Divided by the wide expanse of Loch Caolisport, Knapdale in Argyll is a landscape of low wooded hills, windswept areas of rough grassland and bracken, and patches of peat bog with reedy lochans.
The country is gentle and muted, with the sea not far away in either direction; prone to mists and fine drizzle, its mild climate allows lichen and mosses to run riot. The old oak trees are alive with songbirds in spring and summer, and the woodland floor is speckled with the white stars of wood sorrel and windflowers.
A minor road with passing places threads its way around the sea lochs, taking you through a number of villages that consist of nothing more than a few low-roofed cottages overlooking the shore. You might not see a soul, and you might not even meet a car; there’s a sense of going back in time, but it’s more subtle even than that, almost as if the past and present are one and the same: like the ivy that smothers the crumbling walls of abandoned bothies, blurring the lines, blending the living with the dead.
It was in this pleasant trance-like state, as we were driving around Knapdale a couple of years ago, that I glimpsed a roadside sign bearing the words ‘Kilberry Sculptured Stones’. This woke me up, because it is the kind of sign I like to see.
As we headed up the narrow track we felt a little as though we were trespassing, because in fact this lane is also the private driveway of Kilberry Castle. However, there is a small car park for visitors, and another sign which points reassuringly to ‘The Stones’.
We certainly didn’t have to walk far to see them: neatly arranged and lined up, protected by a specially-designed building that shelters them from the worst of the weather, are enough wonderfully carved grave slabs to satisfy the most stone-hungry traveller.
The oldest examples are fragments, incised with simple crosses, and these date from the early Christian period – in other words, the sixth or seventh centuries AD. Apparently there was an ancient church nearby, of which nothing now remains; this was dedicated to St Berchan, a little-known Irish missionary whose name has mutated through Beryan and Berry to form part of the present name of the village: Kilberry, or the church (in Gaelic, ‘cille’) of St Berchan.
The information sign put up by Historic Scotland tells us:
“The church’s burial ground may lie beneath the bowling green [of the Castle] as human bones were recovered during work on a drain beneath the green in the 1920s.”
The early grave markers at Kilberry are contemporary with the beautiful stones of a similar design at Kilmory Knap (Kilmory meaning ‘the church of St Maelrubha’) which lies a few miles to the north.
700 years stand between these simple stones and their larger neighbours, which are described as ‘fine examples of late medieval carving’. The much-eroded effigies of two knights in armour draw the eye, resting negligently against the wall of their shelter as if waiting for a bus that will never come. According to Historic Scotland, there is “…one named John, son of Mauritius. Mauritius is a Latinised form of the Gaelic name Muiredach or Murchad. It was common amongst the MacMurachies, who are reputed to have held Kilberry at one time.”
The surfaces of the effigies have been worn smooth, and I could not see any inscriptions revealing their identity, so I can only assume they have been lost since the words were recorded.
“According to the practice of the time, the dead man’s sword would be laid on the stone. Its outline would be incised and chiselled. The carving would thus reflect precisely the dimensions, shape and style of the original weapon.”
Baigent and Leigh, ‘The Temple and the Lodge’
The above description refers to a custom among medieval Templar knights. I have already mentioned the presence of Templar-like symbols on stones at Kilmory Knap Chapel. I think I can detect a similar ‘cross pattée’ here at Kilberry, on a stone that looks very much like a marker singled out by historians Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh as being indicative of a Templar site.
“Templar churches invariably had a cross either carved above the entrance or standing freely outside. The cross, whether simple or embellished, was always of distinctive design – equal-armed, with the end of each arm wider than its base. Inside the chapel of Kilmory stood just such a cross, dating from before the fourteenth century. Had this cross been found anywhere else in Europe, no one would have had any hesitation in recognising it as Templar and ascribing the chapel to the Order.”
Here is the marker at Kilmory Knap, to which the authors are referring:
The presence of Knights Templar in such a remote part of the Scottish coast is perhaps not as unlikely as it first appears: it has a lot to do with Ireland, Pope Clement V, illegal weaponry, and Robert the Bruce. It’s a totally fascinating story, and I will refer you to my earlier article on Kilmory Knap Chapel if you want to know more!
