Just a stone’s throw from the Lerags Cross is the lovely ruined church and graveyard of Kilbride, traditional resting place of the MacDougalls…

You really have to be looking for Kilbride Kirk in order to find it, but that’s part of its charm.  From the single-track road that snakes its way down towards Loch Feochan, a farm track doubles back to the left, and in a few seconds you find yourself by the church gate, looking up at the graveyard on a slightly raised patch of ground, beneath some trees.  It was late June, and everything was lush and green, with oxeye daisies and dog roses weaving a wild garden around the ruins.

How long has there been a church at Kilbride? It’s impossible to say with any certainty. A church dedicated to St Bride may have been erected here in the 5th century by early Christian missionaries from Ireland. (The ‘kil’ element in place-names denotes a church, and originally described a hermit’s cell).  St Bride’s feast day is Candlemas – 1st February. I love to think of her as the ‘coming of the light’, bringing new hope after the darkness of winter.

Any traces of that 5th century church have long since disappeared.  The ruins that stand in this quiet little spot date from 1706, although it is known that they replaced an earlier building of the 13th century; a few of the gravestones date from that time.
This was once an important centre of worship, attracting a congregation from many miles around.  Residents of the Isle of Kerrera would sail across to Gallanach and walk along the old drove road to the church.  In 1249, as he lay dying on Kerrera, Alexander II signed a document that transferred the main seat of the Diocese of Argyll from St Moluag’s church on Lismore to the church at Kilbride – although this was never put into practice.

“Kilbride was the main parish for Lorn until the 18th century, and was the site of a piping school and learning centre for the sons of Argyll’s clan chiefs from the Middle Ages.” (friendsofkilbride.scot)

Kilbride is a traditional burial ground of the MacDougalls, and many successive clan chiefs from the 18th century onwards are laid to rest in the unroofed burial aisle adjacent to the church. Among the occupants is the Jacobite chief, Iain Ciar (Dark John) MacDougall who died in 1737.

The clan MacDougall (from the Gaelic dubh-gall or ‘black stranger’) takes its name from Dougall, one of the sons of Somerled, a 12th century warrior of possible Norse-Gaelic descent. On his death, Somerled’s territories in western Scotland and the islands were divided among his sons, and Dougall’s share included land in the Firth of Lorn.

MacDougall strongholds are scattered up and down the coast of Argyll; among them are Dunstaffnage and Dunollie near Oban, and Castle Coeffin on the Isle of Lismore. Somerled’s grandson, Duncan MacDougall, founded Ardchattan Priory on Loch Etive in 1230.

MacDougall crest above the entrance to the burial aisle 

More recent burials in an area adjoining the aisle

Graves outside the McDougall aisle – among them are MacArthurs and McCullochs

Where they stand under trees, the stones have a rich growth of mosses. The ground underfoot is soft and damp, making no sound as you tread carefully around the graves. Some stones attest to the loss of many children; you read the simple inscriptions and your heart catches at the unwritten words.  Yet this didn’t strike me as a sad place, or at least it was hard to be sad with birds in full song and foxgloves nodding against the broken walls. It’s quiet, but not eerily so – in fact there’s a deep sense of comfort.

The graves of a blacksmith’s family, enclosed by a chain of horseshoes

I was curious to know about the connection between the MacDougalls of Kilbride and the nearby Lerags Cross, which was erected by a Campbell in 1516.  When did the transfer of land ownership take place?  The answer makes a tangled and blood-stained story that would probably take several hours to tell beside a roaring log fire on a dark winter’s night!  Scott MacDougald of the Clan MacDougall Society of North America has very kindly explained the complexities of it, and I will try to summarise them here.

Dunstaffnage Castle

During the Wars of Independence the MacDougalls opposed Robert the Bruce, and were defeated by him at the Pass of Brander in 1309.  Confiscated MacDougall lands were distributed among Bruce’s Campbell allies… but a reversal in fortune was partly brought about by Bruce’s son, David II, who returned some of the MacDougall lands, including Dunstaffnage Castle, to John ‘Gallda‘ MacDougall, and made him Lord of Lorn.  But John MacDougall died without male heirs, and his daughters married Stewarts;  thus the Lordship of Lorn passed to the Stewart family.

Dunstaffage Chapel

In 1463 John Stewart was murdered by Alan MacCoul, a renegade member of the MacDougall clan, on his way to his own wedding at Dunstaffnage Chapel.  John Stewart’s three daughters had married Campbells;  his wedding was an attempt to legitimise his only son, Dugald, born out of wedlock.  John sealed his wedding vows with his dying breath, but the dispute continued.  After several years of bitter feuding, culminating in 1468 at the Battle of An Stalc at Portnacroish in Appin, the lands of Lorn were divided between a new branch of Stewarts – the Stewarts of Appin – and Walter Stewart, brother of the murdered John.  In 1470 Walter Stewart’s portion, which included the lands of Lerags, was acquired by the Campbells of Lochawe.

The Friends of Kilbride are a team of volunteers dedicated to preserving the heritage of Kilbride kirk and graveyard. Restoration work aims to keep bracken and brambles at bay and preserve old grave markers for the benefit of future generations. Find out more at friendsofkilbride.scot

Sources & reference

With grateful thanks to Scott MacDougald of the Clan MacDougall Society of North America

Images copyright © Colin & Jo Woolf