Properly speaking, this is the Chapel of St Mary at Kilmory Knap, in the imaginative care of Historic Scotland.
Like many secrets, it is so because it is not quick to get to and you won’t bump into it on the way to anywhere else.
It is down a long unclassified single track road [and cul de sac] along the eastern shores of Loch Sween in Knapdale, running off the B841 along the lovely Crinan Canal.
The B8025 for Tayvallich leaves the B841 on the landward side of the canal between Bellanoch swing bridge and the Bellanoch Marina. About a mile and a quarter down that road, there is a fork, with an even more minor road on the left – for Achnamara.
This is the road to take – and prepare to take time. The road surface is fine but the single tracker is not quick. The bonus is that the views across Loch Sween and, later, across the Sound of Jura, are spectacular. This is a dreamtime trip so take it easy, breathe the air and bring a picnic.
The wide inner reach of Loch Sween is lush and wooded. At either end of the meander down to Kilmory Knap Chapel, it’s worth following the B8025 to Tayvallich. This is a well-to-do, pretty little village with an enviable and well used yacht anchorage – and the base for the summer passenger ferry down Loch Sween and over to Craighouse on Jura. A glorious route, whatever the weather, this delivers you to a unique island world, with the Jura single malt whisky distillery eyeballing you as you land, alongside the palm fringed Jura Hotel.
Tayvallich has a restaurant and in the village centre, a shop – and a great waterside coffee shop with inside and outside [above] seating areas, on a vantage point over the anchorage.
But back to the unclassified single tracker to and well beyond the little township of Achnamara.
As the road leaves the head of Loch Sween behind and runs down its long narrow entrance, the land on the far side becomes more unclothed, its contours clear.
About three quarters of the way down to the chapel – not far from the end of the isle of Danna marking the northern approach to Loch Sween, you will see Castle Sween on the shore, amongst trees, down to your right. Improbably for so majestic a ruin, its skirts are in a caravan park – which must be a great place for kids to holiday. The advantage of this facility to all comers is that, in season, it has a cafe open to visitors.
The castle, built in the late 12th century, takes its name from Suibhne, anglicised to ‘Sween’ and the Irish ‘Sweeney’. The Irish connection is not a coincidence as Suibhne is thought to have been a great grandson of Anrothan Ua Neil, elected Chief of the Irish Clan O’Neil in preference to his elder brother – and who then gave up the role to that brother and left for Argyll.
Clan Sweeney later emerged as an Irish clan with Scottish origins, apparently through Suibhne and the MacSweens.
In the 13th century, the MacSween lands ran from Loch Awe to Loch Fyne, with their strongholds at Lochranza Castle in the north of the Isle of Arran; Skipness Castle in North Kintyre, near the entrance to Loch Fyne across the head of Kibrannan Sound from Lochranza; and Castle Sween in Knapdale, further north on the Kintyre peninsula.
Castle Sween is thought to be one of the earliest stone built castles in Scotland and one of the earliest surviving. Its towers are understood to have been built first, linking with earlier wooden structures.
Castle Sween and the MacSween lands fell prey to a series of injudicious and judicious political affiliations - from the late 13th and early 14th century Scottish Wars of Independence and the 17th century Wars of the Three Kingdoms [England, Ireland and Scotland]. The castle and the lands passed to the Stewart Earls of Mentieth, back to the MacSweens, on to the MacDonald Lords of the Isles, back to the MacSweens, back to the Macdonalds – under whom MacNeils and MacMillans successively held the castle.
In 1490 James IV of Scotland granted Castle Sween to the first earl of Argyll, Colin Campbell. In 1647, during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, it was attacked and burned by Alasdair MacColla of Clan Donald, enemies of Clan Campbell. MacColla was known as a dab hand with the claymore and himself died later in that same year, at the Battle of Knocknanauss.
In 1933 Castle Sween passed to a forerunner of Historic Scotland, its custodian today.
