Many people find their way down the minor single track road that turns off the B8025 to Tayvallich at the head of Loch Sween in order to visit the magnificent remains of Castle Sween, set within a modern holiday park on the shore of the loch. Anyone who has made it that far should make a point of travelling the extra 2½ miles along the same road to Kilmory Knap Chapel, home to a magnificent collection of medieval graveslabs and early Christian cross slabs.
If you do decide to travel the extra couple of miles, it is worth knowing that the state of the road beyond Castle Sween and its holiday park is considerably poorer than the one to it: presumably it is much less well used, so less worth maintaining. It is easily passable, but with care to avoid the ruts and potholes. On arrival you park in the pull off area beside the road, and walk down into the tiny settlement gathered around the chapel.
The chapel has just one door, and visitors will find a key dangling on a chain with instruction to lock the door on leaving. Speaking from direct experience, it is possible to convince yourself that the door is locked when it is not, at which point it cannot be unlocked and access is impossible. Things become rather easier when you realise that the door may actually be unlocked and it is simply a sticky latch that needs to be overcome.
Kilmory Knap Chapel was probably built in the early 1200s and it seems to have remained largely unaltered until it ceased to be used following the Reformation. During its active life it was a chapel within the parish of Knapdale, whose main parish church was on the opposite shore of Loch Sween at Keills. Oddly, Kilmory Knap is the more elaborate of the two, perhaps because of the patronage of the lairds of Castle Sween, who would have worshipped here. Following the Reformation the chapel, by now roofless, found use as a burial enclosure. It was re-roofed in 1934 to provide a shelter for the carved stones found within the chapel and churchyard, and is now in the care of Historic Environment Scotland.
The interior of the chapel is breathtaking. Not because of the structure itself, but because of the variety and state of preservation of the stones. Many of these are lined up against the side and rear walls. The far end of the chapel is dominated by the beautiful MacMillan's Cross, carved for Alexander MacMillan, who through marriage became keeper of Castle Sween in the 1450s. The original base of the cross can be seen in the churchyard outside, but given how crisp the carving is, it is difficult to believe it was ever exposed to the elements. It was moved into the chapel in 1981.
The other stones fall into two main groups. Several date back to the early Christian era, i.e. before 1000, suggesting there was a much earlier church on the site of the chapel built in the 1200s. Most of the rest are what is known as West Highland graveslabs, dating from between the 1300s and the mid 1500s. Unusually, a number of different styles are on view, and it has been suggested that the stone for most West Highland graveslabs, wherever they are found, was quarried at a site between Kilmory Knap Chapel and Castle Sween. It is likely that many were carved locally too, as it would have been rather easier to transport the carved stones than the larger blocks they were carved from.
As a result it is possible to find a wealth of the sorts of carvings only glimpsed occasionally elsewhere. Birlinns, or highland galleys, feature on a number of stones, and there are some excellent effigies of knights, clergy and others.
The churchyard is home to a relatively small number of more recent graves, some nicely reflecting the style of the West Highland graveslabs. Perhaps the most poignant memorials are in the form of two simple wooden crosses, rotted away at their bases, left leaning against the wall of the churchyard. One carries a legible script: "RIP Mary McCormick". It is a shame that these cannot be found a home out of the rain within the chapel, alongside the much grander memorials on show there.