• Michael

#0034: Of Smoke And Stone

Updated: Jun 2, 2020

56.008233, -5.217916

It's a bright, autumn afternoon as I wander through the Clachan of Glendaruel. The ground is littered with golden leaves, and my fingers and thumbs are stained red from foraging the blackberries which grow wild along the road.

The temperature has started to drop now. There's a chill in the air.

A plume of woodsmoke rises from the chimney of one of the cottages, and curls into the deep, cloudless, cornflower sky. I watch as the breeze catches the smoke and gently leads it west. Twisting over the village. Spicing the air with its scent. I follow it.

Past the phone box.

By the old workshop.

Beyond the school, and the manse.

By the time I reach Kilmodan Church, the trail is barely a wisp. Scattered in a hundred directions over the grazing cattle, the falling leaves and the meandering River Ruel.

But that's okay. Now I'm here, there's plenty more to see.

There's been a church on this site for almost eight hundred years. The current kirk, built in 1783, is a beautifully simple affair, its white rendered walls set perfectly against so much surrounding green and gold.

Inside, the cool air is pierced by a shaft of sunlight cast through the cupola above, revealing architecture inspired by fierce local rivalries.

Less than thirty years before the church was built, Glendaruel saw its final battle, between the Campbells of Glendaruel and the neighbouring Campbells of Ormidale. Although the battle itself was short-lived, the feud ran deep, and there was clearly bad blood lingering when the final plans for the building were agreed.

Above the main body of the kirk sit three wooden galleries, one for each of the local Campbell families. The Glendaruels sat to the north. The Southalls to the east. The Ormidales to the west. So eager were the families to avoid any awkward confrontation in the house of the Lord, that they each had a separate entrance built, leading from the churchyard directly to their own gallery.

The Campbells will speak to God, so the local saying goes, but not to each other.

Back outside, the sun warms the damp earth, glinting off dew drops which linger in the shadow of the crooked, weathered headstones, dressed in garlands of lichen and moss.

I turn to the east. To the village. My eyes retrace the steps I took to get here, until they reach the chimney, still exhaling its stream of smoke. My gaze rises with the white plume, over the hills which shelter the glen. Up past the deciduous woodland of Stronafian. Beyond the native treeline to the coniferous forests on the higher slopes. Between the two, the narrow plateau of the chambered cairn at Lephinkill. And above them all, the clear, endless, autumn sky.

I turn back west, to face the squat, little, whitewashed outbuilding in the corner of the churchyard. The lapidarium.

This is where Kilmodan's most precious treasure can be found.

Stepping inside, it takes a moment for my eyes to adjust. The sun falls through the skylight, puncturing the gloom and landing on a man dressed in armour, flanked by rutting stags.

These are the Kilmodan Carved Stones.

Sculpted by a school of travelling carvers from Loch Awe, this selection of graveslabs and crosses, some up to seven hundred years old, represents some of the finest stone carving in Argyll. Interlaced ribbons twist and dance across ancient stone, echoing the smoke curling across the sky outside. Geometric and floral motifs are interspersed with images of figures, beasts and tools, to memorialise the dearly departed. A priest rubs shoulders with a unicorn. A stag with a set of blacksmiths tongs.

As I run my finger over the unbroken loop of a Celtic knot, I think about the people who created these images so many centuries ago. Were they proud of their work? Did they have any notion of its permanence? That, many hundreds of years later, their distant descendants might visit to admire their craftsmanship?

I think about the passage of time. Of the history that has unraveled around these stones as they stood sentry over their graves. The stories that have been told on their watch. And those which are yet to be written.

It throws a lot into perspective.

In turbulent times, when monumental changes seem to happen on an almost daily basis, it's comforting to be the company of something permanent. Enduring. Changeless.

Unlike the smoke trails above me, these stones will be here for a long time to come.

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