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Saint Conan's Kirk Loch Awe

Although St. Conan's Kirk has already acquired a certain air of antiquity and a considerable reputation as one of the "show places" of Argyll, it is in fact quite modern, so modern that in its present form it was dedicated for worship as recently as 1930.

Nevertheless the story of how it came to. be built is not without interest. Up till the '70s of the last century, although the road from Stirling to Oban passed along the north shores of Loch Awe, there were practically no human habitations between Dalmally and Taynuilt. But the arrival of the railway made the loch less inaccessible. The Hotel was built, and a certain Walter Douglas Campbell, younger brother of the First Lord Blythswood, bought from the Marquis of Breadalbane the Island of Innischonam, on which he built for himself a stately mansion-house. Here he settled with his sister Helen and his mother. Local tradition has it that the elder Mrs. Campbell found the long drive to the parish church in Dalmally too much for her, and that her son accordingly decided to build her a church nearby.

Walter Campbell was a man of many talents, all of which he devoted to the kirk. He was a most capable if somewhat unorthodox architect, a collector of objets d'art and a skilled woodcarver.

The original church, which was begun in 1881 and finished about 1886, was a comparatively small and simple building, although adequate to the needs of the small congregation. It occupied what is now the nave, and a part of the choir of the present kirk. But Walter Campbell was not satisfied with this. He began to dream of a far nobler building.

He started work on this in 1907, and devoted the rest of his life to its execution. He died in 1914, and work had to be suspended during the First World War; but as soon as it was possible, his sister Helen carried out the plans which he had left. She in her turn died in 1927, and the project was finally completed by their Trustees. Work was necessarily slow, for not only was no labour brought in from outside, but the stone of which the kirk was built was not quarried, but consisted of boulders lying on the slopes of the hill above, which were rolled down, split and shaped on the spot.

Walter Campbell was his own architect. He did not allow himself to be trammelled by convention or orthodoxy. Although most of the kirk is in a Norman or Romanesque style, he included not only early and late types of this but other and totally different styles. He was more anxious to achieve beauty than consistency. Rumour even has it that he deliberately tried to include examples of every type of ecclesiastical architecture found in Scotland, and this is perhaps borne out by the circle of Standing Stones at the entrance gate.

Exterior of the Church

The north side of the kirk, which faces the visitor as he enters, is, although pleasing, relatively simple, but the south side, that overlooking the loch, is extremely elaborate. It is most easily approached round the far or west end, passing on the left the beauty patterned lead roof of the Cloister Garth (1). High on a knoll to the right is the tall Celtic Cross which the builder erected in memory of his mother. Low down on the wall at the west end (2) is a tablet bearing the initials of Walter Douglas Campbell and his sister Helen and the Lymphad of Lorne which is a characteristic of the Campbell arms, and which is repeated many times inside the building.

The view from the sundial terrace (3) on the south side is one of the most beautiful in the West Highlands, and it was this which determined the site of the church. Immediately below are the waters of Loch Awe, which wind away out of sight for more than twenty miles to the south. Away to the Northeast rises Ben Lui, snow-capped for half the year, overlooking the three great glens of the Lochy, the Orchy and the Strae. Directly opposite is the long ridge which separates the basin of Loch Awe from Loch Fyne, and (on a fine day) just appearing over it, the peak of Ben Buie. To the right on the far side of the loch is the thickly wooded promontory of Innistrynich, site of an ancient monastery. A little nearer, two dark islands, one of which was the stronghold of the MacNaughtons, and behind these Innishail, the Green Isle, which has for hundreds of years been the burial ground of the people of Loch Awe side. Further right again is another dark island close to the shore. This is Innischonain, the home of the builders of the kirk.

The church has no level foundations but clings to the steep hillside, with the result that this southern face is perched upon terraces and retaining walls dropping far below the level of the floor. It was on this lofty facade that the builder really gave full vent to his imagination. It is said that he spent long hours here, gradually evolving in his mind the beautiful building which was to be. Doubtless it was the memory of the long days so spent which inspired the inscriptions on the dial itself, "The day dawns and the shadows flee away" (Song of Solomon iv. 6), and on the surrounding parapet, "Thy sun shall no more go down" (Is. lx. 20). So anxious was he that the sundial should be exactly as he wished it that it is related that it was erected and pulled down again no less than seven times before he was satisfied. Below the terrace runs St. Modan's Walk. (St. Modan was a saint of the Celtic Church who lived in the eighth century and whose name is connected with Argyll, and particularly the parish of Ardchattan nearby.) Along the walk, let into the face of the terrace, are a series of panels inscribed with quotations from the Benedicite calling upon all God's created things to glorify His name.

