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    September 2023
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    Mysterious Scotland: St Conan’s Kirk by Loch Awe…

    Today, I’ll tell you how, during our last trip to Scotland, on our road from Perth to Oban, we added a milestone to our wonderful map of mysterious Scotland. The place, situated on the shore of Loch Awe, in the heart of the beautiful Argyll and Bute region, is St Conan’s Kirk. We immediately fell in love with this architectural gem.

    On the morning of 27 December 2019, after enjoying a hearty Scottish breakfast in the cosy lounge of our hotel in Perth, we had set off, heading westward. It was a grey winter day and we intended to reach Oban before night via the A85. We were very happy to go back to Oban, one of our favourite places in Scotland and the gateway to the western islands.

    Oban by night © 2019 Scotiana

    Oban by night © 2019 Scotiana

    We had rented a room for three nights in Oban, at the Columba Hotel. Then, we would resume our journey up to Glencoe for the end of the year festivities! We had celebrated Christmas in Edinburgh, spent unforgettable days in Thirlestane Castle with Iain and Margaret and, now, we were going to celebrate Hogmanay at Onich near Glencoe, a dream coming true for both of us!

    From Perth to St Conan’s Kirk, on the A85

    Scottish Itinerary 9 road Perth-Oban Google map

    The distance from Perth to Oban is about 175 km and the estimated driving time 2 h 20 min but, as far as we are concerned and given the number of stops we usually make on the road in our quest of La Belle Alba, it was very likely that it would take us longer than that ;-)…

    Not forgetting that, in Scotland, the days are short in winter…

    St Conan’s Kirk-Oban road Google Map

    We’ve always been fascinated by Scottish landscapes and with each new trip we discover new ones. Even when we don’t, the most familiar landscapes are never the same there. They vary according to the time of day, the season, the weather. Most of all, it depends on the quality of the light which can be exceptional in Scotland.

    Glen Ogle viaduct Argyll & Bute Scotland © 2019 Scotiana

    On our last trip, we discovered the colours of winter and, as you can see on the above picture, taken on our road to Oban, they are not lacking in charm… still no snow then, but all shades of yellow, russet, brown…

    The Glen Ogle viaduct was one of our first stops. The A85 follows the railway line to Oban and, as we’ll see later, the train passes between St Conan’s Kirk and Loch Awe and, indeed, very close to the loch.

    Scottish winter landscape in Argyll & Bute – A85 road © 2019 Scotiana

    Stretching 41 km across the length of Argyll and Bute, Loch Awe is Scotland’s longest freshwater loch. The A85 only skirts the north of the loch as you can see on the above map. In the area, not far from St Conan’s Kirk, stands Kilchurn Castle, one of the most romantic castles of the country. Lochawe is also a picturesque village situated about 5 kilometres, west of Dalmally.

    As I’ve already suggested, nothing can be more stimulating to us, when we travel the roads of Scotland, as to come across something mysterious: it can be a Pictish stone, the picturesque ruins of an abbey or a castle, an old churchyard with an eerie atmosphere…. all sorts of things.  But, look at the view we suddenly fell on that day !

    St Conan’s Kirk © 2019 Scotiana

    We stopped. On the left of the road, a picturesque old church stood over the grey waters of Loch Awe. Or, at least, what seemed to us then, an old church! A path lined with trees and rhododendrons led to the church. In summer, because of the foliage, we would probably have passed by without seeing it.

    We still had an hour and a half to drive before arriving in Oban, and more if we stopped at Taynuilt, as we had planned to do, but we could not pass this mysterious church without stopping…it was exactly the kind of place we love…

    St Conan’s Kirk – Cloister and entrance © 2019 Scotiana

    What we saw, then, was a strange, unusual juxtaposition of buildings but we were already under the spell of this mysterious place, with the loch behind, and its waters reflecting all the shades of grey of a winter sky…

    We  decided to enter… admission is free but one can make a donation to help with the restoration and upkeep of the church.

