ‘model village’ designed by Maria Crichton-Stuart, (neé North), wife of the 2nd Marquess of Bute and begun in 1803, some years after Pennant’s tours. Perhaps he would have admired this improved prospect, combining the benevolence of the Bute family with the natural advantages of the landscape and climate. The scene appeared in contrast to the portrayal of the island in Pennant’s time.  The tumultuous years of John Stuart, the third Earl of Bute’s political service in the later-half of the 1760s would have been very fresh in the mind of Pennant when he visited the Earl’s ancestral seat, so much so that the memory of the events generates a sympathy, of sorts, in the naturalist’s portrayal of the darker aspects of the island’s history and environment: religious intolerance, bitter plants, medieval barbarity, torrential rain and powerful gales, all of which the Earl, as an ‘unhappy master’ seemed pitted against.

Fig. 15. Main road leading back to Rothesay.

[1] Thomas Pennant, A Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides, MDCCLXXII, 4th Edition, Vol. II, Dublin, p.158.

[2] John Brewer, ‘The Misfortunes of Lord Bute: A Case Study in Eighteenth-Century Political Argument and Public Opinion’, The Historical Journal, vol. 16, 1973, p. 6; See also: The Scots Magazine, No. 25, October 1763, p. 533.

[3] Pennant, A Tour in Scotland, MDCCLXXII, p.158.

[4] Ibid, p. 159.

[5] Pennant, A Tour in Scotland, MDCCLXXII, p. 161.

[6] G. Lock and I. Ralston, Atlas of Hillforts of Britain and Ireland, 2017:

[7] Historic Scotland.

[8] Pennant, A Tour in Scotland, MDCCLXXII, p.162.

[9] Ibid.

[10] James King Hewison, The Isle of Bute in Olden Time, with illustrations, maps and plans, 1893, p. 180.

[11] John Lightfoot, Flora Scotica: Or A Systematic Arrangement in the Linnaean Method of the Native Plants of Scotland and the Hebrides, B. White, London, 1777, p. 331.

[12] William Withers, An Account of the Foxglove and Some of its Medical Uses, printed by M. Swinney, Birmingham; and G.G.J. Robinson, London, 1785, p.xiv.

[13] William Curtis, Flora Londinensis, published and sold by the author; and B. White, Bookseller, London, 1777, p. 71. Curtis dedicated the first volume of Flora Londinensis to John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, see Maureen H. Lazarus and Heather S. Pardoe, ‘Bute’s Botanical Tables: Dictated by Nature’ in Archives of Natural History, 36 (2) 2009, p. 279.

[14] Pennant, A Tour in Scotland, MDCCLXXII, p. 162.

[15] John Eaton Reid, History of the County of Bute, Thomas Murray and Sons, Glasgow, 1864, p. 30.


[17] Pennant, A Tour in Scotland, MDCCLXXII, p. 160.