Turning to the kirk itself, the larger square tower is pure Saxon, with its "longs and shorts" designs, its queer-shaped windows, and stones decorated with strange fern-like patterns. It is adapted from the old Saxon church of Monkwearmouth in Durham. The smaller tower comes from Picardy. The two flying buttresses are to give strength and to break up the outline of the wa1ls. To the left on the roof are three gargoyles, representing a dog chasing two hares. These are wonderful examples of modern leadwork by the same craftsman, William Bonnington, who executed the roofs of the Cloister Garth. His descendants still live in the village.

St. Conan

By going a few yards beyond the sundial one can see the figure of St. Conan himself (4) gazing across the loch to the mountains beyond.

St. Conan is the patron saint of Lorne and is reputed to have lived in Glenorchy. There is a well named after him on the far side of Dalmally. He was a disciple though not a contemporary of Columba, and like him came from Ireland. As a young man he was chosen to be tutor to the two sons of the King of Scotland, and eventually rose to be a Bishop. More interesting than the historical facts are some of the legends which have grown up round his name. One of these gave rise to an old Highland proverb. Like many of the Celtic saints, St. Conan was not afraid to meet the Devil face to face. On one occasion the saint and "The Deil" met to discuss the fate of the souls of the people of Lorne. They went about it in a thoroughly businesslike manner, for they divided these not into the sheep and the goats but into three categories, the "really good," the "downright bad" and the "middling." The good were to be the saint's, the bad the Deil's, and the middling they were to share equally. And this sharing equally was to be done by drawing in turn. All went smoothly as arranged until the Devil got excited and stretched out his hand when it was the saint's turn. But St Conan would have none of this; he rapped the Devil smartly over the knuckles, exclaiming, "Na, na, fair play, paw for paw," and it is this phrase which has passed into proverbial use.

The Cloister Garth

The kirk is best entered by the door near the Northwest corner which leads to the Cloister Garth (1). Here these cloisters have no real function but are another example of Walter Campbell's love of copying beautiful things for their own sake, and such garths were an invariable feature in all the old abbeys of Scotland. It is a tranquil and peaceful spot. Part of the arcading and also some of the old stonework in the body of the kirk itself comes from the pre-Reformation church of Inchinnan, which was pulled down early in the nineteenth century: Inchinnan was the parish church of the Blyths wood family in their old home. The very heavy oak beams were taken from two famous old battleships, the Caledonia and the Duke of Wellington. Wood from these battleships was also used for the doors and some of the roofwork of the main building. In the arcades are two "mort-safes," the iron grids which were used early in the last century to protect graves from the body-snatchers or resurrectionists, men who in the early part of the nineteenth century made a practice of digging up recently buried bodies and selling them to the medical colleges for dissection. This practice was most prevalent near the cities, so very probably these particular mort-safes also came from Inchinnan; but there is at least one in Dalmally churchyard. The curious octagonal tower which faces the visitor as he comes in was the bellows-room of the old pipe organ, now unfortunately only a memory.

The South Aisle

From the Garth one enters the kirk itself through a most elaborately carved Norman archway which leads into the South Aisle or St. Columba's Aisle (5). This entire part of the kirk and the rounded apse at the far end were the additions which converted the simple little parish church into the present elaborate edifice.

Immediately to the right on entering will be found a book in which visitors are invited to sign their names, and a box in which they are asked to make a contribution to the upkeep of the kirk. It is true that when the builders died they left an endowment which appeared generous at the time, but with the rising cost of labour and materials it is far from being sufficient to maintain the kirk as they would have wished. The notices above this box and the other in the north transept are beautiful examples of modern Celtic art based on the old patterns. A close examination will show the names of some of these, but it is hoped that the visitor will not become so engrossed in the detail as to forget the purpose of the notices as a whole.