    The visit begins…

    Map of St Conan’s Church © Friends of St Conan’s Kirk

    Above is a map of the church as it appears on one of the very interesting information boards on the walls. I’ve just added added on it the location of the road (to the north) and of the loch and railway line (to the south)…

    St Conan’s Kirk – The cloister © 2019 Scotiana

    We enter via the cloister, or at least what seems to be a cloister… really a stunning place!

    The cloister looks very ancient and contains “mortsafes”  (iron grids to deter graverobbers) are not visible on my photo.

    The colourful Christmas decorations are still there which gives a touch of cheerfulness to that austere place!

    St Conan’s Kirk close-up of the cloister roof © 2019 Scotiana

    The roof which appears to be made of lead is beautifully decorated with a lovely grape motif!

    We kept on going, fascinated…

    St Conan’s Kirk – the arch leading to the South Aisle – Wikimedia

    Wow! What a beautiful piece of architecture! We pass under a “Romanesque” arch decorated with superb geometrical and flower motifs and through an elaborate wrought- iron gate to enter the church (there are many of wrought-iron works in the church).

    St Conan’s Kirk South Aisle © 2019 Scotiana

    We arrive in the South Aisle, also known as St Columba’s Aisle…

    On the right two chapels: St Conval’s Chapel and St Bride’s Chapel. I’ve found a very good description of them on the Douglas History website.


    St Conan’s Kirk St Conval’s Chapel © 2019 Scotiana

    • St Conval’s Chapel sheltering the tomb of Walter and his sister Helen.

    “Walter Campbell died in 1914 and his widow waited until sculptor Carrick had returned from the war to commission him to carve his tomb. The surge in orders for war memorials caused delays, the Lochawe memorial also by Carrick which stands at the entrance gate of the kirk was itself unveiled in 1920. However there were also delays in finding a suitable stone and Carrick made a number of journeys to the Ravelston quarry in the Cheviots before finding a suitable block. In 1925 he finally began the work, obtaining Campbell’s Highland Dress for his model. The result was a particularly fine tomb featuring the recumbent effigy of Campbell, his head resting on a pillow which is so beautifully worked that you expect it to feel soft to the touch. Walter and his sister rest below.”

    The wrought-iron gate of St Conval’s chapel © 2019 Scotiana

    Look at the beautiful wrought-iron gate inscribed with the initials of Walter and Helen Campbell and the “birlinn” which is the Campbell motif. This symbol is omnipresent in the church. The birlinn (which also gave its name to a famous Scottish publishing house) is a traditional eight-oared Hebridean sailing galley.

    St Conan’s Kirk St Bride’s Chapel © 2019 Scotiana

    • St Bride’s Chapel.

    “St. Bride’s Chapel, 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 St. Conval’s Chapel and St. Bride’s Chapel 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.”


    From the South Aisle we turn to the Nave (corresponding to the first church built in the 1880s).

    On the above photo (Wikimedia) an east side view of the church with the nave, chancel and ambulatory. The ambulatory is magnificent with its beautiful pillars, its large windows which gave the whole area a great luminosity.

    Notice the different style of the ambulatory pillars and those of the nave built with unsmoothed boulders of granite from the nearby mountain (Ben Cruachan).

    The wrought-iron gate of St Conval’s chapel © 2019 Scotiana

    “The vast chancel, enclosed at its east end by a semi-circular apse, said to have been isnpired by St John’s Chapel in the Tower of London. It is made up of ten granite pillars carrying high stilted arches in the Romanesque style and wrapped around by a five-sided ambulatory with clear glass windows looking out on the mountains of Glenorchy and Glenstrae” (Argyll – The Making of a Spiritual Landscape – Ian Bradley – Saint Andrew Press 2015)



    On the above photo (Wikimedia) a west side view of the church with the chancel, nave and organ.

