Scottish Gothic Churches and Abbeys

The Western church and Irish influence: Iona, Dunstaffnage and Skipness

The unification of Scotland's mainland and the Europeanisation of its monarchy and church led to challenges to Scandinavian rule established since the 10th century in the Islands between Scotland and Ireland; the establishing of relatively powerful chieftains/warlords in Argyll and the Isles, both of which became increasingly detached from Man and Sodor (Argyll) and Nidharos (the Isles), though their sees were unsettled and very impoverished. Somerled conquered Kintyre from the Norse but was himself killed in battle against King Malcolm IV at Renfrew in 1164.

Although elements of Roman church structure were developed from this period, dioceses and a few monastic settlements, most were modest, and little architectural structure survives at most of the monastic sites, with the notable exceptions of Iona and Kingarth, Bute. Saddell (Cistercian) was founded from the substantial Irish house of Mellifont, but its church was relatively simple and has disappeared; Ardchattan (Valliscaulian) and Oronsay (Augustinian) preserve some details of aisleless churches, the latter only a single-celled structure, whose most distinctive feature is a 14th-century cloister walk of triangular-gabled openings.

The island of Iona lies at the heart of the Christian traditions of the British Isles, the SouthEast of England apart, an early missionary foundation of the Irish church which had in turn evangelised Scotland and Lindisfarne. Little evidence remains from its early history, however, other than stretches of its large perimeter embankment and some archeological finds. A later Benedictine monastery occupied the site as part of the gradual suppression of the Irish religious tradition alongside the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland itself and the Europeanisation of Scotland's political and church structures in the 12th century.

The Isle of Bute belonged to a see set up in the wake of the Norse invasions on the Isle of Man for several centuries, although given its strategic and economic importance at the centre of the Clyde estuary this was long contested. Worse, this see also claimed Iona itself. Not surprisingly, given the history of the British Isles, it was claimed by the English Church as a part of the see of Peel under York jurisdiction, and therefore spent centuries in juridical limbo.

Earlier than most of the surviving monuments on Iona is a comparable but more modest foundation on the Isle of Bute, associated with St. Blane in the late 6th century, and clearly sustaining monastic life well into the 12th century when the church was rebuilt. Early crosses and the circular raised enclosure of the site clearly indicate a Celtic monastic origin. The parish at Kingarth at the South of Bute has been considered the only one early enough to be associated with the gift of the parishes to the recent Cluniac foundation at Paisley by Alan FitzWalter in 1204, specifying the site as the lands assigned to it by St. Blane himself. It is clear that the chancel dates to the 13th century, but the body of the church, nave and chancel arch, appear to be unmistakably 12th-century work of a very high quality, i.e., not at all retardataire, though the chevroned chancel arch is clearly closer to the simpler 2-order Irish designs than to the Durham tradition of the East of Scotland. A prominent string-course on the exterior, unusually, articulates the Nave exterior, as well as similar courses on the interior of the nave and the exterior of the chancel. the clear articulation of the church as two separate bodies, or a development as such separate elements, distinguishes this building form purely parocchial chapel/churches elsewhere, together with the fine ashlar blocks of which it is composed, totally different from the rubble walls at the core of most Scottish parish churches.

Bute St. Blane, church enclose Bute St. Blane, church from the East Bute St. Blane, church interior to the East Bute St. Blane, church, presbytery

One feature that is probably by Irish masons is the reset SW door of Whithorn Cathedral, clearly always a major entrance into what was originally probably a simple rectangular church like the surviving 13th/15th-century nave (week 7c). Whithorn had a major role in the introduction of Christianity into Scotland probably long before St. Columba. By the time of this late rebuilding its allegiance however was to the English metropolitan of York much later than elsewhere in Scotland. The breadth of the archway, its shallow chevron, the light incised carving of the capitals and odd details such as the quatrefloils on them, their chip-carved abaci, and the rather dumpy proportions of the columns in relation to their capitals and bases all distinguish this from the Durham-Dunfermline tradition of the East cost.

Argyll is notable, however, for several substantial castles and a few surviving chapels, associated with the Castles of the MacSween, Dunstaffnage and Skipness. Here, as at Iona, the strong ties of the area with Ireland are occasionally evident in their architecture.