Still on the right is St. Conval's Chapel (6). The name is another link with Inchinnan, for St. Conval, known as the "Confessor," was born in Ireland and made his first landing in Scotland at that place. The legend has it that instead of sailing across by boat in the ordinary way he was miraculously transported across the sea on a large flat stone. Below this chapel is the vault which contains the remains of the builders, Walter Campbell and his sister. The figure on the tomb is that of Walter Campbell himself, and the text carved round the wall, which reads, "And the Lord spake saying, let them make me a sanctuary that I may live among them" (Exod. xxv.), is most apposite. The chapel is of the decorated period, and the window is adapted from one in Iona, part of the original stonework of which has been built into the wall on the other side of the entrance door. High up near the roof at the far end of the aisle is a small star-shaped window which was, so it is said, designed to allow the beams of the rising sun and the evening star to strike the effigy of the builder.

The other chapel, known as St. Bride's (7), contains the tomb of the Fourth Lord Blythswood, who helped to carry on the work after Walter and his sister had both died. This chapel is in a very early Norman style and contains two slabs of Levantine marble about which there is a curious little history. Although coming originally from the Mediterranean, they were shaped and polished somewhere near Louvain. The first duly arrived on Loch Awe side in the summer of 1914, but the second had to wait until the end of the First World War before it could join its neighbour. On the left side of this chapel is a very small and low Saxon doorway which opens into an equally minute room which Walter Campbell used to pretend to maintain was the cell of St. Conan himself.

Both these chapels are protected by most beautiful wrought-iron gates bearing the initials and badges of those who lie beneath. This ironwork is yet another example of the exquisite craftsmanship which was the builder's delight.

At the far end of the Aisle there are two stained-glass windows. The first of these, which contains the Royal Arms blazoned with those of Argyll, is in memory of H.R.H. The Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria and wife of the late Duke of Argyll. The Blythswood family were on terms of intimacy with the Princess, who took a great personal interest in the building of St. Conan's. Doubtless it is to her that we owe the marble bust of the young Queen Victoria which faces the pulpit.

St. Fillanís Aisle and the Bruce Chapel

Continuing along the south side of the kirk beyond the transept, we enter St. Fillan's Aisle (9). St. Fillan has a dual claim to be represented here, for he was the patron saint not only of Killallan near Inchinnan but also of Strathfillan, the parish which lies behind Ben Lui to the north of Glenorchy. This aisle is chiefly remarkable for the McCorquodale window, erected in memory of another old friend of the Blythswood family. Unlike any of the other stained-glass windows, this was included in the other and smaller building. It was originally installed on the opposite side of the church, but the background of hillside and trees did not do full justice to the stained glass, and so, when the larger scheme was put in hand, the opportunity was taken to move it so that it should overlook the loch. The window consists of three lights. The first shows the Warrior, who has put on the whole Armour of God and bears the Shield of Faith. His faith is so strong that he does not even look at the fiery darts coming up through brambles and smoke. The opposite light shows the Sword of the Spirit piercing evil creatures; while the centre light, "I have finished my course," depicts angels taking from the Warrior's head the Helmet of Salvation and showing the weeds and smoke at his feet turning to roses.

In this aisle is another beautiful wrought-iron gate and railing including once more the Lymphads of Lorne, and guarding the entrance to the Crypt. Opposite this is the Bruce Chapel (10), which owes its origin to the fact that it was on the hillside above the kirk that the King despatched his famous outflanking column under the Earl of Douglas, which inflicted such a decisive defeat upon John of Lorne and his clansmen in the Pass of Brander.

The effigy, which is more than life-size, is of wood, the face and hands being of alabaster. It is the work of the well-known Edinburgh sculptor, Mr. Carrick, who was responsible for the figure of St. Conan outside the church and for the War Memorial at the entrance gate. Beneath the figure, let into the base, is a small ossuary which contains a bone of the King himself, taken from Dunfermline Abbey. In the chapel also are stored two screens from Eton College Chapel. It was Mr. Campbell's intention to erect these in another small chapel on the north side of the church, but on his death this project was abandoned. The large bell, which came from Skerryvore Lighthouse, was to have been hung in the church tower-but again this proposal had to be abandoned on the death of the founder. Only excepting the stonework from Iona in the South Aisle, the oldest and perhaps the most beautiful feature of the whole kirk is the lovely clear-glass window of the Bruce Chapel. This was the original west window of St. Mary's Church, South Leith, which was built in 1483. When this church was virtually rebuilt about 1836 the old window was demolished and lay for many years in a garden in Edinburgh until Mr. Campbell rescued it and incorporated it into St. Conan's.

