We discuss Kilmartin Church in our separate feature about it, which also looks at the three stone crosses or cross fragments on display within the church. Kilmartin Churchyard, however, is home to such a remarkable collection of sculptured medieval graveslabs that it deserves a feature of its own: this is it.
At first sight there is a contradiction between carved stones dating back many centuries being found in a churchyard surrounding a church that is rather less than two centuries old. It is known, however, that the church you see today replaced one built or rebuilt in 1601, that this replaced a medieval church, and that there might have been one or more even earlier churches on the site.
There are two main groups of stones on view in Kilmartin Churchyard, and you should make a point of seeing both. The first group is a collection of seven stones, set at a slight tilt within a low stone enclosure. This is the Poltalloch Enclosure, and these are the Poltalloch stones. They were originally used to mark the graves of members of the Malcolm family, hereditary owners of the Poltalloch Estate, two miles to the south-west. We think that these were moved from original locations in the churchyard to protect them, though the metal plaque on the enclosure could be read to imply they were originally located on the Poltalloch Estate itself.
Either way, the stones are magnificent, and though they remain exposed to the elements, the tilt presumably encourages water to run off them more easily. The central stone carries the family coat of arms and a Latin inscription. It is dated 1685, and as such rather more recent that the other stones in the enclosure. Flanking the central stone are two carrying full size effigies of knights. The two at the right hand end of the enclosure, as you view the stones, carry complex patterns surrounding carvings of swords. This is perhaps no surprise as more than half of all West Highland graveslabs carry depictions of swords. Those at the left hand also have complex patterns, and one has a smaller figure of a knight within the pattern. The Poltalloch Stones, barring the one dated 1685, are believed to have been carved in the late 1300s or the 1400s.
A little to the south of Kilmartin Church is a structure originally built as a burial aisle for Neil Campbell and his wife Christiane in 1627. Neil Campbell became Bishop of Argyll, while Christiane was the daughter of Bishop John Carswell, who built nearby Carnasserie Castle in the late 1660s. Since 1956 their mausoleum has served as a lapidarium, sheltering the best of the medieval graveslabs identified in the churchyard.
There are 23 stones on view in the lapidarium. They are all graveslabs, with the single exception of the stone displayed horizontally above the door, which started life as the side slab of a tomb chest. The stones are arrayed in date order, starting immediately to the left of the door with stones from the 1200s and working round in a clockwise direction to two immediately to the right of the doorway, when viewed as you enter, which carry carved dates of 1707 and 1712.
As with the stones in the Poltalloch Enclosure, two decorative themes are predominant. Many of them carry depictions of swords, and others have figures of knights. Most of the latter are fairly small in size and set within decorative panels. The exception is a truly magnificent warrior on the far wall as you enter the aisle. He is life size and carved in very high relief. The fine detail of the carving has weathered considerably over the ages, and there is nothing left of the features of the face or detail of armour that would once have been present.
Slightly unexpectedly, the warrior does carry a name: carved across his upper chest is a decorative squiggle, with below it the name "McTavish" plus perhaps another letter after the name. Given that this carving is much finer than detail that has been weathered away elsewhere on the figure, we strongly suspect that the name was added long after the stone was originally carved. This might have been as a guess as to whose grave it might mark: or perhaps to identify the person who decided to reuse the stone to mark their own grave, something that did happen until the Victorian era.
This same fate appears to have befallen the stone carrying a high relief decorative pattern standing against the far wall next to the figure of the warrior. A strip up the lower right hand side of the pattern has been carved away, to allow "John Lammont" to reuse the stone long after it was originally carved.
While in Kilmartin Churchyard make sure you look out for the exceptional stones that can still be found in situ on or in the ground, some of which are every bit as fine as those protected in the lapidarium.