The MacSween were lords of Knapdale with other lands in Ireland, until dispossessed in Scotland for supporting England in the War of Independence, when the Stewarts acquired Knapdale. Castle Sween, a well-built rectangular enclosure built by Suibhne in the late 12th century dominates Loch Sween from the East, looking towards the contemporary parish church at Keills on the West bank. This has a small round-headed East window, a couple of small straight-headed openings in the South wall, a lintelled door and another window opening in the North Wall, without other features, though it now houses an important collection of crosses and tomb-slabs. The lintelled windows and door are the result of repair and may have been round-headed. This and a slightly later chapel on Eilean Mor were dedicated to the Irish St. Abban moccu Cormaic.

Keills church exterior from NW Keills church exterior, east wall Keills church interior to East

Somewhat later the church at Kilmory Knapp to the South of Castle Sween was built or rebuilt with two larger East windows, facing similar windows lighting the altar from the North and South, and a second window and SE door in the South wall. These were recessed inside and out, and the door had two orders of roll-mouldings, the inner ones keeled, the outer ones now replaced with round shafts larger than their bases. The doorway and window facings gave the chapel some modest refinement. It was given to Kilwinning Abbey (Ayrshire) as dedicated to St. Mary, but local tradition claims St. Maelrubha, the apostle of Applecross, as its real dedicatee.

Kilmory Knapp church exterior from SE Kilmory Knapp church exterior from NE Kilmory Knapp, church entrance Kilmory Knapp, church interior to East

Ardchattan Priory was founded by Duncan MacDougall, Lord of Lorn, around 1230; the MacDougall's also built Dunstaffnage Castle and its Chapel in the same period, controlling the mouth of Loch Etive separating the two sites. His choice of order for Archattan is unusual, but not uncommon in Scotland at this period: the Valliscaulians were exceptionally austere Carthusians devoted to spiritual life rather than the manual labour emphasised by St. Benedict and funded by rents and tithes. These were probably modest in Lorne. The Order is confined to France, Germany and Highland Scotland, another similar house at Beauly (Inverness) and a larger one at Pluscarden (Moray). Ardchattan priory is largely destroyed, but the base of the walls of the chancel including an unusual aracaded piscina, a 16th-century pulpitum set in the crossing, its arches, and a window in the N transept survive, together with several tombslabs.

The chapel near to the Castle at Dunstaffnage is the finest example of the Irish-dominated Western Scottish 13th-century church architecture, Iona apart, and with the Iona nunnery the best preserved example of a group of Argyll churches built almost certainly by the same masons. Although ruined, it has sufficient features to allow useful archeological analysis of its original form. It is a long rectangle with a chancel richly illuminated and articulated by twin arches to its East, North and South faces; only the outer edges of the Eastern lights remains, perhaps robbed for the burial aisle added beyond in 1740. Similar windows enriched the church at Killean in Kintyre. Each corner of the building is marked by a vertical roll set against a chamfer, as at Ardchattan, Killean church and the Iona Nunnery; those at the East end were largely stripped out when the burial aisle was keyed into them. [Note that although the lower SW sections are recut or replaced, the upper ones are original; only the upper part of the NE shaft is now visible, but its vertical break shows that they occurred at the East too]

Dunstaffnage Castle Dunstaffnage Castle Dunstaffnage Castle

Dunstaffnage Castle Dunstaffnage Castle Dunstaffnage Castle

The church was probably entered by the castle's lords through a richly hooded portal at the SW, with a North door opposite, as well as a smaller South chancel door for the priest. Such an elaborate set of entrances is unusual in a Scottish church of this size and undoubtedly reflects, with the enrichments, the importance of Dunstaffnage, the most elaborate of the earlier castles of Argyll.

Dunstaffnage, Castle exterior

Nibbed colonnettes and bases, flanked by an order of round ones, framed the North door: their bases survive, and there is a fragment of the richly moulded canopy over the South door. There is no sign of any attached sacristy or other outbuildings for the priest at this site.

Dunstaffnage Castle Dunstaffnage Castle

Dunstaffnage Castle Dunstaffnage Castle

The chancel windows were set in round-headed wide splayed recesses, a double arch stepped back beyond the framing nook shafts and framed by dog-tooth; there is a continuous moulding round each window arch; the windows themselves are pointed. Their heads, however, are cut out of a single block or a pair of them instead of being composed of voussoirs. The Castle has similar windows, even 2 pointed lights cut from a single block.

Dunstaffnage, Castle, detail of window arches

This monolithic construction is typical of Irish building of the Romanesque and early Gothic periods; continuous mouldings, implying openings in the wall plane rather than Classical arches on capitals and bases, have a similar effect. The latter are typical of Western English architecture from Glastonbury Abbey and Wells Cathedral of the late 12th century on to Bristol around 1300, and their masons were responsible for the two cathedrals in Dublin. This is likely to be a two-way relationship between Western England, Wales (St. David's Cathedral and Llandaff belong to the same tradition of architecture) and Ireland. In Lorne it is undoubtedly the work of Irish masons or their influence.