Drifting on down from Castle Sween towards Kilmory Knap, you see the long low little MacCormaig islands in the Sound of Jura, sprawling across the entrance to Loch Sween, with the Paps of Jura across the Sound rearing over the lot.
Binoculars or a camera lens will show you St Cormac’s Chapel [above], on the flat land in the centre of the biggest of them, Eilean Mor – which was gifted to the Scottish National Party and remains in its proud possession.
In interesting local note here is that one of the photographs of the MacCormaigs [above] used in Wikipedia, was taken by the late and much missed SNP Councillor from Oban, Donald MacDonald. It shows Cormac’s Chapel on Eilean Mor and the anchorage below. The yacht at anchor here is Donald Macdonald’s yacht.
And you’re about to arrive.
The little road, at a height, swings left inland and in a small valley below, in its elbow before it curves to the right again, you will see the ruined stone chapel of St Mary, its graveyard and an enclave of a couple of well restored stone cottages.
You may see some of a flock of charmers whose vanguard held their ground on the verge as we snailed to a stop to walk in to look at the chapel.
The winding path to St Mary’s serves to translate you to another place and another time. We stalked the chapel first, checking it out on all sides, before coming back with the resolution to approach it.
Have a good look at the photograph above. It carries a clue to a well hidden and very clever secret we’ll come back to shortly.
The far side of the building, below, underlines the fact that the nave of the chapel [for the hoi polloi] must have been very dark when it was in use – while the priest’s territory, at the altar end in the east, was well lit.
Stalking over, it was time to go in. Although the chapel was in a township, it was, despite its sophistication, never the parish church of Knapdale. That – a much plainer building although of similar date, is on the far side of Loch Sween at Keills and is also in the care of Historic Scotland. In their heyday, it was about 3 miles by water between the two. By road today it would be something like 25 miles.
The rectangular chapel, whose interior dimensions are around 38′ x 17′, was built in the early part of the 13th century, during which time the rule of the MacSween’s still carried, with Castle Sween just up the road. With its most glorious artefact, the carved ‘MacMillan Cross’, inscribed for Alexander MacMillan [one of the MacMillan castellans for the MacDonald Lords of the Isles], one wonders if the elaborateness of the chapel – which was, after all, subsidiary to Keills Chapel, was due to its patronage by the powers of the day at Castle Sween?
St Mary’s is thought to have fallen into disuse after the 16th century Reformation, with the Protestant Reformation driven by Martin Luther, the English Reformation driven by King Henry VIII and the Scottish Reformation driven by the Calvinist John Knox, being contemporaneous.
Later, after it had lost its roof, the chapel was used as an enclosed burial ground. In 1934 it was reroofed as a sheltered enclosure for the significant collection of early Christian and medieval graveslabs, cross slabs and standing crosses, which it shelters still today – more ingeniously.
Remember that photograph – four above – with a clue to something interesting? Look at it again and then look at the one below here.
Yes. The clue in the earlier photograph was that strange gleam in the ruined window on the far right – seen in close up above.
Historic Scotland have achieved an engineering solution to this ruin which is itself alone worth a visit to see.
And this is it. The window openings have been invisibly ‘glazed’ and the entire chapel has been transparently roofed, equally discreetly, with a minimally concave structure invisible from the outside and embedding a guttering system to carry the rain safely away.
The graveslabs and crosses in the collection are unique to the west highlands – and in particular to the area dominated in the late medieval period by the Lords of the Isles.
The earliest of these were carved by Irish sculptors brought to Iona for the building of St Columba’s Abbey; but the west highland style was also promulgated through the five west highland sculpture schools. These were at Iona, Kintyre, Loch Sween, Loch Awe and Oronsay.
The one at Oronsay, by Oronsay Priory, is joined by a tidal causeway to Colonsay. Alasdair MacColla, who sacked Castle Sween in 1647 was from Colonsay. This was, in many ways, through seafaring, a better connected world than it is today.
Inside the chapel, there are seven early Christian stones on the left as you go in, with the others examples of the five main sculpture schools in the west highlands in the late medieval period.
