Case Study: Faith in Cowal: a pilgrimage project and an early medieval cross

Case Study 12

Faith in Cowal: a pilgrimage project and an early medieval cross

Gilbert Márkus

The Cowal peninsula in southern Argyll suffers from a struggling economy and a declining and ageing population. This demographic is reflected in the life of the church: membership of the Church of Scotland is declining by about 5% per year, and this decline is set to accelerate in the near future. This means that parish churches will close (Inverchaolain and Sandbank churches will go soon), with consequences for associated historic carved stones. What will happen to them? How will they be preserved and made available to local people and visitors?

The Church’s Presbytery of Argyll has responded creatively to this rather bleak reality with a decision to explore new ways of ‘being church’. They realise that the landscape of Cowal has a rich early Christian and medieval history and archaeology, including carved stones at many sites. They also realise that some of their churches (which are generally kept unlocked) have many more visitors during the week than they have in their congregations on Sunday mornings. So they decided to promote ‘faith tourism’ or pilgrimage in the Cowal landscape, to attract visitors to the area and to help these visitors engage with the local communities and their churches.

In 2015 the Church of Scotland employed Gilbert Márkus for one year to research and exploit this landscape with a view to attracting such visitors, creating a website (www.faithincowal.org) and a series of leaflets help people find their way around the attractions and understand them. It is hoped to make St Munn’s Church, Kilmun (Cill Mhunnu) the hub of the wider and dispersed pilgrimage landscape. It is a 19th-century church with a 15th-century tower but in its cemetery lies an early medieval carved cross-slab, neglected and to a great extent unknown even to members of the parish. This shows that the church is centuries older than its earliest historical record (a charter of the 1230s or 1240s).

At the timing of writing in April 2016, this carved stone will shortly be brought into the church and mounted in a plinth in the sanctuary, some pews rearranged around it and a raking spotlight mounted nearby to pick out the detail of the carving. Booklets will be placed on adjacent pews inviting reflection on its history and its meaning.

A drawing of the stone has become the logo for the whole Faith in Cowal project. The same image has been printed as a large vinyl transparency and mounted on the glass door in the entrance to Kilmun church. So this particular stone, of all the many carved stones in Cowal, represents a pilgrimage landscape, and somehow embodies and expresses the hopes of the Cowal communities as they face an uncertain future.


Figure 1: Kilmun early mediaeval cross-slab. © Gilbert Márkus


Figure 2: The Faith in Cowal logo. © Gilbert Márkus


Figure 3: The transparency displayed in the interior of Kilmun church. © Gilbert Márkus