9.4 The Church

Whilst the early church is fundamental to Argyll’s identity, subsequent developments have attracted surprisingly little interest (notable exceptions being MacDonald 1974, MacDonald 2010, MacDonald 2013). For instance, the landscape is peppered with small rectangular unicameral chapels, often stone-built and contained in small rectangular or rectangular enclosures, yet very few can be dated and it is therefore difficult to place them accurately in time or understand how they inform us about spiritual and pastoral care for their patrons or the communities they served. Those with a ‘kil’ or ‘cille’ placename associated with them are often taken to be very early, but the ubiquity of this prefix in places where Norse incursions appear to have obliterated pre-existing placenames suggests that many could be much later in origin, either being Norse or post-Norse foundations or sites. The potential for them to have retained associations with earlier churches throughout the Norse period should not be discounted, the presence of earlier sculpture suggesting continued recognition of Christian activity at some older sites. Further east there may have been less disruption of use. Many of these sites, however, could equally only immediately pre-date the foundation of the parish system and the twelfth-century reforms that swept the church throughout Europe and found a particular expression in Argyll in the shift away from the western ‘Celtic’ church, centred on Argyll and Ireland, to a more Latinised church (see Cowan 1974, 1978, Barrell 2003, Bridgland 2004). Comparison with other areas suggests that these churches were potentially the product of two competing systems. In some areas they appear to have been founded by monasteries in an attempt to deliver and spread pastoral care, in others local lords seem to have founded churches, sometimes in order that their tenants could receive spiritual succour but more often than not to deliver to their own household’s needs.

Disentangling these sites from ones that leave similar remains, built to mark and provide devotional opportunities at crossing and landing places, holy wells, places associated with holy events of places, remains problematic, however. In many cases they also remained in use once the parish system had become established, either due to continued spiritual attributions, or because they served remote and disparate communities. Many also served as the focus for burial until relatively recently.

Window in the south wall of Kilean Old Parish Church © HES

Notwithstanding that many of churches may have originally been timber, Argyll appears to boast some of the earliest lime bonded masonry churches in Scotland (perhaps paralleling the early adoption of masonry castles) – exhibited by a number of rather plain unicameral, relatively large twelfth-century churches seemingly built by Somerled and his immediate descendants. These appear to precede a phase of more widespread church building most characterised by lancet windows, often in pairs at the eastern gable wall, and sockets for rood screens. The majority of these are relatively plain but there are a small number of highly ornate churches within this group. Killean (CANMORE ID 38555) is perhaps the best exemplar of this group, patronised by the Lords of the Isles as they extended their hold over Kintyre. Dunstaffnage may also fall into this category but it is not clear if this was a parish church or intended solely for the devotion of the MacDougal lord and his household. Throughout the western seaboard chapels were often built close to but not directly connected to castles, which may suggest something about how Gaelic lords perceived their connections to the church, but it may also betray earlier origins as the relationship between chapels and high status farmsteads and reoccupied duns has some pedigree. A small number of churches exhibit sculptural embellishments, such as sheela-na-gigs, the significance of which remains poorly understood in a Scottish context. Dunstaffnage (CANMORE ID 23036) aside, this group of churches tend to be seen as a part of a phase of parish formation, but without harder dating evidence this can only be an assumption, especially as architectural conservatism can hinder dating through comparison. The larger size may result from a centralising of resources and a desire to accommodate larger numbers of parishioners inside, where they could witness the mass; although they remain relatively modest in size compared with the likely populations and it seems likely that most worshiped outside and participated in mass simply by association.

It can be no coincidence that the founding of a monastery at Saddell (CANMORE ID 38866) by Somerled coincided with the extension of his power in Kintyre. Following Somerled’s lead and the break with the western tradition at Iona, he and his descendants began an almost unprecedented programme of founding and building reformed monasteries, often with ties to the sees of Paisley and Furness, rather than Nidaros. As the MacDougals attempted to establish their own dominance and refocus the Kingdom of the Isles inwards and towards Scotland the establishment and later embellishment of Ardchattan was surely a deliberate ploy to take the focus away from Iona. It is perhaps in this context that we could also view the creation of the Bishopric of Argyll and the Cathedral at Lismore (CANMORE ID 23100), but this is far from certain. The difficulties it suffered throughout the rest of the Middle Ages perhaps reflects the diminution of MacDougall power and the continued association with the MacDougalls leading to a lack of willingness of other lords to act as patron. The continued lack of political unity in Argyll may have also contributed.

