Thursday 17 March
We were very fortunate in having Brian McDonald from Ards Historical Society as our guide for most of the day. Brian delivered a most interesting history of Movilla Abbey (J504744), including the Battle of the Books between St Finian and St Colmcille. The moral of the story is that even a hot-headed rogue like Colmcille can become a saint. The ruins at Movilla are of a 13th and 15th century church. Only the east and west gables stand to full height and the south wall is completely gone. There was a three-light traceried east window which is almost completely blocked. Inserted in the centre light is a small round-headed window with inclined jambs. This window opening is Romanesque in character and presumably comes from a much earlier structure than the present church. The window in the west gable has two lights with trefoil heads and transoms. The church is unusually long and narrow, being 107ft by 20ft internally. Attached to the north wall is an Early Christian graveslab with a ringheaded cross and inscribed "Or do Dertrend". Beside this are a number of 13th century trapezoidal coffin lids decorated with foliated crosses and a sword, if the burial is of a man, or a shears, if the burial is of a woman.
The graveyard contains many interesting memorials, some of which date from the early 17th century. The most remarkable structure is the tomb to the Corry Family which is a replica of a Doric temple. Carol Perkis described the tomb in detail and our attention was drawn to the fluted columns (with 20 flutings), abacus, tympanum and acroterion, as well as other features of the building.
The graveyard contains a number of memorials to members of the Masonic Order. One of these had a proliferation of symbols but since none of our members was familiar with the Order these symbols remained a mystery. Excavation has shown that the early monastic buildings were on the other side of the road.
The Kempe Stones (J445736) is a magnificent portal tomb. The high portal stones are well matched and support a thick capstone. The rear of this capstone rests on a second smaller capstone which in turn rests on some orthostats. There is a long polygonal burial chamber. There is some cairn material surrounding the tomb but it is not known if this is original. The word 'kempe' apparently means soldier, suggesting that the dolmen is a soldier's grave. It is situated in Greengraves townland. 'Green' in this case is a corruption of Grania, who was forced to flee with her lover Dermot. They travelled throughout Ireland spending only one night in each place and giving rise to a large number of Dermot and Grania's Beds or labba.
After lunch we viewed Scrabo Tower (J478727). This large basalt tower is 41m high and was erected in 1857 as a memorial to the 3rd Marquis of Londonderry. It stands on Scrabo Hill which may be the site of an Iron Age hillfort of importance equal to Navan or Tullahogue. In the nearby golf course are traces of some hut circles which mark the habitation sites of about 400 people. At some distance to the south is an Anglo Norman motte which was built on a possible inauguration mound associated with Scrabo. From the base of the tower Brian outlined the history of Newtownards including references to the Market Cross and the Market House. Scrabo Quarries were visited and the noteworthy geological features viewed. These included crossbedding, mud-cracks, ripple marks, sills and dykes.
The rising tide cut off the causeway to Rough Island and we were unable to view the raised beach there. Therefore we continued to Nendrum Abbey (J524637) on Mahee Island.
Excavations in the 1920s at this site revealed an abbey with three concentric defending walls. Within these walls are the remains of a church and a Round Tower as well as other buildings. The excavators reconstructed part of the church so that it has a narrow lintelled doorway with inclined jambs. There are also traces of antae. At one corner of the building is a very fine sundial reconstructed from fragments found at the site. The Round Tower stands on a good pedestal but the maximum height of the stump is about 5m.
A short distance from the abbey is the ruin of Nendrum or Mahee Castle (J524639), built in 1570 by Captain Browne. This would appear to have been a three-storey structure but the upper storeys are very fragmentary. The ground floor has two vaulted rooms at right angles to each other. One of these has an outer doorway which is protected by a murder hole. The other room is now open at both ends and may have been built in this way to serve as a small boathouse. The castle has a good base batter.