Historic Scotland say that the reason there are so many stones in the collection at St Mary’s Chapel is that most of the west highland graveslabs and crosses appear to have originated in a quarry at Loch Sween, probably between this chapel and Castle Sween.
The graveslabs would have been laid flat over a grave, possibly lifted and relaid to make the grave a repository for several members of a family. The crosses, while some – like the MacMillan cross [just visible against the light at the altar end of the chapel, at the right hand side of the landscape photograph, two slots above], may be inscribed to a particular VIP, are thought to have been raised to the glory of God, some within and some without the chapel.
It’s interesting to note other places where west highland style graveslabs and crosses are to be seen. Some are in sites protected by Historic Scotland, as with:
- Ardchattan Priory in North Lorn;
- Inchkenneth Chapel [on the former Redesdale family island off the west coast of Mull];
- MacLean’s Cross on Iona;
- Keills Church – the Knapdale parish church and St Mary’s superior;
- Kilberry, the remote peninsular area north of West Loch Tarbert and running to the southern entrance to the estate – at Ellary – whose back entrance is the end of the road to Kilmory Knap;
- Kilmartin Churchyard in Kilmartin Glen in Mid Argyll;
- Kilmodan, at Clachan of Glendaruel in west Cowal;
- Rodel Church in south east Harris – where there is a galley carving used as the model for Wallace Clark’s voyaging reproduction, Aileach [and there is a galley carving replicated on several of the stones at St Mary's Chapel];
- Skipness Chapel, by the MacSween’s other stronghold at Skipness Castle, opposite its third one at Lochranza Castle in north Arran;
- Eilean Mor – at St Cormac’s Chapel in the MacCormaig Islands.
Other sites where west highland style graveslabs and crosses may be seen include:
- Iona Abbey;
- Campbell of Lerags Cross at Kilbride, near Oban;
- Kilchoman Parish Church, Islay;
- Kildalton Cross at Kildalton Old Parish Church, Islay;
- Kilkivan Old Parish Church – in a graveyard around 6.5km west of Campbeltown;
- Killean Old Parish Church, around 3 miles SW of Tayinoan in west Kintyre;
- Kilmichael Glassary Parish Church, in Kilmartin Glen, north of Lochgilphead;
- Lochaline Parish Church in west Morvern on the Sound of Mull;
- Saddell Abbey in east Kintyre, north of Campbeltown;
- Oronsay Priory – access by tidal causeway from Colonsay.
The newer gravestones at Kilmory Knap have tales to tell. This one, above left, speaks of a husband who lost his 48 year old wife in October 1906, when he was himself 48; lost their then three and a half year old daughter eighteen months later in May 2008, when she was five; and lived on, presumably unmarried, for a further 34 years, dying at the age of 81.
On the way back up the road, you look straight into the paps of Jura, with flocks of sheep grazing contentedly in this timeless part of the world.
At the end of the trip, you really will have been to another world – and Argyll has so many of them – all different.
The photographs above were taken during an exploration on 10th October 2013; with the exception of the late Donald Macdonald’s photograph of Eilean Mor in the MacCormaigs, which is reproduced above under the Creative Commons licence.
Other articles in the Argyll and the Isles’ Secrets’ Collection:
- Argyll and the Isles’ Secrets Collection: Dunadd Fort
- Argyll and the Isles’ Secrets Collection: Castle Lachlan and Kilmorie Chapel
- Argyll and the Isles’ Secrets Collection: The bird hide at Ettrick Bay
- Argyll and the Isles’ Secrets Collection: The view from Aqualibrium – and the Dorlin
- Argyll and the Isles’ Secrets Collection: St Munns and the Argyll Mausoleum
- Argyll and the Isles’ Secrets Colletion: Otter Ferry at Port Ann
- Argyll and the Isles’ Secrets Collection: The Brainport Alignment
- Argyll and the Isles’ Secrets Collection: The Watchman