    And now we come to a place which can be considered as the focal point of the church, the Bruce Chapel, a beautiful and moving memorial to King Robert the Bruce. It is situated in St Fillan’s Aisle, beyond St Columba’s Aisle.

    St Conan’s Kirk Robert Bruce chapel © 2019 Scotiana

    My picture is dark but I wanted to show the symbolic location, facing the loch, chosen for the Bruce Chapel… fortunately there were green trees to offset the dreary grey of this winter’s day. 😉

    St Conan’s Kirk Robert the Bruce effigy © 2019 Scotiana

    • The Bruce Chapel

    “The Bruce Chapel is perhaps the most deliciously creepy part of St Conan’s – and on no idle patriotic whim : Robert I won a battle in the Pass of Brander, not far away, in one of the most critical set-tos of the War of Independence.

    St Conan’s Kirk Robert Bruce effigy close-up © 2019 Scotiana

    Here, then, The Bruce now lies in effigy, larger than life – this body, imbs and armour in dark wood, but his face and hands in pale alabaster, so perfectly executed you do start back at the sight of what does look like a corpse. And a little ossuary at the base displays a piece of bone, taken long ago from his Dunfermline Abbey tomb.” (Scottish Daily Mail – 7 March 2020 – John Macleod)

    I drew a lot of my information from the lively and very interesting article published on 7 March 2020 by John Macleod in the Scottish Daily Mail.

    “To understand the building you first have to understand the architect”

    Walter Douglas Campbell of Innis Chonain

    “He did not allow himself to be tramelled by convention or orthodoxy.”

    When you visit this stunning church  you immediately say to yourself that its designer was no ordinary man.

    So, let us try to discover who was Walter Douglas Campbell ?

    Walter J. Douglas Campbell of Innis Chonain (1850 – 9 Mar 1914), a younger brother of the 1st Lord Blythswood, was an architect who practised in Lochawe in the period between 1881 and 1906. He was a man of many talents, an unorthodox self-taught architect, highly skilled woodcarver, a collector of antiquities and objets d’art (like Sir Walter Scott, a passionate antiquarian whose treasures fill Abbotsford).

    I’ve just associated the name of Sir Walter Scott to that of Walter Campbell but I’m thinking of another name to associate with him. He is one of the greatest Scottish architects and he lived around the same time that Walter Campbell. I’m talking about Charles Rennie Mackintosh. We greatly admire this talented architect and I’written a number of posts about him in Scotiana, especially about the time he spent in France and the Mackintosh Trail in the South of France.  Both architects must certainly have been influenced by Art Nouveau.

    So, here are a few biographical details:

    “Lieutenant Walter Douglas Campbell came from a family of nine (seven brothers and two sisters). He was the second youngest brother of the 1st Baron of Blysthwood. Blysthwood House was the family home near Glasgow, it was demolished in 1935 and its lands became Renfrew Golf Club.

    Old Blythswood House in Renfrewshire near Glasgow

    Born in 1850 and privately educated for an army career he joined the Queen’s Own Lanarkshire Yeomanry. His arrival in Lochawe just preceded the arrival of the railway  and hotel in 1882, when he purchased Innischonain (the island just by the railway bridge at the south end of the village) from the Marquis of Breadalbane and set about building a stately mansion house. He settled there with his sister Helen and his mother Caroline Agnes (widowed in 1868, died in 1897).

    Local tradition tells that Walter Campbell’s mother found the journey to the nearest parish church tiring and so he decide to build her a church nearby.”


    The construction of the first church took approximately 5 years, from 1881 to 1886. Walter Campbell’s mother died in 1897, so she was able to enjoy the church for several years. It was a wonderful show of love from her son. This first church did not lack charm. We can see on the gable the rosace which had been painted by Helen, her daughter. Today the rosace is situated above the organ. When we visited the kirk in December 2019 it had not yet been restored. We look forward to revisiting it to see the changes…

    The story of the restoration of Helen’s rosace is a lovely story. ;-). It was published on a page of The Oban Times in June 2020.

