The privately-run St. Conan’s Kirk near Loch Awe offers a fascinating glimpse into the past. The stunning architecture both inside and out the church is the perfect backdrop to the intricate carvings that are reminiscent of Rosslyn Chapel in Midlothian. St. Conan’s Kirk is currently free to visit but donations are accepted.
Review of St. Conan’s Kirk
St. Conan’s Kirk is situated on the banks of the beautiful Loch Awe and it’s widely acknowledged as having some of the best views in the Scottish Highlands.
Although the front of the building is relatively simple, as you move around towards the loch on the south side you’ll notice that it’s actually extremely ornate, with decorative facades and gargoyles aplenty.
At the rear of the kirk you’ll notice some beautiful stone carvings if you take the time to look up, like the leaf patterns on the imitation Saxon tower and the gargoyles that represent a dog chasing two hares.
Elsewhere, you’ll see Roman-style archways and Gothic buttresses that make the building look far older than one that was constructed as recently as the late 1800s.
The rear of the kirk is also a perfect photo opportunity for capturing the spirit of the Highlands, and across Loch Awe you can clearly make out the mountain of Ben Lui which overlooks the glens of Lochy, Orchy and Strae.
Look towards the middle of the loch and you should be able to make out the islands of Innishail and Innischonain, with the latter being the family home of Clan Cambell who built St. Conan’s Kirk.
The kirk is located close to Ben Cruachan so you might like to include a visit with a walk up the mountain to look at the dam, and there’s also the Ben Cruachan visitor centre just down the road if you want to take a journey deep inside ‘The Hollow Mountain’.
St. Conan’s Kirk offers history, architecture and gorgeous scenery in one small building so I really think you should add it to your itinerary of places to visit if you ever come to this part of the Highlands. Otherwise you might just drive by without realising what you’re missing.
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Things to do at St. Conan’s Kirk
There are several fascinating points of interest inside the church but perhaps the most spectacular is the concave chapel surrounded by stone pillars and huge stained glass windows that allow sunlight to flood in.
The windows are the first thing that capture your attention when you enter and on a sunny day the light bathes the interior in a golden glow that makes for a fantastic photo opportunity.
Nearby at a slightly lower level is the vault which contains the remains of both Walter and Helen Campbell, and there are lots of skilfully carved engravings to view if you look closely at the stonework.
The quantity and quality of the carvings in this church remind me of the much more popular Rosslyn Chapel in Midlothian, but I think the fact that St. Conan’s Kirk is such an often-missed hidden gem makes it easily rival that other religious site.
The kirk is today managed by a trust who aim to maintain the building in its full glory and they do a remarkable job seeing as they rely entirely on donations.
There’s no fee to get in but there is a donations box near the entrance so I reckon a few quid chucked in there on your way out is a more than fair swap for the pleasure this church will give you.
This isn’t the biggest attraction in this part of the Highlands by any means (I think that award has to go to nearby Ben Cruachan), but it’s well worth visiting and it makes an interesting diversion if you’re on a Highland road trip.
The history of St. Conan’s Kirk
St. Conan’s Kirk was originally built by Walter Douglas Campbell in 1886 for his mother because she found the journey to the local parish church too tiring.
At least, that’s the short version. The long version is that Walter Campbell was born in 1850 and was one of nine children, most of whom went on to military careers or entered service with the church – except for the oldest brother, Archibald, who was made the first Baron of Blythswood. Walter, meanwhile begain training as an architect.
In later years their mother, Caroline, purchased some land next to Loch Awe, and as it has a small island in the centre Walter designed a summer house for her.
Unfortunately, Caroline hated making the trek to nearby Taynuilt for the regular Sunday church service so Walter had an idea to build her very own church on the shores of Loch Awe.
As a talented architect and wood-carver, Walter Campbell devoted all his energies to creating a beautiful building for his beloved mother and many of the details inside the church are dedicated to his own family as well as the local community.
The building as we see it today was constantly improved until 1914 when Walter Campbell died, though his sister Helen continued making improvements till her own death in 1927.
The namesake of the kirk, Saint Conan, is the patron saint of Lorne and is reputed to have lived in Glen Orchy until the time of his death in 684 AD.
There’s a rich association with this part of Scotland and Saint Conan and you’ll find a holy well in nearby Dalmally that bears his name, but perhaps more interesting is the fact that the island where Caroline’s summerhouse was built is named Innis Chonain.
Maybe there’s a long-forgotten link to the saint and the island that’s been lost in time? We’ll probably never know.
