The fascinating and extremely tranquil ruins of Ardchattan Priory stand close to the north shore of Loch Etive some five miles inland from its mouth near the Connel Bridge. Dating back in part to just after 1230 and continuously evolving over the succeeding centuries, parts of the ruins are publicly accessible, and are home to some fine grave slabs and other monuments.
Finding the priory is not as straightforward as you might expect. Just north of the Connel Bridge a Historic Environment Scotland brown road sign points east along a minor single track road towards Ardchattan Priory. En route you pass Ardchattan Kirk. When you arrive at what must be the right place, there is evidence of Ardchattan Priory Garden and Ardchattan House, but nothing which indicates the priory itself. The solution is to go through the stone gateway signposted to the garden, and use the parking area just inside the gates.
The priory itself is reached by walking from the car park around to the left of the later (and private) Ardchattan House and associated buildings. The fine Ardchattan Garden, for which an admission charge is made, is well worth a visit: see our separate feature about it. The priory may also be reached on foot along a drive from a jetty on the shore of the loch, which leads to the rear of the complex of buildings.
Ardchattan Priory was founded for monks of the Valliscaulian order by Duncan MacDougall in 1231. The previous year King Alexander II had established a priory at Pluscarden near Elgin for the same order. It seems likely that MacDougall's following suit so soon afterwards was intended to show his loyalty for the King as well as ease his own path to heaven. The priory only entered the wider flow of Scottish history once, in 1308 when King Robert the Bruce held what is said to be the last Scottish Parliament ever conducted in Gaelic here during a military expedition to Argyll.
The original priory comprised a modest church with a small cloister housing the domestic buildings. Only three Valliscaulian houses were founded in Scotland and the life of the monks who lived here would have been an austere one of silence punctuated seven times a day by prayer. The priory was significantly expanded in the years either side of 1500, but would never have housed more than 20-30 monks, and at certain times may have been occupied by as few as three. By 1500 the position of prior had been held by three MacDougalls, reflecting the close influence still exerted by the founder's family.
The last prior, Alexander Campbell, was appointed in 1580. With the Reformation by this time well established this would have been a time of decline for the priory, and when the last monk died in 1600 Campbell was appointed Laird of Ardchattan by King James VI.
The west end of the priory was converted into a private residence by the laird, and later extended and expanded to become what is today Ardchattan House. The rest of the priory church served as a parish church until a replacement was built in 1732. At that point the priory was abandoned, serving thereafter primarily for burials and as a quarry for other building projects in the vicinity.
What remains from this complex history today are a set of ruins that originally formed the transepts and choir of the priory church plus a number of burial aisles. Some of the relics and monuments on view are fascinating. As you enter the gate to the site the most obvious feature is a modern porch housing a line of standing grave slabs found in and around the church. Most of these date from the 1400s or early 1500s, but one is much earlier, and looks to have started out as a cross slab carved in the 900s before being later reshaped to serve as a grave slab.
Another fine monument is the MacDougall Cross. This was commissioned by Prior Eogan MacDougall in 1500 and carved by John ó Brolchán, a member of a renowned family of stone carvers based on Iona. The cross shows a scene of the crucifixion on one side, and the virgin and child on the other. The most spectacular piece of stonework is also the easiest to overlook. A wooden box with a lifting lid in the remains of the choir houses a well preserved table tomb dating from 1715. This commemorates Alexander Campbell, 6th Laird of Lochnell, and his wife.