    A very interesting page is also devoted to the restoration of the windows on the website of the Friends of St Conan’s Kirk. There you can even see a picture of Helen’s rosace with its lovely cherubs.

    On the above photo of the first church you can see the little octagonal tower which, today, seems to emerge from the roof of the cloister. We had much wondered about it. We’ve learned since that it was the organ Bellows Tower. Don’t ask me more about its use… I really don’t know ;-). I think it was associated with the first organ…

    Focus on the wonderful stained glass windows of St Conan’s Kirk

    I do love stained glass windows but those of St Conan’s Kirk are particularly beautiful and interesting though my understanding of them remains superficial. There are many symbolic representations, biblical references, heraldic images, clan and family coat of arms… many of these data still remain a mystery to me! 😉

    But no need to be an expert to appreciate the beauty of St Conan’s Kirk’s stained glass windows. They are magnificent!


    The McCorquodale stained glass window was erected in memory of an old family friend. It  was part of the original church (1880s) but was moved when the larger church was built (1907…)

    The window consists of three lights. One light shows the Warrior, who has put on the whole Armour of God and bears the Shield of Faith (on the right). His faith is so strong that he does not even look at the fiery darts coming up through brambles and smoke. The opposite light (on the left) 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.

    St Conan’s Kirk stained glass window roses © 2019 Scotiana


    St Conan’s Kirk McCorquodale stained glass window detail © 2019 Scotiana


    St Conan’s Kirk – stained glass windows © 2019 Scotiana

    1. In the South transept : an angelic scribe and the Revelation text ‘I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Write… probably the arms of the House of Douglas-Campbell at the bottom of the window.
    2. St Columba’s aisle : green-scaled dragons succumb to St Michael’s sword. Another coat-of-arms and motto…
    3. an angel confronting a cloaked figure outside the tomb…

    Not an old church but… 

    It looks old :

    “Many of those passing by in coaches or cars en route to Oban or the islands probably gain the impression that this is an ancient medieval church which has stood for centuries, maybe even since the time of Conan, a somewhat shadowy seventh-century saint who seems to have been active in this part of Lorne. In fact, St Conan’s Kirk is a twentieth-century building...”

    (Ian Bradley – Argyll)

    It looks old, inside and outside, because it was partly built with old materials and in old style (Romanesque particularly…) and also because it contains a great number of antiquities collected by Walter Campbell.

    Here are a few examples:

    St Conan’s Kirk – Iona window

    • stones from the old medieval church of Inchinnan in Renfrewshire (the parish church of the Campbells of Blythswood, in Renfrewshire)
    • the stone frame of a window from Iona Abbey
    • the oak beams in the cloister roof from two old battleships, the Caledonia and the Duke of Wellington
    • the original west window from St Mary’s Church, South Leith
    • two screens from Eton College Chapel
    • a large bell from the Skerryvore Lighthouse

    A great diversity of adornment and furnishings

    St Conan’s Kirk- 1st group of wooden stalls in the chancel © 2019 Scotiana

    The building of the church was also a local undertaking with the choice of local craftsmen and the use of local building materials (not quarried stones but boulders coming from the nearby mountains… an ecologist ahead of his time ;-).

    Biblical, early-Christian and Celtic influences can be felt everywhere inside and outside the church.

    Walter Campbell, his sister Helen, Princess Louise (6th child and 4th daughter of Queen Victoria, Duchess of Argyll and a close friend of the family, especially of Helen) did contribute a lot to the decoration of St Conan’s Kirk.

    • the organ screen was carved by Walter Campbell
      • grotesque monsters
      • lion, calf, man,eagle
      • pelicans
    • the beautiful rosace with its lovely cherubs was painted by Helen
    • a bust of Queen Victoria sculpted by Princess Louise who also contributed to the design of some of the stained glass windows

    St Conan’s Kirk – 2nd group of wooden stalls in the chancel © 2019 Scotiana

    Remarquable objets d’art not to be missed during the visit of St Conan’s Kirk:


    St Conan’s Kirk dolphin chair © 2019 Scotiana

    • a beautiful set of four chairs in the chancel apse carved in Art Nouveau style, with a motif of dolphin. They are probably of Venetian origin.


