The Out About Scotland complete guide to St. Conan’s Kirk
Category: Historic building, Religious site
Suitable for ages: 5 to 10 years, 11 to 18 years, 18+ years, 65+ years
Ideal for: Couples, Families, Groups, Solo travellers
I rate it: 8 out of 10
About St. Conan’s Kirk
Saint 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 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.
On the south side you’ll notice lots of fine 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 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.
You should also be able to make out the islands of Innishail and Innischonain, with the latter being renowned as the family home of Clan Cambell who built Saint 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.
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 if you take the time to 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 East Lothian, but I think the fact that St. Conan’s Kirk is such an often-missed hidden gem makes it easily rival that famous religious site.
The kirk is today managed by a trust which aims 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.
What I liked about this attraction
- It’s a beautiful old building
- The view across the loch is really nice
- There’s no admission charge (but donations are accepted)
My top tips
- 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
Photos and video
Address and map
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.
Prices and opening times
Although there is no admission charge for St. Conan’s Kirk, you are requested to make a donation to help keep the site running. A donation box is kept inside the building.
The Kirk is open throughout the year:
Summer 9am – 6pm, Winter 9am – 5pm
Getting there: Car park on-site
Getting around: Disabled access, Easy-access paths, Pushchair access
On-site conveniences: None
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