- It just suddenly appeared. There we were, driving on the A85 and looking forward to seeing the town called Oban, when this church demanded our attention. It was free to look around, so we did just that knowing we’d be spending nothing more than our time.
- For the most part, St. Conan’s Kirk is all about appearance. It looked ancient, so one assumes that from its enviable location in Loch Awe, this pile of stones would have witnessed more than a millennium of bloody battles between Highland clans consumed by their burning vengeance. It was probably built by someone called Lachlan or Cormag or some equally tough, Gaelic warrior-sounding name. Never would I have imagined the guy would be some Victorian called Walter. And he built the church for his mother.
So, Walt (as I imagine his mom called him) was probably one of the Campbells from Argyll, headed by the Duke. Or one of the Campbells who loved canning their soup. Being a member of either family would have given him enough resources to build this here church so his mother could appear devout without having to bother to travel very far like some pilgrim when she was mother not only to Walter but to the First Lord Blythswood.
Now, far be it for me to speculate on old Walter’s relationship with his Mama, but somehow I get the feeling she was quite difficult to impress. The project started with Walter, but soon it also involved his sister Helen. Work began in 1881 and the original church was finished by 1886. Its present form, however, was “dedicated for worship as recently as 1930. ” That information was gleaned from the guidebook discreetly available just beyond the church’s doors for 70p.
I assume Walter worked on the kirk long after his Mama was gone, so he really must have wanted to prove to her that he was more than just a younger son destined not to become Lord Blythswood. And how come his brother got all the attention when Walt was a brilliant architect knowledgeable in the Romanesque and Norman styles that he employed with the construction of this building which, he probably would have relished pointing out, had not only a Cloister Garth just for the heck of it but also an ossuary with some bones belonging to Robert the Bruce.
By the way, that window there behind Robert the Bruce’s effigy was the original window of St. Mary’s Church (circa 1483). That church was demolished in 1836 and the window was rescued from certain “death by rotting in an Edinburgh garden” by our sentimental Walter. I’d like to see your other son do something like that, Mrs. Campbell.
So, no. Walter was not a lord. But he was talented and dedicated and to be honest, “Blythswood” sounds like a made-up name anyhow. After Walter’s death in 1914, his sister Helen continued the work according to Walter’s plans. Says something about our guy if he had such a devoted sister. I keep asking myself if I would do the same thing for my brother… I’ll keep asking until I don’t feel bad about my answer any more.
Then again, said devotion might altogether be about something else. It certainly provided Helen with an outlet to showcase her own considerable talents during a time when ladies weren’t supposed to have any beyond the ability of bearing an heir. St. Conan’s Kirk is no doubt a beautiful building that would provide the perfect backdrop to a wedding where the bride is supposed to look like a princess. The building certainly looks ancient enough to provide an illusion of reality to any bride’s royal wedding fantasy.
Cynical, I know, but the Victorians were notorious for keeping up appearances and I’m inclined to think Walter’s family was not above this. Mrs. Campbell wanted to appear devout, so her son built her a church to show his affection but this labor of love ended up being more about himself than anything. Helen might have wanted to honor her brother’s memory (what kind of sister wouldn’t?), but she chose to do it in a way that would prove her own remarkable skills and employ locals for years and years. Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if she did it all for the gargoyle bunnies.
Martin, J.C., Saint Conan’s Kirk Loch Awe Guidebook, House of Letterawe, 1954.