Set into a recess in the central wall of the shelter is the Kilberry Cross. Dating from the 14th or 15th century, this is the centrepiece of the exhibition, but you might be forgiven for passing it by. It doesn’t look like a cross at all, and this is because only the shaft remains: the cross-head could be buried in any of the surrounding woods or fields.
But we still have much to look at in the cross shaft. Standing just over three feet tall, it is both a work of art and a snapshot of medieval life. On one side it is embellished with inter-twined stems and foliage, at the base of which are what Historic Scotland describes as “a pair of back-to-back prancing lions”. These have been eroded so much that it requires a certain degree of imagination to appreciate them. Here is a photo of the Historic Scotland sign, which shows them in better detail (white background, right-hand stone).
The other side is even more intriguing. Carved at the bottom is a warrior astride a rearing horse, and the figure above him looks like a bishop wearing a robe and mitre. At the top is a third figure, partly eroded, holding an archbishop’s staff. (I am relying on Historic Scotland for the last details, because the top figure is so badly damaged).
Who is the man on horseback? Based on the story of MacMillan’s Cross, my theory is that this monument might have been erected by a local chieftain or landowner – perhaps one of the MacMurachies – who is portrayed as the mounted warrior being blessed with good fortune by the clergymen.
It is obvious that the stones have been removed from their original locations, but where were they found? The Campbell family still owns nearby Kilberry Castle, which includes a much earlier tower house in its Victorian structure. According to the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, the sculptured slabs had been “…recovered from walls or hearths by former lairds; some were found in a bridge to the gardens.”
A family mausoleum was built in the Castle grounds in 1735, and some of the grave slabs and markers were incorporated into the walls of this building.
And here is where history, folklore and tragedy meet. The RCAHMS goes on to say:
“There is a strong local tradition of a ‘monastery’ here, and ‘an old building where the monks ate, with stone seats in it’ was remembered as standing east of the castle, by an old man in 1913. This was blown up in 1849 for use as building material.”
Of course, just to seal the mystery, “No documentary evidence of a monastery has been found…”
There’s something tantalising about the old man’s recollections, because they are unique and indisputable. In the case of Kilberry, they may be our only window into an ancient past that is now lost to living memory. This should be a lesson to us all: in this era of instant communication, we have abandoned the tradition of handing down stories from generation to generation. We have broken the thread. The Druids had it right after all.
There are over 20 carved stones at Kilberry, including the cross-shaft, and they were moved to their present site in the 1950s. There is free admission if you wish to go and see them, but as far as I know, there is no public access to the Castle or the mausoleum.
Visiting the sculptured stones at Kilberry is a different experience from, say, opening the door to Kilmory Knap Chapel and being quietly awe-struck by its contents. There’s no lingering atmosphere of reverence, despite the fact that you are likely to have the place all to yourself.
But there is a deep and natural tranquillity, and that is more to do with the character of Knapdale; a hermit looking for isolation and solace would still find it here.
In the 7th century, what on earth inspired the likes of St Berchan, St Brendan, St Columba and their contemporaries to take the daring step of forging a new life for themselves across the Irish Sea? Was it really a determined bid to convert the Picts to Christianity? The alluring chance to become a saint of their time? To see their name in an illuminated manuscript? Or was there something more? This is something I’ve always been fascinated to know.
- Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland
- Historic Scotland
- Scotland’s Places
- Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, ‘The Temple and the Lodge’
Photos copyright © Colin & Jo Woolf
You might like to take a look at these features about Kilmory Knap Chapel on Loch Sween, just a few miles (by water) away from Kilberry.
The first feature looks at the ancient chapel itself, which sits on a headland above the wonderful white sands of Kilmory Bay and contains some of the most incredible carved grave slabs I have ever seen…
…while the second feature takes a longer look at the interesting stories behind some of the stones, including the impressive MacMillan’s Cross.