Remains of Collegiate Church of St Mun with Kilmun Kirk in the background © HES

Ecclesiastical patronage does not appear to have been a significant feature of Campbell lordship in mainland Argyll (Boardman’s 2005 denotes their predilection for castle building instead). Like most of the lords of central Argyll and Cowal they seem instead to have been largely content with less architecturally embellished sites, such as Inishail (CANMORE ID 23456) in Loch Awe. Larger churches in eastern and mid-Argyll, like Kilneaur (CANMORE ID 22788), Kilfinan (CANMORE ID 39866) and others, mostly appear to be both relatively early and under the patronage of kindreds other than the Campbells. Campbell policy seems to have extended to monasteries, although they may have been influential in the attempts by Scottish kings to relocate the bishopric of Argyll to Saddell. The only exception to this is the collegiate church in Kilmun (CANMORE ID 40768 and CANMORE ID 250643), which is late and exceptional in many ways, reflecting a rejection of West Highland aesthetics in favour of Gothic norms.

The enlargement of churches and the refurbishment or building of new monasteries was a feature of the MacDonald Lordship of the Isles through the fourteenth and into the early fifteenth centuries, such as the extension of Killean (CANMORE ID 38555) and the new building programmes at Iona and Oronsay (CANMORE ID 37822). However, with the collapse of the Lordship, building at churches and monasteries sharply declined. Despite the handful of iconic examples of monastic building, there are surprisingly few examples of reformed monasteries compared to elsewhere. There are also much fewer nunneries than might be expected. The lack of construction activity in Argyll may be a product of the drop in revenues and paucity of the parishes which are well documented from the late 1400s through to the Reformation. Alternatively, it is possible that this reflects the continued central dominance of Iona.

An interesting feature of Argyll and Hebridean church building is the strong connections between Irish and Scottish masons. Similarities in style and features, along with Irish names inscribed at Oronsay, have led some to suggest that these masons came directly from Ireland (although see Caldwell et al 2015a) but this would not account for the hybrid nature of Hebridean masonry, so the situation of masonry there is likely to be more nuanced.

Studies of early Christianity have emphasised how deeply embedded the church was throughout the landscape. It remains less clear, however, how these were perceived, understood and exploited by the later church. For instance, although pre-existing crosses and boundaries were adopted by later churches, it is less clear if these were used to mediate new messages. Crosses erected in later periods may have complimented pre-existing patterns but equally may have enabled the manipulation and reinterpretion of existing crosses in the establishment of new understandings and patterns throughout the landscape. Later folk tradition has often been uncritically used as an indicator of continuity and this needs to be routinely tested. On the other hand, the wear on the cross base at Kilchoman (CANMORE ID 37434), Islay, suggest prolonged use of ballaun stones and quern stones were certainly adopted into church buildings, reflecting earlier traditions.

Almost every parish church graveyard in Argyll boasts at least a few examples of Late Medieval West Highland Sculpture. The most common motifs used are perhaps the warrior figure s, often buckling on their war gear, or holding spears, but they are also often shown mounted, or represented through seigniorial imagery: swords, galleys, hunting, etc (also McDonald 1995 for other imagery adopted by Hebridean lords). They are overwhelmingly masculine, martial and noble in character, although they appear to have been commissioned by craftsmen and those further down the social ladder than burial sculpture elsewhere in Scotland, where only the highest echelons were commemorated in this way. A few clergy, women and corpses were also depicted. Smaller slabs have marked the graves of children, but this, again, is not clear. These figures were often surrounded by scrollwork, mythical beasts, angels, tools, crosses and much more, but interestingly direct references to saints or request memorial prayers are absent. This is an art form that is distinctive to the Gaelic Scottish west coast Highlands and Islands, but the extent to which it may have taken its lead from wider European imagery is generally unacknowledged. Steer and Barrowman’s (1977) seminal study, built on a number of earlier regional studies (Whyte 1873, 1875, Lamont 1968), drew together the corpus of examples then known, and tried to make sense of how they may have been created and identify patterns in the imagery used. Recently, Caldwell and his colleagues (20102015a) have begun to reappraise their conclusions, suggesting that instead of schools of carving based in a limited number of localities, usually centred on monasteries, there were peripatetic groups of carvers exploiting quarries local to whoever was employing them. He has also begun to think about patterns of patronage, their dating, the meaning of the weaponry, arms and armour represented, the choreography of the figure s and the iconography of much of the symbols used, but, despite their prevalence and the fact that they are such emotive exemplars of Scottish Gaelic culture (the four examples occurring Ireland are as distinct from the Scottish ones as they are similar), there remains much to be understood about this corpus. Study and comparison of the distribution of carved stones, both within churchyards and between parish church and monasteries, may reveal much about how and where they were designed to be presented, devotion and patronage. Many graveslabs are likely to remain buried within graveyards. Adoption of the approaches outlined in the Future Thinking of Carved Stones in Scotland (ScARF 2016) may also prove fruitful.

Very little is understood of how priests were supported and accommodated. Oral history often suggests they lived nearby or interprets architectural oddities as indicators of lofts within the churches themselves. Further study could help shed further light on this issue.