Why Keills Chapel in Knapdale may be Scotland’s best kept secret!

Some secrets are just too good to keep to yourself. And Keills Chapel in Knapdale, mid Argyll is one of them. Not just because of its beautiful location, but because it contains a sculptural feast of almost 40 carved stones, ranging in date from the 8th to the 16th century. We can’t help but spill the beans…

Let’s start with the location. It’s well off the beaten track, situated six miles south west of Tayvallich off the B8025. The chapel sits on a peninsula that stretches out along the west side of Loch Sween. From here the views of the sea loch and of the inner Hebridean islands of Islay and Jura are simply stunning.

Now for the chapel itself. With its simple rectangular shape, the chapel is similar to many built in the Western Highlands. It dates from the 13th century, but it’s thought that people began worshipping here in the 8th century. Did it have any connection with St Columba - the Irish saint who set sail from Derry in 563 to found his monastery on the Scottish island of Iona? As with nearby Kilmory Knap Chapel (also worth a visit) across Loch Sween, there’s no direct link proven. Keills Chapel is dedicated to St Cormac. On Eileen Mor, one of the MacCormaig Isles situated near the entrance to Loch Sween just a few miles from Keills, you’ll find St Cormac’s Cave, Chapel and Cross.

And finally the carved stones. The highlight must be the Keills Cross, a free-standing, ring-headed high cross, carved from blue slate that stands 2 metres tall. It dates from the late 8th or early 9th century. The cross is carved on one side only. Four lions surround a central circular boss with St Michael represented above and a seated saint sitting below, at the top of the shaft. Below there are panels of interlaced decorations and leaf scrolls. What is perhaps most fascinating about this cross is that it was most likely made by a craftsman from Iona, where three more fine high crosses can be seen.

There are other intriguing graveslabs and crosses on display inside the chapel. Many are carved with decorative patterns. You’ll find examples from all five ‘schools’ of sculptors working for West Highland patrons in the later Middle Ages (1300s—1500s). These sculptors worked in Knapdale as well as at Iona, Loch Awe, Kintyre and Loch Sween. Look out for the grave-slab depicting a harp (similar to the Queen Mary Harp in the Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh).

When you’ve finished finished exploring the chapel, continue along the road to the end of the peninsula. You’ll reach an old Thomas Telford pier from where you can enjoy the most amazing views of the Paps of Jura. It’s the perfect spot for a picnic. Keep your eyes peeled for otters!

So now the secret’s out, who are you going to tell about Keills Chapel in Knapdale?