Kilmory Knap is a little settlement on the edge of Loch Sween, Argyll, Scotland, a loch whose shores have been inhabited for many centuries. There are remains of several Iron Age forts along its coast, and Castle Sween is one of the earliest stone castles in Scotland.
Kilmory Knap was, in early medieval times, the focal point of a thriving settlement that was under the protection of Castle Sween. The only upstanding building of that period is the chapel, which was probably constructed about 700 years ago and would have served as the parish church for the locality. It has small round-headed windows, which are characteristic of that time. In addition, it has now been fitted with a glass roof, set below the wall-heads, which protects a remarkable series of carved stones found in the surrounding graveyard.
Some of these stones are upwards of a thousand years old, simple crosses of a wide variety of forms. Most of the others are grave slabs dating from the 14th and 15th centuries. Some are worn, but many are well preserved, and of a high standard of craftsmanship and
design. They are carved from a grey-green stone that outcrops further up the loch. Careful study has shown that they belong to two main groups, one of which is believed to have been made locally and the other on the island of lona. Some are carved with the figures of men in armour and of clergymen while one represents a layman in civilian dress. Most, however, are carved with crosses, and with decorative motifs and symbols. The symbols include hand tools used by smiths, and wood and textile workers, as well as swords and boxes. One depicts a giant pair of the type of shears used to crop the nap of a piece of woollen cloth. The symbolism, taken with the few inscriptions, strongly suggests that at Kilmory there was a prosperous group of skilled craftsmen, probably working for the lords of the Isles, making fine cloth, wooden and metal goods, as well as carving crosses and grave slabs.
The most spectacular carving in the chapel is MacMillan's Cross, a very fine and well-preserved slab cross believed to have been carved locally, probably in the 1470s. It bears on one side a crucifixion scene, one of the few to have survived the Reformation. On the other is a remarkable depiction of a hunting scene, with a deer being brought down by dogs of two different breeds to the command of a huntsman with a horn. There is also some interlace work of a late and rather crude kind, and a Latin inscription that may be translated as 'This is the cross of Alexander MacMillan.' MacMillan was the keeper of Castle Sween, under the lords of the Isles, in the 1470s.
Kilmory Knap, its chapel and stones, may lack the obvious glamour of a great castle or abbey. Properly read, however, it imparts much information about life in the western Highlands and Islands 500 and more years ago. The chapel still has an air of peace and the fine design and craftsmanship of the stones give as much pleasure today as they must have done when they were first carved.
Kilmory Knap Chapel, A typical small church of the West Highlands, unicameral and with a pair of round arched east windows. There is an assemblage of late medieval sculptured stones in the chapel and in the kirkyard Macmillan's Cross. Located in South Knapdale, on the shore between Loch Sween and Loch Caolisport.
To Tour Argyll