    • a very original baptismal font modelled after a Breton fishing boat.

    The outside of the church

    St Conan’s Kirk Celtic

    Near the entrance of the church you can see the beautiful celtic-style cross, with its elaborate leafy interlacing, erected by Walter Campbell in memory of his mother…

    St Conan’s Kirk- a view of the sundial from an arched doorway © 2019 Scotiana

    After visiting the interior of the church we went out to see the loch and the garden surrounding the kirk.


    St Conan’s Kirk – part of the southern façade – Wikimedia

    The above picture gives an idea of the different architectural styles used by Walter Campbell in the building of the Kirk. The most prominent elements are the Saxon tower decorated with a beautiful fern-like pattern, said to be a replica of the Saxon Tower at Monkwearmouth (County Durham) and the Romanesque arch

    St Conan’s Kirk – statue of St Conan on the southern façade © 2019 Scotiana

    The statue of St Conan sculpted by Alexander Carrick, with a particularly lively face. St Conan is the patron saint of Lorn. There is a page dedicated to him – and to the other saints celebrated in the church – in Ian Bradley’s book.  “There have been suggestions”, he writes, “the island of Innis Chonain was his base and that he may have been buried there”.

    A Short bibliography

    We didn’t stay long in the church and garden facing Loch Awe and so we left the place with some feeling of frustration, promising however we would come back there on our next trip. In the meantime, my curiosity having been much aroused, I did some research to try to find out more about this amazing church, its hors-normes architect and family.  There are not so many documents about the subject and the architect as well as his family and friends whose role had been so important in the project took their secrets to the grave… I like to think they are still there, imbuing with their aura the dear sacred place that they have helped to radiate all around and beyond…

    Below is a selection of books, articles and web pages about St Conan’s Kirk. Ian Bradley’s book is particularly interesting. I think that when I finish this book I will know almost everything I need to know about Scotland’s myths and legends, its Celtic heritage and  also about many places we already know and love such as Iona, Dunadd and Dal Riata, or Kilmartin Valley…

    Argyll The Making of a Spiritual Landscape Ian Bradley Saint Andrew Press 2015


    It is quite revealing that after a long Introduction, Ian Bradley chose to start his book with a chapter devoted to St Conan’s Kirk and entitled “Entering Argyll – St Conan’s Kirk”… chapter 5 is interesting too because it is about “The Saints of Argyll” and among them we find a paragraph about St Conan and St Bride…

    Argyll is the beautiful, wild and inspirational home of Celtic Christianity. It is the spiritual heartland of Scotland and, some would say, of the whole United Kingdom. Until now, no-one has sought to uncover the reasons why the spiritual landscape of Argyll is so distinctively unique, rich and varied. Why is it characterised by a more gentle, liberal, mystical and liturgical Christian culture than the harsher Calvanist evangelism of the neighbouring Highlands and the Western Isles? Why has it produced such a disproportionately large amount of beautiful devotional material? This joyful book, with a cover image by popular artist JoLoMo, is impressionistic and accessible but always of the highest scholarly standards. It reveals the dominant themes and figures in Argyll’s spiritual landscape. Ian Bradley’s love of Argyll shines through as he takes both a geographical and biographical approach and looks at the interplay of landscape and Christian belief through such figures as Columba, Carswell, sundry Campbells, George Matheson, George MacLeod and others. Drawing on extensive original research and interviews with a wide variety of people, including many Church of Scotland ministers and lay people, this is an enthralling and fascinating read for all who are interested in Scottish history and identity, Celtic Christianity and Scotland’s spiritual heritage.

