Morvern Lines with Iain Thornber 12.12.19

Kilmartin Parish Church built in 1834-5. Photograph: Iain Thornber
Kilmartin Parish Church built in 1834-5. Photograph: Iain Thornber

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One of two gruesome winged angels of death carved on the lid of the Rev Archibald Malcolm's tomb, Kilmartin. Photograph: Iain Thornber
One of two gruesome winged angels of death carved on the lid of the Rev Archibald Malcolm’s tomb, Kilmartin. Photograph: Iain Thornber

On a beautiful day last month, a friend and I took the road from Morvern to Kilmartin to renew an interest in the history and antiquities of this special part of Argyll.

There were three sites in particular that we wanted to see – the parish church, the stones and grave markers in its surrounding graveyard, and the hill fort of Dunadd.

We first visited the museum craft and book shop in search of a hot drink after the journey. Moving quickly across to the adjacent church, a stark notice on the door told us that, although the building had become surplus to requirements by the Church of Scotland, entry to see the medieval crosses which had been taken inside from the graveyard for their protection, was still possible.

Worse was to come when we heard from a local resident, the extraordinary revelation that plans for a staggering £7 million redevelopment of the museum do not include the nearby church which is as much a part of the cultural heritage of the glen as the Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments the museum clearly seeks to capitalise on. How odd!

The Rev Angus Macleod, the Church of Scotland minister for the area, writing in 1952 for the New Statistical Account for Scotland, said with pride that the Kilmartin Parish Church was one of the finest in the whole of Argyll, both for its architectural appearance and its interior neatness; it was built practically on the site of a church erected in 1601, although some historians maintain there was a place of worship on the same footprint stretching back to the time of St Martin, an Irishman who has been linked with Iona and St Columba.

The present church was designed by the London-based architect, Joseph Gordon Davis, and built in 1834-5 in the Gothic style. It has been described by some architectural purists as ‘gawky’ but that depends on the point of view. Be that as it may, the spacious interior with its fine stained-glass window in the north aisle, Jesus, the Light of the World, by A Ballantine and Son, the prominent Edinburgh firm of decorators and stained glass-makers, circa 1905; the slender four-bay arcades and their stone face-masks; the laird’s loft; several white marble tablets let into the walls commemorating local statesmen, soldiers and founders of the British Empire; the pulpit with its lectern which can be raised or lowered by a winding mechanism to suit the height of the preacher; and a fine timber panelled ceiling, all support the reason for it being listed by Historic Environment Scotland (HES).

Unlike some other churches in Argyll, which have already fallen victim to the view held by the trustees of the Church of Scotland that all churches should be sold as soon as the Sunday collections fall below a certain level, the spacious and well-lit interior of Kilmartin church lends itself well to displays, interpretation and educational talks.

Why, we wanted to know, isn’t this building being bought by the museum group whose stated plans include space for the local community and other organisations to deliver cultural activities and an array of temporary exhibitions? It certainly looks much more attractive and in keeping with the local landscape than the dazzling-white and glass palace shown in the redevelopment drawings and montages.

HES has designated the collection of carved stones surrounding Kilmartin church a Scheduled Monument because it is one of the largest in the West Highlands, with at least 113 recorded stones. According to the wording of the designation, these stones have the potential to contribute greatly towards our understanding of West Highland sculpture and religious art, and the character of funerary monuments in general.

The largest group of carvings displayed at Kilmartin are grave slabs dating to the 15th and 16th centuries. They consist largely of long tapered slabs of local stone and display a number of motifs typical of West Highland sculpture, such as effigies of both warriors and ecclesiastics, combinations of intricate scrollwork and interlace, and detailed swords with edges and borders defined by dogtooth or nail head patterns, as well as roll mouldings. Some have had ‘Poltalloch’ carved on them. The story goes that they were found on Poltalloch estate and were defaced on orders of the factor. Why is it that factors always get blamed for their employers’ misdemeanours? One of the long recumbent slabs which looks medieval has a coat of arms for a member of the Malcolm of Poltalloch family but as it was granted in 1817 long after the deceased had died, it is obviously a mid 19th-century fake.

Of particular interest is the large cross situated in the church which shows the Crucified Saviour on one side and Christ in Majesty on the other. Although the figure of Christ is not unknown in medieval sculpture, this example is extremely unusual in that it is executed in the West Highland tradition.

Other stones of interest mark the graves of the family of James Gow, the farm manager of Poltalloch Estate who was brought from Perthshire in 1796 to supervise agricultural improvements. Another commemorates his son James who died in 1837 aged 33.

A slab to Mr Archibald Malcolm, minister of Kilmichael who died in 1685 aged 80, bears the following text: ‘Many were the poor he led to Heaven, with steadfast heart, with steady voice and profound faith. He poured forth his life, made glorious death, and unlocked the gates of Paradise. He displayed unwavering grace, enjoyed a blessed life and met a peaceful end.’ Not a bad epilogue for any clergyman.

My favourite is a monument built into the east wall of the churchyard bearing a Latin inscription – when translated reads: ‘Mr William MacLachlan, rector of Kilmartin, desires that his mortal remains, and those of his wife Grisel MacGilchrist and their children, should lie in this resting place as spoils of death. 1686.’

William, an Episcopalian, died in Ireland in or after 1690, having deserted his charge for not conforming to Presbyterianism and is best remembered for losing one of the minute books of the Synod of Argyll. His wife mentioned in the inscription, belonged to a family which produced some of the earliest lawyers in Argyll. Not all his children are buried at Kilmartin. Margaret, who married Alexander MacDougall, tutor of Gallanach, who died in 1737, aged 57, is buried at Killean on the Island of Mull.

Before leaving Kilmartin, we heard that a local group has expressed an interest in acquiring the former church as a community hub. Good luck to them but given the cost of heating and maintaining so large a building, their tenure cannot be expected to last. It is clearly incumbent on the trustees of the Church of Scotland, the Kilmartin Museum Redevelopment Group and other stakeholders to work together with the local group to save this outstanding parish church for the nation.

Iain Thornber

iain.thornber@btinternet.com