However, we do know that Saint Conan was originally from Ireland and he rose to prominence as a Bishop after being chosen to tutor two of the sons of the King of Scotland.
He’s also famous for the story in which he supposedly met with the Devil to discuss the fate of the souls of the people of Lorne.
The Devil and Saint Conan split the people of Lorne equally between them in the categories of really good, really bad, and middling, but when the Devil tried to take one of the people assigned to the saint he got a sharp rap across the knuckles.
The saint’s angry shout of ‘na, na, fair play, paw for paw’ is still used to this day.
- It’s a beautiful old building with a surprising amount of ornate carvings. These carvings easily rival Rosslyn Chapel in my opinion.
- The view across the loch is lovely so take your camera. You won’t spend long at St. Conan’s Kirk but the views more than make up for it.
- The stained-glass windows are stunning when sunlight floods through them. Apparently, the best time to visit is early morning during the golden hour (just after sunrise) but unfortunately the earliest you can enter is 9 am.
- I recommend you combine a visit to St. Conan’s Kirk with a visit to Ben Cruachan dam and The Hollow Mountain Experience which are only 20 minutes away by car.
- You can also visit Kilchurn Castle at the north-east end of Loch Awe which is less than 10 minutes away by car.
- For food either take a picnic or grab a bite at the small cafe near the kirk entrance. Alternatively, visit the cafe at the Hollow Mountain Centre a couple of miles down the road.
Saint Conan’s Kirk is in the village of Loch Awe, on the A85 between Dalmally and Oban.
The kirk is 20-30 minutes away by car from neighbouring Oban, Crianlarich and Inverary, an hour and a half from Fort William, Dunoon and Glasgow and 2 hours from Edinburgh.
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Things to do near St. Conan’s Kirk
- Kilchurn Castle. 4-minute drive. Built in the 1400s for clan Campbell, Kilchurn Castle is now roofless and in ruin. However, its picturesque location on a headland at the foot of Loch Awe makes it one of the most photographed castles in Scotland. There is a large car park with a snack van at the entrance. Entry is free.
- Ben Cruachan Dam. Dalmally PA33 1AN. 1-minute drive plus a 40-minute walk. Large man-made dam on the side of Ben Cruachan mountain that powers the Cruachan power station. The walk up the mountainside is easy thanks to the tarmac link road that runs from the A85 to the dam.
- Cruachan Visitor Centre. Cruachan Power Station Lochawe, Dalmally PA33 1AN. 5-minute drive. This attraction takes visitors deep inside the ‘hollow mountain’ to marvel at the power station built underground. The visitor centre is set in a great location next to Loch Awe and it has a gift shop and a café with terrace seating.
- Bonawe Historic Iron Furnace. Taynuilt, Argyll PA35 1JQ. 16-minute drive. Historic ironworks founded in 1753. Bonawe Iron Furnace is located close to Loch Etive and within sight of Glencoe. Visitors can explore the original buildings and learn about Scotland’s iron-making history.
- Loch Awe. A large, mostly freshwater body of water that is over 25 miles in length. The loch is a popular fishing location with anglers in search of brown trout and salmon. Boats can be hired for sailing on the loch in the summer months.
More places to visit in The Highlands
- Ben Ledi – Stirlingshire: Complete Visitor GuideBen Ledi is an 879-metre high mountain in the lower Scottish Highlands. It can be found 5 miles north-west of the popular country village of Callander in the Trossachs National Park. The Trossachs are famous not just for their mountain ranges but also for their lochs which include the mighty Loch Lomond – one of the most scenic bodies of water in the United Kingdom.
- Muir of Dinnet – Aberdeenshire: Complete Visitor GuideThe Muir of Dinnet is a national nature reserve located on the eastern border of the Cairngorms national park in the Scottish Highlands. The reserve features a wealth of different habitats including heath, woodland and wetland, but it’s perhaps best known for ‘the vat’, a natural gorge formed by glaciers over 10,000 years ago.
- Glen Etive – Inverness: Complete Visitor GuideWhat if I told you there’s a 12-mile stretch of road where you can see those mountains, rivers and forests in a single relatively small area, where gob-smackingly beautiful vistas open up around every corner on a secluded, frequently tourist-free single-track road?
- Faraid Head – Sutherland: Complete Visitor GuideWhile Scotland’s west coast islands usually take first prize for the number of amazing beaches you’ll find (hello Isle of Tiree) you shouldn’t be too quick to discount Scotland’s mainland either, especially in the far north where it’s relatively tourist-free compared to the rest of the country.