The eerie looking remains of Cnoc an Rath (pronounced krawk an raw) or North Bute Parish Church can be seen from a fair distance away as you travel the Ettrickdale Road from Port Bannatyne. It would be easy to imagine ghosts, ghouls and murders aplenty going on within its foreboding boundaries. A more perfect setting for Tam o’ Shanter could not be envisaged, however, in truth, it is entirely possible to uncover the odd skeleton from within its derelict sanctuary.
To understand the reason the church first came into existence we have to go back to 1834 and to the High Kirk in Rothesay. It had been the custom at that time to have two Sunday church services; one for the English speaking members of the community and one for the Gaelic. At that time the population of Bute was on the rise as family after family from Argyll and the wider Highlands arrived on the island looking for work. The Highland Clearances were in full swing and the cotton mills and herring fishing of Rothesay attracted refugees from near and far, so to have a Gaelic service was not a symbolic nicety, it was an essential aspect of these workers’ – many of whom were still monolingual Gaelic – lives. Therefore, when it was announced that the Gaelic service was to be replaced with another English one, community relations were bound to become strained.
Many of the finer details from this episode are yet to be established, but what is clear is that the Rev. Alexander McBride and his flock – which tallied in the hundreds – were compelled to abandon the High Kirk to look for alternative premises. From a modern perspective, it is difficult to comprehend why church authorities were so keen to deny churchgoers of the right to worship in their native tongue. Given the continued influx of refugees, there was certainly a demand for a Gaelic service, however, the ironic aspect in all of this was that it was seen as being for their own good. English was felt to be a superior language for both commerce and industry and if these poor Highlanders were to get on in life, they had better lose the Gaelic. Of course, these people newly turfed off their rural plots to be thrown headlong into the industrialised reality of urban Britain needed to speak English, but to suggest that this must also involve the eradication of Gaelic is to ignore the reality that most people in this world are, in fact, bilingual. Nevertheless, The Rev. McBride and his congregation were homeless.
It is often quoted that the Marquess funded the construction of Cnoc an Rath church, but it is interesting that the building was erected far from Rothesay and at a fair distance from Port Bannatyne too where many Geals worked at the fishing. Bute’s farms had already been ‘improved’, so there was very little in the way of an agricultural underclass living in the area. The vast majority of Bute’s Gaels lived and worked in an urban environment, so why was the church built in such a secluded area? Was it felt that Gaelic culture was best hidden from the view of decent townsfolk? Whatever the case, when the Rev. McBride and his followers moved into Cnoc an Rath in 1835, they must have felt like the Israelites fleeing Egypt and arriving at their own promised land.
Guided tours to this as well as other sites on Bute can be booked at firstname.lastname@example.org .