    Ian Campbell Bradley is Principal of St Mary’s College and Reader in Church History at the University of St Andrews. He was baptised in Argyll where his mother was born and generations of his Campbell ancestors were tenant farmers. The author of over 40 books, he is a prolific journalist and broadcaster. As a Church of Scotland minister, he has taken services and undertaken locums in several Argyll churches, most regularly on Jura where his grea-great-great grandfather was minister, and has also frequently led retreat weeks on Iona for the Iona Community. His life-long love affair with Argyll is matched only by his passion for Gilbert & Sullivan.


    Argyll and Bute book covers

    Argyll and Bute Frank Walker – front flap text.

    A famous writer of popular fiction lived in Lochawe…

    “Argyll and Bute” is one of the most beautiful regions of Scotland. Many writers and artists have chosen to live there… I’ve just discovered that Mary Stewart, a famous writer of popular fiction had a house near Lochawe. She had been born in England but was a fan of Scotland and she had also a house in Edinburgh….

    I’ve downloaded Stormy Petrel… the story takes place in a fictive island near Mull. A thrilling story. That’s great summer reading. I enjoy the reading of this book as when a young girl I used to get immersed in Carolyn’s Keene’s famous detective stories, with Nancy Drew as the heroin (Alice in French).

    Stormy Petrel Mary Stewart Hodder & Stoughton, London,1991

    If you want to know more about this writer, just have a look at Mary Queen of Plots, a very interesting blog written by a fan from Scotland.

    ” (…)For years, Mary Stewart was a ‘guilty pleasure’ because I felt I ought to be reading literature from ‘the canon’, cutting-edge life-changing fiction, highbrow and ‘difficult’ books. And yes, I do enjoy tackling those kinds of books sometimes. But I have grown to question the canon, to wonder about the chasm between literature and popular fiction, to consider how women’s writing generally has been judged (and found wanting) over centuries, and to explore why escapism is widely disdained as somehow ‘lesser’. Incidentally, Mary Stewart wrote about the value of escapism in an article in ‘Australian Author’ (the magazine of the Australian Society of Authors) in 1977 – I wrote a post about it here that includes an excerpt and advice on how to lay your hands on a copy of the original article in full.

    There is another reason why Mary Stewart is my ‘specialist subject’ aside from how beautifully she writes, how well she builds suspense and evokes setting: and that reason is Edinburgh. (…)”


    Great videos to “travel” again!

    We didn’t stay long enough in the church to fully appreciate the beauty of the place, its richness… but we stayed long enough to fell under its spell and get a good sense of the place.

    No wonder St Conan’s Kirk was voted by the RIAS*, in 2016, one of the top 10 buildings in Scotland of the last 100 years. It’s an architectural jewel!

    *RIAS: Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland

    The wonderful following videos are a good means to revisit and feel the magic of the place.


    The above drone video, by Argylls a Beaut, is sublime and extremely interesting.  The drone flies over the church and its environment. We can have a good view of the church’s architecture, the railway line, the loch and its breathtaking mountainous landscape. Walter Campbell would certainly have appreciated to see his dear place like that, from above… we even can see the island of Innis Chonain, linked to the mainland by a bridge, where Walter had built a home for him and his family.

    Great this video by The Hiking Hermit ! Follow the guide to visit “The Jewel of Loch Awe, Scotland”… I ‘m very happy to be able to revisit the place from my home in France! I can see that since our visit of the Kirk, in december 2019, there have been a few changes. The statue of the lion has been returned to its pedestal in the cloister. We also can see the mortsafes mentioned in my text and so many other things here and there… how beautiful the light in the ambulatory! And to see, outside, the spring colours of the garden and loch…


    Le silence est d’or...

    Look at this absolutely wonderful silent video… it’s pure magic! That’s a good way to conclude my post! Many thanks to the irresistible Miss Farnaby and her travel companion for sharing their adventures aboard their lovely pink campervan!!!


    Miss Farnaby pink camper van on the road

    BON VOYAGE !!!


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