If you park up in Gowkthrapple, across from where the powerlines stoop down to ranks of squat grey electrical transformers, next to the white burger van in the layby- I need to add that this is thoroughly decent fast food outlet- then you are in for a big surprise.
Everything has been urban and busy and a bit grey but you are now faced by a line of mature trees and the prospect of green fields to the south of you.
There’s a gap in the trees- it’s not that inviting, it’s not that obvious, it’s not signposted at all… and yet this passage through the trees will take you to somewhere amazing. You go past the dog kennels, the big beech and birch trees looming over you in an intricate latticed canopy. You go past the fly-tipping sight that makes you shake your head about anyone who could scar the land like that. You go past all that and the path curves out of the trees and the calm green of the Clyde Valley opens itself out before you: beautiful and unexpected.
A steep hillside with wooded slopes leads down to the the river and sitting on the shoulder of the hill is Cambusnethan Priory. Sandstone turrets and grand cathedral-like windows begin to reveal themselves through a tangle of trees that have crept towards the old house. Unfortunately, it is in ruinous condition. Gutted by fire in the 1980’s, the shell of the building is teetering on the edge of a final calamity. What would be lost if it was to simply crumble back into the land?
A little bit of research into the house reveals that this house and this place have an amazing history. It even has a Facebook page: The Friends of Cambusnethan Priory. They point out that this spot has always been significant.
Our pagan ancestors worshipped the goddess Clotta here.She gave us the name of River Clyde. Wishaw had its very own Naiad- a female spirit that lived in the water running through the land. Who would have thought it? If it were ancient Greece it would be mythology by now: a waterway that launched a thousand ships. In reality it did far more than that. It seems like the Clyde and and Classical Greece have a lot in common: from the wooden walls of Athens to the riveted steel of the Clydebuilt battleship isn’t such a leap. Ancient carved stone heads have been dug from the ground, Celtic or Pictish remnants of our shared past. There are traces of Christian worship here from the days when Celtic saints and holy men first spread their word in Scotland. Norman Lords built forts and keeps and became Scottish Barons, one of whom got on the wrong side of the independence debate that was led by Robert the Bruce and was executed as a traitor.
Powerful orders of monks were given sway over the site and it was a satellite priory of the mighty Kelso abbey. A fine manor house, one of the earliest in Scotland was built in the seventeenth century but destroyed by fire and rebuilt in fine Neo-Gothic style in 1816 with some architectural nods to its history as a religious site.
My first view of the priory saw the pale sandstone warmed by the May sunshine, the silhouette of the building framed by the fresh foliage of the encroaching trees and the roofline and spires picked out against the bluest of skies. But it is battle-scarred by graffiti, shabbily-dressed in moss and ivy and sadly littered with domestic refuse- yet somehow still unbowed.
It is easy to look up at the rose window, the gothic arches of the main window and see how the central hall is built like the nave of a medieval cathedral. You can imagine the interior filled with shafts of still light on a summer’s day or the windows luminous with golden warmth in the depths of winter. It all seems so close, yet the desolation of the site will soon make it out of reach from anywhere, except the imagination.
Should we work to keep it? There are plenty of historic sites, plenty of worthy causes fighting for our attention and nowhere near enough money to fix every crumbling relic of bygone times.
At one point the house was the family home of the Colville’s, steel magnates who made a fortune from the fire and thunder of the vast mills that processed the coal, the ore and the men of Lanarkshire. They owned the works that became the sprawling Ravenscraig steel mill. The family left their home a generation ago and the immense industrial complex of Ravenscraig has been discarded, levelled, detoxified and reimagined in shining glass and concrete as a college campus and prospective retail development. Maybe the priory needs to go the same way? Maybe we need to go in the direction of building for the new millennium rather than cossetting the past? Maybe we need to forget the past?
Maybe, but maybe not? Wilful amnesia might work but letting go of this beautiful space with its rich history, its sense that something special has happened here since early humans realised that this was a good place, may not be the healing that the house needs, that we need.
I wouldn’t argue for some Downton-esque, cash-intensive rebuild to recreate a hyper-authentic simulation of the landed gentry’s dream. Instead let’s think about what this place was, what it is now and what it could become.
Reconnecting the fine folk of Wishaw with this fragment from their past could allow them to develop a sense of the deep history and culture of the place that the trauma of industrial boom and bust has displaced. It’s also a great place for a picnic on a warm spring day.
I know this from pleasant experience.
My second year English class took a trip to the priory and as they slipped off the regular timetable and unleashed themselves from their desks to sweep down that hill to the old building, something special happened. Yes, there was the surge of joy that students of all ages experience when you get a break from the routine. However, hot on the heels of this feeling of release came a deep sense of interest in Cambusnethan Priory from the students. They seemed intrigued by the connection with nature, with other times and other people that was inspired by the old house and its surroundings. When our young people make such an instant connection with the land and its history in the post-millennium age of virtual experiences it can only have a positive effect upon you.
Cambusnethan Priory is ruinous but not thoroughly spoiled, so let’s apply our minds to finding a solution for the future. Stabilise the walls and make it safe to explore without the danger of plummeting masonry. Signpost it and connect it in with the Clyde Walkway. Link it into cycle paths and local walks that let people know it’s there. Connect it physically and let people discover the history and the spirit of the place and a solution might start to present itself.