The coming of the Callander and Oban Railway in the late 1870s opened up what had previously been the largely deserted north shore of Loch Awe. The island of Innis Chonain, close to the shore, was purchased by Walter Campbell, who then built a house there for himself, his sister and his mother.
The nearest church was at Dalmally, a long journey for the elderly Mrs Campbell. Walter Campbell therefore decided to build a church in a more convenient location, and picked a site on the steep north shore of Loch Awe. St Conan's Kirk was born.
The original St Conan's Kirk was built between 1881 and 1886, and comprised the nave and part of the choir of the later church that visitors see today. Walter Campbell had grander plans, however, and in 1907 he began work on a much more ambitious church.
Walter worked on this until his death in 1914, and his sister Helen ran the project from 1918 until her death in 1927. The church was completed by their trustees. All the stone used to build St Conan's came from boulders on nearby hillsides that were rolled to the site before being worked.
The new St Conan's Kirk was first used for worship in 1930. It is magnificent, beautiful, remarkable, eccentric and just a little bizarre. Walter Campbell did not design the church to conform to any particular style. Rather he took ideas and designs from different places and periods and produced something that serves as a collection of the best or most interesting features drawn from many other churches.
There are convenient laybys on both sides of the A85 as it passes St Conan's Kirk. From the road the surrounding trees largely obscure the kirk, so your first real sight as you approach is a close one. The first door you come to leads via the tower into the nave, but the best way into the kirk is via the door leading into one of St Conan's many surprises, the Cloister Garth. Once a common feature before the dissolution of the monasteries this miniature cloister is a real gem.
From the cloister you can pass through a lovely arch to the north aisle of the kirk, and from there to the nave and the chancel. The detail is so exquisite and varied it is difficult to take in easily. Depending on the light, one of the most magnificent views within the kirk is down the chancel to the apse with its tall clear windows, some of which carry through to the roof. Standing alone in the apse is the oak communion table.
The larger spaces within the kirk are balanced by a selection of smaller chapels, including St Conval's Chapel and St Bride's Chapel off the South Aisle. Further west is the Bruce Chapel. This is notable for a larger than life sized effigy of Robert the Bruce, carved from wood with an alabaster face and hands. With light coming through the windows behind, the face and hands gain a translucence that gives the effigy a very life-like appearance. Below the effigy is a small chamber containing a bone of Robert the Bruce, brought here from Dunfermline Abbey.
A door from the South Aisle leads out to the upper level of the gardens that extend downwards and outwards from the south side of the church towards Loch Awe. These offer views over the loch, but they are most interesting for the views they offer of St Conan's splendidly eccentric south side.
And when admiring the overall melange of spires, towers and turrets, keep a look out for the incredible detail. The metal rabbits' heads used as spouts in the drainage system are our favourites, though the carved stone owls come a close second.
St Conan's Kirk is a highlight of any tour of the area. But if you do pay a visit, remember that this is somewhere truly unique, and somewhere that both needs and deserves your contribution to its upkeep.