Muckairn Church stands in a fine location on top of a hill just north of the A85 in the village of Taynuilt. The site offers extensive views, especially east towards Ben Cruachan and north over the village towards Loch Awe and the quarries on its far shore, where the stone used to build the church came from.
The church itself is recorded as having been built in 1829 as part of the program of "Parliamentary Churches" across the Highlands and Islands paid for from public funds, and built to a common design produced by Thomas Telford. As a result they are often referred to as "Telford churches".
Muckairn Church doesn't actually fit the normal template, as it was built as an oblong rather than the standard T-plan. It appears that although the manse was paid for from Parliamentary funds, the £993 14s 6d cost of the church itself was found by General Campbell of Lochnell: and it was presumably him who decided on the design and layout.
Many aspects of the story of Muckairn Church are unusually vague, largely because all records relating to the conjoined parish of Muckairn and Ardchattan (in effect covering both north and south shores of Loch Awe) between 1661 and 1829 were lost. As a result it is not even clear if the 1829 church was an entirely new structure or the rebuilding of an existing church, though the latter seems likely as the cost quoted above was considerably below the norm for new churches at the time.
The church of 1829 would have been externally fairly similar to the one you see today. Internally, however, there would have been three galleries at first floor level, at east and west ends and on the north side. The focus of worship would have been a pulpit set at high level mid way along the south wall. At ground floor level, the pews would have faced in from the ends, and across the church in the middle. It is not entirely certain when the interior was remodelled to what you see today, but it may have been during refurbishment that took place in 1887.
Although the story of Muckairn in the centuries prior to 1829 is unclear, it is known that today's church is either the third or fourth to have stood on or near the same location. As noted above, it is likely that the 1829 church was actually a rebuilding of an earlier church, probably built in the early 1700s to meet the needs of Presbyterian worship. Nothing at all is known of this church, assuming it existed.
There is considerably more evidence of an earlier medieval church. The most obvious sign of this is the L-shaped structure of stone walls standing a few yards from the south east corner of the church. This is all that remains of Killespickerill (also referred to as Kilespikeral or Kilespickerill), a name though to derive from "The Church of Bishop Harold". The structure you see today might date as far back as far the 1400s or 1500s and the main architectural feature is a badly eroded arched tomb-chest recess in the interior of the surviving south wall.
The standing walls are believed to be the remains of the second church to have stood on this spot, and to bear the name Killespickerill. The reference to Bishop Harold in the name is (if correct) important, and it is believed that the first church to have stood here was built in the 1220s, shortly after the Pope approved the creation of the Bishopric of Argyll through the division of what had previously been the vast Bishopric of Dunkeld. As cathedrals go, the first Killespickerill appears to have been very modest in scale, comprising a simple oblong church some 60ft long by 30ft broad. In 1236 the Bishop of Argyll moved his cathedral to Lismore, and Killespickerill appears to have assumed the role of parish church.
If you look closely you can see a number of references back to the first Killespickerill in, on, or around today's church. The churchyard is home to a number of early graveslabs, though most are very hard to see beneath a dense matting of grass mowings and/or the extensive overgrowth of turf. A guide to the church shows an image of a fine West Highland style graveslab from the 1300s carrying carvings of a large sword, animals and vines. This proved very hard to find in the graveyard, though not quite (yet) impossible. You'd have thought that if a monument was good enough to be worth drawing for a guide, it was good enough to save from disappearance beneath the turf. We denigrate earlier generations who treated Pictish stones without respect for their historical and cultural importance: yet it is still common to find not much younger stones of considerable importance treated in ways unlikely to ensure their continued enjoyment by future generations. Will those generations thank us for this?
The south wall of the church carries two small carved stones that probably date back to the very first church to be built here in the 1220s. High on the south wall, near its east end, is a carved face of what is said to be a grinning ecclesiastic. At the west end of the same wall is an odd figure believed to be a very rare Scottish example of a sheela na gig, an early medieval fertility symbol in the form of a female figure in a highly immodest pose. Presumably both stones were reused in the structure of the second Killespickerill, before being incorporated in the later church or churches. The early Presbyterian Kirk was not known for its breadth of vision or sense of humour, and you have to admire the mason who decided to incorporate these figures in the later churches: probably saving the only remnant of the very first church in the process.
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Grid Ref: NN 005 310