In the 15th century Scottish merchants trading with France built St Ninian’s Chapel next to the harbour at Roscoff in Brittany. The building was a welcomed haven for travellers and traders wanting to give thanks to God for landing after what could often be a perilous journey through the Irish Sea and round the Cornish Peninsular. St Ninian was at the time Scotland’s most popular saint.
Fleeing the Rough Wooing of Henry VIII in the summer of 1548 it was at Roscoff that the six year old Mary Queen of Scots landed. In the five years leading up to her departure, Henry attempted to force Scotland to agree a marriage alliance between Mary and the English heir apparent Edward, his son. Once his was refused Henry’s commander Hertford set out on the first stages of a ruthless campaign of devastation of southern Scotland. This scorched earth policy would today be called a blitzkrieg attack on the nation. Edinburgh burned for two days, and in the course of it the abbey and royal palace of Holyrood were sacked. Lieth harbour was destroyed and Scottish merchant ships captured to carry off the looted booty. The army returned to England by land, burning countless villages and the towns of Musselburgh and Dunbar on the way. The border abbeys, including beautiful Melrose was sacked. In September 1545 Hertford himself led a second, equally destructive expedition to the south-east, at a time deliberately chosen in order to ravish and burn the newly cut harvest.
It was imperative that the infant Mary was taken to safety and the Scottish Parliament voted in February 1548 on the principle of the marriage of the girl, already Queen of Scots after the death of her father, with the future François II, son of the King of France Henry II. From Turin, Henry wrote in August, “I have received certain news of the arrival in good health of the Queen of Scotland in the haven of Roscoff, near Leon, in my Duchy of Brittany.”
Just as French ships brought Mary out of Scotland, almost exactly two centuries later it was the French who carried Charles Edward Stuart to safety. Following his failure to regain the British throne, the defeat at Culloden and evading capture in the Western Highlands; Charles landed at Roscoff in October 1746. The crews of the French ships, L’Heureux and Le Prince de Conti, cheered as Charles was taken ashore in a rowing boat and a salute of 21 guns roaring out from each ship. He immediately gave thanks in St Ninian’s Chapel.
The house where Charles spent the night was noted in Roscoff but of the two houses known as ‘Marie Stuart’, the most likely, with a galleried courtyard was built in 1560, over a decade after Mary’s landing so could not have housed the Queen.
The chapel remained in use until ransacked during the French Revolution but the shell remained. Internally its dimensions were exactly 14 meters in length by 6 . 33 in width. Of the three windows, at least tone to the east, on the harbour side, still retained its tracery. The front door and water stoup were preserved and the remains of two stone alars could still be seen.
The roofless building was sold to a Sieur Hersant, supplier of wood to the navy, and used as a store. The building passed through several hands before being acquired by Paul-Louis de Courcy who added a simple painted sign giving its connection to Mary. He sold the chapel ruin in 1874 to the Roscoff town council who proposed to demolish it and build a primary school on the site. Scots heard of this and rather than see the loss of the chapel, a subscription was opened to buy land elsewhere in the town for this. By far the largest single donation was made by the 3rd Marquess of Bute and St Ninian’s Chaple was saved from destruction.
With the death of his father, John Patrick Crichton-Stuart became the 3rd Marquess of Bute at the age of four in 1848. Following the death of his mother, Bute was sent to spend much of his adolescence at Galloway House in the Machars. It was probably then that his interest in the life of St Ninian, Scotland’s earliest saint and the medieval buildings associated with his worship began. An interest that could only have been reinforced by his conversion to Roman Catholicism when he was 21. Whithorn was strongly Protestant but by the late 19th century there was a growing Roman Catholic population. Even so, when Bute provided the land and funding for a iron church dedicated to Saints Ninian, Martin and John in 1882 it was outside the parish at High Mains. Bute went on to fund the restoration of Cruggleton Church in 1890, the consolation of the nave walls of Whithorn Priory with the excavation of the crypt and restored St Ninian’s Chapel at the Isle of Whithorn in 1898. Bute built up a significant collection of Jacobite documents and the association and Prince Charles Edward Stuart with Roscoff would also have added to his determination to save St Ninian’s Chapel there. Unfortunately, while funds to saved the chapel in Roscoff were readily available, the feeling to adopt and preserve the building was never fully accepted by the town.
In March 1908, in a lecture given to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Lord Guthrie showed a number of lantern slides made from photographs taken by his daughter exhibiting the deplorable state of the roofless chapel at Roscoff, the exterior sides of the building being used for advertising. A few postcards capture its appearance at this time.
Despite this the interior was still in use as a store and it retained its doorway, stoup and traceried windows. As Roscoff was not a wealthy town it was unable to help towards another restoration so Guthrie approached the Franco-Scottish Society and started negotiation s with the French Ambassador in London and the French Government in the hope that if funds were raised in Scotland the French Government would take it over as a historical monument and maintain it in future.
The building did survive for a further twenty years. Sadly it was demolished in 1932 and the site became a car park. The Gothic surround to the doorway was saved and built into a wall to the rear of one of the houses named “Marie Stuart”. An inscription was carved into the blocked entrance.