Towards the bottom of the Craignish peninsula, but not quite at the tip of it, lies an old ruined chapel. Rather confusingly, it bears several names, including Kirkton, Kilvaree, Kilmolroy, and Kilmory.  While the first has a Norse element in ‘kirk’, the last three are Gaelic, and come from the same saint-name: St Máel Ruba or Maelrubha of Applecross, a 7th century missionary of Irish descent. ‘Rubha’ means ‘red’, suggesting that this wandering missionary may have been red-haired.

We ventured down there one day at the end of March, when the landscape was still washed in wintry tones of brown. The gorse was coming into flower, but snow lay on the mountains of Mull to the west, and a keen wind was whipping down the loch.

The old painted sign on the gate said ‘Sculptured Stones’, which was promising, so I wandered around to the entrance of the chapel and stepped inside. The building is roofless, but a shelter has been erected over the western end, and a number of medieval gravestones are leaning against the walls. In the grassy nave, recumbent stones are embedded in the grass, and flanking the side walls are four tomb-chests with elaborate carving and broken lids. Upright gravestones mark more recent burials; around these, clumps of snowdrops were flowering, and daffodils were in bud.

Tomb-chests: the names of those buried here are lost to history

According to the information signs, the stones at the west end were all carved locally, and date from the 15th or 16th century; one smaller stone, immediately by the door, bears a much-eroded simple cross and could be several hundred years older. All these stones once covered the graves of local men and their families. They are decorated with swords and figures of warriors in armour, surrounded by elaborate patterns and knotwork – fine tributes to status and valour in battle.

Lying on the ground was an intriguing flat stone with a slot in it and the faint trace of a sundial carved on its surface; I learned that this was the base for a freestanding cross, which I imagine might have been similar to the ones at Kilmory Knap and Ardchattan. I assume that this one has sadly been lost.

Kilvaree (I’ll use the local name as it’s less confusing) is thought to date from around 1200, and it is built along the lines of other chapels from the same era that are dotted around the west coast of Argyll – simple, rectangular, with narrow arched windows. There are aumbries or small alcoves on either side of where the altar once stood. I’m guessing that the roof would have originally been of turf or thatch, and the walls possibly lime-harled. The surrounding graveyard is enclosed by a stone wall, and the whole site has sweeping views across Loch Craignish.

St Maelrubha and Kilvaree

There are chapels dedicated to St Maelrubha in Ross-shire, Sutherland, Skye, Banffshire, Fife, and Kintyre. This suggests that he must have done a lot of travelling, but perhaps his reputation preceded him: one source describes him as ‘the most popular Celtic saint in Scotland’.  He is known as St Maelrubha of Applecross, because this is where he established a monastery.

The ‘kil’ or ‘cille’ element of the place-name means ‘cell’, as in a hermit’s cell, which has often evolved into a church. The second part, in all its variations, shows how the name of Maelrubha has been pronounced over the centuries.  I would say that ‘Kilvaree’ is a phonetic spelling.

From Saints in Scottish Place-names, here are some variants:

Kilmolroy – 1581, RMS*
Kilmolrow – 1617, RMS*
Kilmolrou – 1654, Blaeu
Cill Mairi – 1875, Ordnance Survey

*RMS: Registrum magni sigilli, or Register of the Great Seal of Scotland

Among the local families buried at Kilvaree are Campbells, MacDougalls, and McLartys

In 1692 the chapel was abandoned in favour of a preaching house at Ardfern, located where the current church now stands. However, burials still take place in Kilvaree’s quiet graveyard.

From here, the narrow road winds its way south and west, following the shore of Loch Craignish past cottages with pretty gardens, and curving around pebbly beaches fringed with ash, birch, rowan and hazel. Down on the windswept tip is an old jetty with an abandoned storehouse, the headland giving fine views across to the islands in the west. There are few trees down here, and even the turf has been whipped and sculpted around the underlying rocks to create strange shapes. On most days you can expect to have your hair wildly re-arranged.

Reference & further reading:

The Craignish Men of Argyll’s 1685 Uprising’: For an interesting in-depth history of some Craignish families and their involvement in a 17th century uprising, take a look at this post by Colin MacDonald, whose McLarty ancestors are buried at Kilvaree.

You might have noticed that there was another sign on the gate, saying ‘Commonwealth War Graves’.  The two recorded graves at Kilvaree are listed on the website of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

More chapels with sculptured stones:

Kilmory Knap
Keills, Knapdale
Ardchattan Priory on Loch Etive

Photos copyright © Jo Woolf