The north side of Castle Semple Loch, near Lochwinnoch, today forms the Castle Semple Country Park, part of the Clyde Muirshiel Regional Park. From the Watersports Centre a track leads along the north shore of the loch, before heading north into woodland then east. Following the signs shown below right brings you to a track, and shortly afterwards to your first glimpse of Castle Semple Collegiate Church. The total walk to the church is about a mile and a half.
The church has a remarkably beautiful rural setting and, apart from the obvious absence of its roof is surprisingly complete. What you find on closer examination is a lovely example of a late gothic church, remarkably unaltered by later influences - primarily because it ceased to be used soon after the Reformation of 1560.
The family variously known as Sempill, Sempil, Sempel and Semple had owned estates in the area from as early as the 1300s and at some point, probably in the 1400s, built a castle at the east end of the north shore of what was at the time known as Loch Winnoch, but has since become known as Castle Semple Loch.
Castle Semple Collegiate Church was built in 1504 by John, Lord Sempill, in the grounds of Castle Semple. Like other collegiate churches founded at around the same time in Scotland, it was built to house a college of clergy, whose main role in life was to pray for the souls of the Lord and his family.
At Castle Semple Collegiate Church there would have been a senior priest, or Provost, six other priests, two altar boys, and an administrator. The college of priests would have lived nearby and the church became the focus of an important centre of learning.
As built in 1504 the church was rectangular in shape, with a tower at its west end. But, together with most of Scotland's nobility, Lord Sempill was killed at the Battle of Flodden in 1513. Immediately afterwards the church was extended eastwards to form a three sided apse, and a highly ornate tomb was placed in the north wall of the extension as Lord Sempill's final resting place. This remains on view today.
Collegiate Churches across Scotland ceased to be used for their original purpose after the Reformation, and Castle Semple Church fell out of use altogether, though it remained a burial enclosure until the 1800s. Not far from Lord Sempill's tomb is the tombstone to Gabriel Sempel, who died in 1587, while other, more recent, graves occupy part of the interior.
The estate was sold to the MacDowell family in 1727, and Colonel William MacDowell demolished Castle Semple to make room for (and provide building materials for) the Castle Semple House he built in its place in 1735. This burned down in 1935 and its shell was demolished in the 1960s.