The nave was lit by a single round-headed lancet on the South side beyond the priest's door perhaps with a partner in the lost section of wall to the North. A screen of some kind probably stood inside between this window and the chancel door. All the windows stand on a continuous string course that unites the whole of the interior at sill-height, a very unusual enrichment or articulation for a small Scottish church.

The Eastern lancets were distinguished by a finer dog-tooth moulding on either side of the main continuous roll-moulding. The capitals also vary, hollowed below traces of foliage (NW, SE?), a hollow pyramid form which painted or lightly incised foliage may have been lost (N Centre) and round moulded rings of common English and Scottish type (S Centre). The SE upper nook shaft survives: they were constructed of two detached shafts with a ring coursed into the wall between them at half the height of the recess.

Small 13th century chapels with 2 East windows and one or two lancet windows set in their side walls were widely built throughout Scotland. Only the earliest examples in the West use monolithic arch-heads. Abdie (Fife) shows a richer version of this small church layout with 3 East lancets and buttresses articulating the East end of the church. But in England by this date most parish churches not only had a separate chancel compartment but usually an aisle or a pair of aisles giving some suggestion at the least of a basilical design.


Although a Cathedral of Argyll was established in 1183/88 it is not recorded on Lismore until the 1220s. Fawcett gives 1225 as a date by which it was established, 1249 as a date when a change of diocescan site was proposed, and the later 14th century as the date of its college of perhaps 12 canons. The present structure is a modest box currently assumed to be 14th-15th century in date, though MacGibbon and Ross considered it to have built soon after the establishment of the see. The surviving details are certainly all of 13th-century style, except perhaps the angular heads of the South door's headstops, but other mannerisms may result form a later revival of the Early Gothic style.

The original cathedral of the Isles was at Peel on the Isle of Man from the 13th century, but as the Scottish part was detached a modest cathedral appears to have been created on the River Snizort in North Skye, replaced briefly in the 17th century by the Benedictine abbey of Iona. The Scottish diocese does not appear to have had an established body of canons to serve its centre.

It is the ancient Colomban monastery of Iona, founded in 565, which has left the only substantial foundation of the Middle Ages in the West, and even this is now almost entirely the recreation of the later Benedictine refoundation by Reginald, son of Somerled, circa 1200. The abbey was accompanied, however, by an Augustinian nunnery nearby, as well as a parish church and a pilgrim's chapel.

Iona, general view

The monumental record of the early history of the site is confined to the 4 great Crosses and the associated School of carved crosses elsewhere in the region. First of these is the 8th-century cross of St. Oran, found in the associated Chapel probably built by Somerled +1164. Two other 8th-century crosses of St. John, with extraordinarily wide arms that needed reinforcing with a stone circle and still failed structurally, and of St. Martin, survive. The three of them are closely associated with the artistic style of the Book of Kells: the majority of the monks retired to Kells (County Meath) in Ireland in the face of the Viking invasions in the late 9th century. From the 9th/10th century is the fragmentary Cross of St. Matthew. St. Martin's Cross appears to be by the carvers of the Kildalton Cross on Islay and part of the main school of carving in the region to which a cross at Keills also belongs.

Iona Cross

The monastery survived the Viking period, but only a small chapel-type structure attached to the West front of the present abbey/cathedral church ('St. Columba's Shrine') recalls the Columban period. Only a metre of its walls survives from the 9th/10th century, the upper parts, vertical proportions and narrow doorway representing 20th-century views of what it should have looked like, plausible but not confirmed by hard evidence. However, it has traces of the stone antae projecting on either side, thought to derive from timber construction into Irish stone churches of the 9th/10th centuries.

Iona, façade with shrine

St. Oran's Chapel was probably built by Somerled +1164, or by his son Reginald, and used as burial chapel by his family. It is a simple rectangular chapel whose broad 2-order door arch can be compared, along with its overall proportions to contemporary Irish chapels: the round pellets of the hood-mould at the Nuns' Church, Clonmacnoise, and the vertically cut 'fascia-chevron' at Rahan, Offaly, for example. The chapel is lit with very narrow slit windows at the East end of the North and South walls only. It contains an elaborate tomb recess, apparently intended to the first of a series, with a trefoiled ogee-head, culminating in a carving of the Crucifixion: this may be the work of John or Angus Og, the Lord of the Isles and his son in the 1480s/90s: it represents the use of forms found in 14th-century English tombs at a much later date as part of the Franco-Flemish influences on Scottish architecture, though its proportions, broad mouldings shallowly cut, and the small recess in relation to the arch itself, are very provincial in comparison to continental work.

