The best view of the village of Kilmartin is from the south, as you approach along the A816. The village's white buildings are set against the hillside behind, while to the western side the imposing church rises above its tiered churchyard. You enter the churchyard through the arched gateway erected in 1921 as a memorial to those who died in the 1914-1919 war. The date is a reminder that Scottish war memorials tend to take the Treaty of Versailles on 28 June 1919 as the end point of the war rather than the armistice that came into effect on 11 November 1918.
Kilmartin Parish Church was built in 1834-5 by the architect Joseph Gordon Davis. There is a strong herd instinct among architectural critics, and the usual references condemn the exterior appearance, and in particular the crowstepped gables, in similar terms. We actually like the look of this church, and in particular the way the nave rises above the flanking aisles in a distinctively coloured stone. But then architecture is more subjective than many experts would lead us to believe, and one of the joys of visiting somewhere new is that you can make your own mind up about what you like and what you don't.
The church is entered via a door in its east end, nearest the gateway. The interior feels rather squarer than you might expect, largely thanks to the slender columns dividing the aisles from the nave. The focus of the church as a place of worship is at its east end, unusually the end that visitors enter and leave by. The most obvious internal feature is a loft set into the far or western end of the church beneath the tower, the Malcolm of Poltalloch Loft.
Most people don't visit Kilmartin Church for its own sake, however. Standing beneath the front of the Malcolm of Poltalloch Loft are two magnificent stone crosses, with part of a third set against the wall behind.
The most complete of these is an early Christian cross, which probably dates back to the 900s. This shows signs of two distinct phases of carving. The work on one side was done before - perhaps long before - an arm broke off, and the original reverse of the stone was then carved with a narrower cross that fitted the space available. The more striking of the two main crosses originally had long cross pieces. This seems likely to be considerably later in date than its neighbour. Both arms were broken and lost during its long history, but one was rediscovered in 1973, built into a culvert near the church. Until fairly modern times the two crosses stood in socketed stones (which can still be seen) either side of the path leading to the church from the churchyard gateway.
The stone set against the wall is a fragment of a cross thought to date back to the 1400s. These three crosses, together with a truly magnificent collection of sculptured West Highland graveslabs found in the churchyard and covered in a separate feature are evidence that Christianity in Kilmartin long predates the building of the church you see today.
It is known that the 1834-5 church replaced one of 1601 described as "incommodious" in the late 1700s. The 1601 church appears to have been a post-Reformation replacement or rebuilding of a medieval church, which would explain the presence of such a fine collection of graveslabs dating back as far as about 1300.
The siting here of a cross dating back a further several centuries suggests that even the medieval church was only a replacement for something earlier on the site and it is entirely possible that there was a series of earlier churches, perhaps moving from wood and turf construction to something more substantial. When you look at today's church, bear in mind it is not just a building approaching two hundred years old: rather it may well be just the latest in a long line of churches and chapels on the same site that could have stood on this site for more than a millennium.