I have mentioned on my blog before that although I'm not religious, I love visiting old churches on my travels around Scotland. I find that they are one of the best places to learn about the community and history of an area.
Recently I made a trip to Kilmun Church and Argyll Mausoleum on the shores of Loch Fyne in the Cowal Peninsula. It turned out to be so much more than just an interesting place of local worship, I found it to be a fascinating attraction with a lot to offer anyone interested in Scottish history.
There is a small visitor centre which details the story of the site from a Celtic Monastery to the final resting place of the Campbells, one of the most powerful clans in Scotland. Volunteer guides are also on hand to show you around if you wish and I found the guide on duty during my visit a wealth of information (I wish I had gotten her name!).
The only thing I found disappointing was to hear how low the visitor figures are, as this really is a special place where there has been a lot of effort put in to enhance the visitor experience. I thoroughly enjoyed my morning there and spent way longer than I had anticipated, partly because I got chatting with the guide over some tea and biscuits after my visit which is optional but recommended!
I really urge you to seek out Kilmun Church and Argyll Mausoleum for yourself and support this great attraction. There is so much history to discover in this little unassuming place and these are just some of the things I found out during my visit...
It started out as a Celtic Monastery
A Celtic Monastery originally stood on the site of the present church which is believed to have been founded by St Mund or St Mundus, a Scottish Abbot who lived in the 10th century. It is from him that the surrounding village of Kilmun got its name with its origins meaning the cell or chapel of Munn.
There have been 3 churches on the site
In 1442, Sir Duncan Campbell, the Chief of the Campbell Clan, founded a collegiate church on the site and funded priests to pray for the souls of his family. This was one of over 40 collegiate churches in Scotland at the time, all supported by wealthy families hoping to protect the souls of their family members and ancestors.
The tower which would have formed the priests' living quarters is still standing today but the original church was badly damaged in 1646 when it was set fire to by the Lamonts, one of the rival clans of the Campbells. Followers of the Campbells had taken refuge in the church when they were murdered by the Lamonts and in true Scottish clan retribution, the Campbells killed many Lamonts and their followers a short while later in nearby Dunoon. It seems even churches didn't provide a safe sanctuary during murderous Scottish clan rivalry!
The choir was rebuilt in 1688 as a Presbyterian church with later additions added and in 1795 the Argyll Mausoleum was built to provide a more fitting resting place for the Dukes and Duchesses of Argyll.
The third church was built in 1841 to meet the needs of a growing population and an increased number of visitors arriving in Kilmun by steam ship. In 1898 - 1899 the interior was extensively remodelled, with further additions in 1909 and this is the church that stands in Kilmun today.
It was chosen as the final resting place for the Chiefs of Clan Campbell
Sir Duncan Campbell was the first clan chief to be buried in Kilmun's collegiate church in 1453 and his detailed effigy along with that of his wife Marjory are the focal point of the Argyll Mausoleum. His burial was the start of the Campbell Clan choosing Kilmun as their final resting place which continued until 1949. There are many powerful Clan Campbell figures buried in Kilmun including the 3rd Duke of Argyll who was one of the wealthiest men in Britain and features on the Royal Bank of Scotland £5 note.
Original mortsafes are on display in the grounds
Propped against the original tower are a couple of mortsafes which are basically heavy metal cages placed over a coffin before the earth was placed over it. This was to stop resurrections or body-snatchers digging up the grave to sell freshly buried bodies to medical men who were desperate for cadavers to dissect for their studies. This practice was rife in the early 19th century in Scotland and some graveyards, including Kilmun, also had watch houses or mort houses built to guard over new burials.
After a suitable period of time, the mortsafe could be removed and reused in future burials.
The first acknowledged female doctor in Britain is buried there
Elizabeth Blackwell was born in Bristol in 1821 and moved to America with her family when she was eleven. She studied at Geneva Medical College, graduating top of her class in 1849 and was the first woman to receive an M.D degree from an American medical school and the first woman on the UK Medical Register. Undoubtedly a pioneer in her field, she lived a remarkable life and overcame much adversity to pave the way for women entering medicine as a profession.
In later life she enjoyed holidaying in Kilmun and after she died in 1910, she was buried in the graveyard of Kilmun Church. Look out for her Celtic Cross memorial stone as you walk around.
Within Kilmun Church there are a number of interesting objects to look out for including -
The unusual organ which is powered by water and is the last working one in the West of Scotland.
In the visitor centre there is a detailed carving of a boar's head which is one of two left in the mausoleum after the burial of the 8th Duke of Argyll.
There is also a cast of an angel sculpture made by Princess Louise which was left in the mausoleum. One of the other three casts made can be found in St Paul's Cathedral where it forms the monument to soldiers of the Boer War.
The oldest object on display is a stone with a simple carved cross which was removed from the grounds for protection. It is believed to be medieval and could indicate that an even earlier church existed on this spot.
You also can't help but notice the beautiful stained glass windows, including the one below which is the earliest stained glass window in Kilmun Church, dating back to 1895. It is called 'The Children's Window' and was designed by Stephen Adam, one of the best glass designers of the period.
I also enjoyed exploring around the grounds of Kilmun Church and one of the most prominent constructions is the Douglas Vault where General Sir John Douglas of Glenfinnart, his wife Lady Elizabeth and their son Charles are laid to rest.
The sturdy looking door is made from Pollard oak from the Glenfinnart Estate and the arms of the Douglas family of Cruixton are carved above the door.
When I was young there where still ornate Victorian water fountains dotted around Glasgow but sadly most of them are gone now, so it was nice to come across this example beside Kilmun Church.
Although not part of Kilmun Church, this post office is just across the road and since it is one of the cutest post offices I've seen, I just had to include it in my list of things to look out for!
Like many places I write about, Kilmun Church is a bit off the normal tourist trail but this part of Scotland is pretty special in my opinion and there are no shortage of things to do. Not far from Kilmun is the coastal town of Dunoon and Kilmun Church is also very close to one of my favourite walks in Scotland at Puck's Glen and the beautiful Benmore Gardens.
I strongly recommend visiting this overlooked part of the country as the history and scenery are some of the best that I've come across.
Click here to find out more about visiting Historic Kilmun.
Follow me as I search for the best and most original travel experiences in Scotland.