Iona Iona

The chapel of St. Michael, with a simpler Romanesque door than St. Oran's and windows replaced probably in the 15th century, is thought to be the first stage of the takeover of the monastery by the Benedictines, the subject of fierce protests by the Colomban community centred at Derry: according to the Annals of Ulster the refoundation took place in 1204 and was met with an attack by several Irish bishops and abbots, evidently without success. The chapel's dedication is recent but records an early one which perhaps belonged to this building.

Iona Iona

The present-day cathedral is in fact an abbey church, dedicated to St. Mary (the abbey retaining its older dedication to St. Columba), and largely, in its present form, a 15th-century building in which centuries of aspiration are combined, and to some extent buried.

Iona Iona

The abbey planned in 1204 had a short choir flanked by transepts with the shallowest of Eastern chapels with a niche between them: the Northern arm survives. this is in a heavy Transitional style, strongly but heavily articulated with round arched chapels and windows.


The early 13th-century church would have been a dark and essentially unaisled series of boxes, whereas the present church gives a strong impression of a basilica, though this is confined to the Eastern parts, which dominate a wide but simple nave, enlarged by the rebuilding of its South wall in the 15th century. Most of its North wall and the upper parts of the façade are the work of Peter MacGregor Chalmers, [one of the most important historicising and restoration architects of the period] who restored the church in 1908-10.

Iona, interior Iona, interior Iona, interior

Iona, interior Iona, interior Iona, interior

Iona, interior Iona, interior Iona, interior

Iona, interior Iona, interior Iona, interior

The abbey church today presents a genuine cathedral-like appearance, albeit modest in scale and confused in many areas. It was always a major church in comparison with others in the Western Isles and neighbouring areas of Argyll and the Western Highlands. Despite several major alterations and enlargements of its principal spaces, it also demonstrates a continuity of stone-working that crosses the major interruption of development on the island, probably related to the Wars of Independence, between the late 13th and late 15th centuries. By the conclusion of the work the autonomy and self-sufficiency of the whole region had been undermined by integration into the Lowland economy of an essentially unified Scotland.

Iona Iona

The Augustinian Nunnery was set up in the same period as the refounding of the Abbey, with a small church of St. Ronan next to it serving as a parish church for the local lay community. The Nunnery gives considerable insight into the original Transitional/Early Gothic architectural style of their builders, since the church has not been much altered except by the loss of its roofs and chancel vault and appears to have been completed earlier. It still has a round arcade to its North nave aisle, the South wall of the nave being closed by the cloister. Its clerestorey windows are set above the columns that carry the arcade, as in the Abbey Choir, an Irish or Scottish feature noted above. Their heads are still cut into moderately large blocks rather than formed of voussoirs; the small light in the North transeptal chapel is monolithic. with a rather later curved triangular window lighting the room above it, a modern feature that must mark the last stages of the campaign or a careful modification at the time of the 15th-century enlargement of the cloister and conventual buildings.

Iona Iona Iona

The capitals of the nave have a deep foliate design followed by a scalloped capital evolving into a vestigial stiff-leaf design, and a plain hollow-moulded bell. The way in which the string-course of the chancel rises and is stepped around the lost East window has a distinctly Western English or Irish effect.

Iona Iona

Iona Iona

The surviving North transeptal or choir-aisle chapel has the flat dog-tooth/billet mouldings to its arches, similar to the Abbey cloister and a lighter version of those appearing in the Abbey chapter-house and chancel; the triangular-headed East window of the chapel matches that appearing in the corresponding North aisle of the Abbey too, and also appears to be an authentic feature of the SE and reconstructed NE windows of St. Ronan's Church.


The simple box of which the latter is constructed makes for a telling comparison with the larger aisled and partially vaulted structures of its monastic neighbours, while confirming the architectural coherence of the three buildings as erected in the early 13th century. At the time all three would have impressed visitors from Western Scotland with their complexity and precision of structure as well as their use of decorative carving at crucial points in their articulation and furnishing, not to mention the numerous crosses and other carved slabs dating from 800 up to the 1500s, and the numerous oratories and chapels around or attached to St. Columba's Abbey itself.