They say that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover. That's true of books, and it also turns out to be true of chapels if St Mary's Chapel, Grandtully, is anything to go by. Its long, low, and almost windowless single storey structure makes it looks more like a byre intended to house livestock than anything else. And this impression is strengthened because the churchyard and its gravestones are all but invisible (being largely on the far side of the chapel) as you approach. If it wasn't for the Historic Environment Scotland information board on the gate, you could easily be forgiven for thinking you were in the wrong place.
And then you open the door, duck beneath the lintel as you step down into the building, and turn on the light... And you know for sure that you are not in the wrong place. To say that the interior of St Mary's Chapel comes as a pleasant surprise is a major understatement. (Continues below image...)
You reach St Mary's Chapel along a (very) minor single track road that turns south off the A827 some two and a half miles north-east of Aberfeldy and just to the south-west of Grandtully Castle. This climbs up the south side of the River Tay valley to a signposted parking area, and from here you walk the hundred yards or so to the chapel, which is tucked away behind a farmstead.
Nothing, not even the pictures on this page, can prepare you for the surprise you get when the lights come on. You find yourself in a long, concrete floored and stone walled building that looks every bit as agricultural internally as externally, except that its eastern half is topped off by an utterly magnificent wooden barrel-vaulted ceiling that is entirely covered with stunningly painted panels.
St Mary's Chapel was probably built in about 1533 by Alexander Stewart, the Laird of Grandtully and resident of the nearby Grandtully Castle. In 1636, the then laird, Sir William Stewart, who served as Sheriff-Principal of Perthshire under King Charles I, refurbished the chapel and built an extension on its western end, possibly to provide living accommodation for a resident priest.
At the same time the painted ceiling was inserted into the eastern half of the church. It's unclear why just part of the interior was treated in this way. Perhaps this is where the communion table stood, or perhaps Sir William had his private pew here. Whatever the reason, it is unlikely that Scotland had seen anything like it since before the Reformation in 1560. King Charles I was seeking to make the Scottish church more like the Church of England at this time, a process that would lead directly to the (misnamed) English Civil War and the king's loss of his head. It seems that the ceiling in St Mary's Chapel was a token of Sir William's support for his king's religious policies. It also seem unlikely to be at all popular with the Presbyterians running the kirk in Scotland at the time, or the many Scots who, two years later, would sign the National Covenant that marked the start of the slide into two decades of conflict.
The decoration on the ceiling covers 29 panels and includes a number of different themes. Parts of the ceiling carry the coats of arms of families associated with the Stewarts of Grandtully, while elsewhere you find depictions of the apostles. The focal point for the whole ceiling is a large panel showing a man dying in bed and about to be subject to the last judgement.
It isn't known who painted the ceiling, but it is thought that the panels were painted once the ceiling had been put in place, and that tempera (or glue-based) paints were used. In 1883 the chapel became a parish church, but it was replaced in this role in 1892 and the building was turned over to agricultural use. The value of what survived of the ceiling was recognised in the 1940s, when extensive restoration work was undertaken (considerably more extensive than would be considered proper now) which returned it to the glory you see today. The chapel is now in the care of Historic Environment Scotland.