The Apse and Chancel

The semicircular apse (11) and ambulatory (12) with their solid pillars, narrow arches and clear-glass windows are perhaps the most distinctive features of St. Conan's. It seems probable that the shape was inspired by those of St. John's Chapel in the Tower of London, but whereas that chapel is dark, this receives the full blaze of daylight and has as its background the mountains of Glenorchy and Glenstrae. The result is most pleasing and almost unique. There is an interesting story current locally that when Mr. Campbell was designing this part of the kirk an engineer friend objected that, although the effect might be beautiful, the design was mechanically unsound. Mr. Campbell disagreed, but, to make quite sure, built a scale model of the apse and passed a steamroller over it. The model stood up to the pressure, and so has the structure itself.

Within the curve of the apse is the communion table, made of solid oak. Once again the craftsmen were found locally and are still represented in the village. The wood from which this table was carved weighed over seven hundredweight. In the chancel (13), too, are further proof of Mr. Campbell's flair as a collector. Amongst these are a very old chair from Greyfriars, Edinburgh, and a seat from Old Corstorphine Church. The Dolphin chairs probably came from abroad, perhaps Venice. The Founders' Stone in front of the Communion Table, which commemorates the names of Walter and Helen Douglas Campbell, was laid by the Trustees in 1954. Another of the most striking features of the kirk is the double row of dark carved stalls in the chancel. Although not in keeping with the style of the rest of the church, they are extremely interesting. They were carved from Spanish chestnut and show the full coats-of-arms, complete with crests and badges, of the chiefs who in the old days held land in the neighbourhood. These are the two main branches of Clan Campbell, Argyll and Breadalbane, MacNaughton (whose stronghold, Eilan Fraoch, is visible from the windows of the church), MacGregor of Glenstrae (the original home of the MacGregors long before the days of Rob Roy), MacNab of Barachastlain (a family of smiths who lived above Dalmally for 600 years and who helped to build Kilchurn Castle), MacIntyre of Glen Noe on the other side of the Cruachan, and McCorquodale of Loch Trommlie, near Kilchrennan. Other objects of interest in the chancel are the fine oriel window in the north wall, which lightens the library, and the font. The font is a beautiful model of a fishing boat and is one of those which Breton fishermen hang up in their churches as votive offerings in gratitude for escaping from storm at sea.

The Nave

The Nave (14) is regularly used for public worship every Sunday. In winter the local congregation is a small one, but in summer, when there are many visitors in the neighbourhood, it is usually well filled. Its most interesting feature is the large organ screen, yet one more example of Mr. Walter Campbell's own handiwork. In the lower panels the grotesque monsters represent creatures of pagan times, and above these is a belt of interlaced ribbonwork symbolising Eternity. Higher up there are crosses in Celtic ribbonwork representing Christian times, and at the top of the screen are the emblems of the four Heavenly creatures, the Lion, the Calf the Man and the Eagle (Rev. iv. 7); supporting the small central organ are pelicans in Celtic work, emblems of self-sacrifice, and the Wings of Time knotted together by the Celtic knot of the Holy Trinity.

High above the screen is a beautiful painted-glass window with figures of angels and cherubs which Miss Helen Campbell designed and painted with her own hands.

It is easy to criticise St. Conan's. It is neither ancient nor historical. It is neither conventional nor slavishly representative of any particular type of architecture. It is larger than the actual needs of the congregation would dictate, and it is in parts elaborate. Nevertheless, no one who has visited it can deny that the founder's vision of building "To the Glory of God, a House Beautiful" has indeed been realised.

If you agree that St. Conan's is indeed a thing of beauty, and that it is worthy of being preserved and maintained for future generations as its builders would have wished, will you help by putting a contribution, large or small, in one of the boxes provided for the purpose at the doors?

J.C. MARTIN
House Of Letterawe
1954



St Conan's Kirk Loch Awe
St Conan's Kirk Loch Awe
St Conan's Kirk Loch Awe
St Conan's Kirk Loch Awe