Monday, 2 June 2014

Castles Home and Away: Part One

A few weeks back, Andrew and I went on a two day road trip to the West Highlands to catch one of the rare open days at Castle Stalker. This is the iconic castle on an island in a loch which features in the "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" film and on shortbread tins with a frequency second only to Eilean Donan Castle. 

Castle Stalker was restored in the 1960's/1970's with everything having to be brought over by boat, so seeing the end result was a planned morale booster for endeavours at Balintore Castle. The rule of the road trip was that we could spontaneously follow up on any brown sign (i.e. place of interest) that we saw en route.

As we were driving along Loch Awe, a building suddenly appeared on the left-hand side that I knew only from photographs. "Let's stop here!" I cried. I had no idea that the quirkily glorious St. Conan's Kirk was in the vicinity. The visit was a wish that was inadvertently granted.

rear panorama

Andrew did not like St. Conan's Kirk. It is an architectural mish-mash of styles, with everything from Celtic, through Norman to Gothic - even some Moderne. We tried hard to pin-point the date - some elements seemed Victorian but others looked 1920's. In the end we were completely flummoxed.

front panorama
Later research showed why: the building phase extended between 1881 to roughly 1930. The architect Walter Campbell (died 1914) was from the local aristocracy. This was the only building he designed, and it is fair to say he did not adhere to any stylistic orthodoxy. 

Andrew finds comfort at the reassuringly Norman altar
Critics may say the building is a pastiche or simply stylistically incongruous. My own take is that Walter Campbell, simply borrowed aspects of various styles he liked, as well making-up his own style. He clearly loved buildings so much, that he created his own celebration of architecture here. He pulled granite boulders off the hill above the kirk, and simply cemented them together to form rough-hewn columns that I have seen no-where else. A Caledonian Gaudi?

window from Iona Abbey - kirk also (allegedly) has bones from Robert the Bruce
As the style of the building is impossible to place, it engenders an other-worldly quality in the same way as the sets of "Game of Thrones". The look is somehow familiar, and thus feels real, but at the same time it is alien and thus not identifiable.

mini cloister is very "Game of Thrones"
I would say that while some detailing is ugly/crude, most gives delight. The craftsmanship is of generally high quality, and the whole is a work of integrity and passion. There is no reason why a building should adhere to rules, and when mavericks appear who are brave enough to plough their own furrow, we should find out what they can offer, rather than identify the rules they are breaking.

ugly or maverick glory? - the triangular windows are certainly unique

I was determined not to take photographs on the tour but to experience things for real instead. So while I did not have the time, inclination or a good enough camera  to document things, the panorama function on my smart phone was a useful way of capturing the mood of a place. More panoramas of other sites of interest will follow.