Tuesday, 30 August 2011

The Celtic Twilight

"What the hell is that?"

We were driving along the side of Loch Awe - one our way from the Munros of Tayside that we'd bagged already, towards Ben Nevis, on a rather miserable day of slanting rain and grey skies. We'd passed village upon village of sensible foursquare houses, slab sides of rock dressed against the rain. But what I'd spotted out of the window defied description - a Byzanto-Romanesque dream palace, a Highland version of Disneyland, a folly or a nightmare; we'd have to investigate.

Fortunately there was a lay-by a hundred yards along the road; two or three cars were already parked there. We walked back, and down the hill through wet ferns and moss glittering with droplets of rain.

Perplexity grew as we approached. Celtic arches, a Gothic apse, bits of what seemed Art Nouveau; it was a tumultuous, jumbled mix of styles and stones, bits and pieces from diverse ages crazily jammed together. I couldn't even tell if it was beautiful or ugly - it was both at once, or neither.

It is, indeed, the dream of a madman,  Walter Campbell, the younger brother of Lord Blythswood, who began it in 1881, and kept building till his death in 1914. Work continued under the patronage of his sister and later under trustees, and the church was not finished until the 1930s. Campbell designed the church himself, taking ideas and models from all over Europe, and even carved the organ screen himself (he was a keen, and not untalented, amateur woodworker).

Even on the outside the church looks eccentric; there's a Saxon style tower with long-and-short work, a tall Celtic cross, a French style smaller tower, a Victorian Gothic apse, strange carved panels, perched terraces on the steep side of the hill to the south overlooking the loch, flying buttresses which come out at odd angles to shore up the south aisle. (Incidentally, while Walter Campbell lived on one of the islands you can see in the loch, another, Innishail or 'the green isle', was the burial ground for local inhabitants. The Celts seem to have preferred to bury their dead on islands, as at Caldey island, and the islands of the blest occupy an interesting place in Celtic myth - the isle of Avalon, Tir nan Og. At Killin, at the end of Loch Tay, the clan Macnab burial ground is on the island of Inchbuie in the middle of the river.)

Inside, the church is full of interesting spaces, a jumble of chapel. The nave is darkened and diminished by the accretions around it, while the apse blazes with light - a dramatic effect even on an overcast day. Everywhere you look there seems to be another hidden chapel, another doorway or arcade giving on to yet another space. It's a box of secrets, slightly dusty and smelling of damp, the kind of place you might find a small casket of priceless jewels, or a ghost.

Craftsmanship was something Campbell valued, and there are some marvellous works - fine wrought iron gates topped by the lymphad of Lorne (a little galley or single-masted ship), lovely stained glass, even chandeliers made out of miniature organ pipes. There are two screens which were brought from Eton College Chapel, though they were never installed where they were meant to go, and there's a more than life-size effigy of Robert the Bruce guarding a relic of bone from Bruce's grave in Dunfermline Abbey. There's even a tiny cloister, with two mortsafes on display. (More on mortsafes anon.)

The thing I'll always remember about this church, though, is that blaze of light streaming in through the clear windows of the apse. And it reminds me that the year Campbell began his work here, 1881, was the year before the first performance of Wagner's Parsifal - a medieval, religious themed opera, in which the final scene shows the opening of the Grail shrine - "enthüllet den Gral! Öffnet den Schrein!"

Campbell's vision is as eclectic, as dramatic, and as medievalist as Wagner's. And possibly just as insane.  It may not be a great work of art, but I was glad to see it; and as I stood on the terrace behind the church, looking out across Loch Awe, the sun came out, for the first time on that blustery day.

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