Kilmartin Church & Medieval Grave Slabs
I'm finishing up the tour of Kilmartin Glen, Argyll, Scotland with a visit to Kilmartin Church which sits in Kilmartin Village beside the museum.

Kilmartin (Cille Mhrtainn) is Gaelic for ‘the church of (St.) Martin.’ The area was an important center for early Christianity. Most travel in the early days in this area was by sea and lochs. Kilmartin was on the route between the Irish coast and the important religious island of Iona. Iona was the focus of St. Columba’s mission in the 6th century.

Kilmartin Parish Church was built in 1835 and is the latest of a series of churches built on this site. The graveyard outside is interesting because some of the graves and gravestones are from medieval times. This churchyard contains some of the oldest carved grave slabs in Scotland. It is also one of the largest collections, containing around 79 stones.

Some are outside and some are on display inside a stone mausoleum building beside the church. The earliest has been dated to about 1300. Grave slabs such as these are found throughout the Western Highlands, some carved by sculptors from Ireland and others from the Loch Awe school of sculpture.

Some of the oldest medieval grave slabs.

Some of these medieval grave slabs were moved from St. Columba’s Chapel in Poltalloch. These were carved in the late 14th century in the Loch Awe area for the Malcoms of Poltalloch. A plaque inside the mausoleum reads: “The grave slabs would have been laid flat on the ground over the grave. After the Reformation, however, many of the stones were moved, and it is unlikely that any of these were in their original positions when they were moved into this shelter in 1956. As well as the figures, many of them armoured, the motifs include swords, grotesque animals and shears. Much of the decoration represents foliage.” And it includes a map of Argyll and the islands close by showing where each of the grave slabs was taken from.

The carved slabs were laid on the ground to mark the burial site of several generations of the same family. Names are not recorded on most of the stones so it’s unknown who they were carved for. But experts believe they were for local ruling families.

One of the later slabs

 The stones were decorated with beautiful patterns. Some contain proud warrior figures and weapons such as spears and large swords. Some show mythological animals or hunting scenes, while others show interlaced Celtic knot patterns and symbols. Although we don’t know what these symbols mean, they no doubt had significant meaning to those who had them carved.

This is a lovely view out over Kilmartin Glen from the church. Although they are somewhat difficult to see, there are two cairns in these cattle pastures surrounded by protective fencing.

Thanks for taking this virtual tour with me through Kilmartin Glen. If you missed my earlier posts, you can find them at: Temple Wood & Kilmartin VillageCarnasserie Castle, Nether Largie South Cairn and Nether Largie Standing Stones.


26 Responses
  1. Maeve Says:

    Wonderful, interesting post!! :)

  2. Gerri Bowen Says:

    Almost like being there, Vonda. Thank you.

  3. Cora Blu Says:

    I love how detailed those stones were. This is such an interesting post, Vonda. Keep sharing.

    Cora Blu

  4. Really neat. I even pinned a few to my pinterest.

  5. Lovely pictures. So where is the book that goes with them?

  6. Thanks Maeve! I'm glad you liked it!

  7. Thanks, Gerri! I wanted to put big pics on there so you guys could see the details.

  8. Cora, thanks! They are really beautifully carved stones. The sense of looking at and being so close to real history is amazing.

  9. Clover, thanks for doing that! I'm glad you liked them!

  10. I wonder what the shears symbolize.

  11. Linda, thanks! I'm not sure which book you mean... a book about the stones or a book I might write inspired by the stones? :)

  12. Angelyn, I'm not sure anyone knows for certain. Here is one explanation relating to the church. Another theory is that shears relate to trade, shearing sheep (a farmer who gained his wealth from raising sheep), since other professions are shown on some grave slabs with tools for symbols, such as tongs for a blacksmith. I also read that the shears symbolizes a woman. Maybe because women used shears a lot. The symbols on the slabs relate to the identity of the individual buried beneath it. According to one article I read, the most common symbols used on the slabs were a sword for a man, a chalice for a priest, a crook for a shepherd and a ploughshare, at least in England. Anyway, it appears there are a variety of theories.

  13. These are wonderful pictures and a great tour! Thanks, Vonda

  14. Thanks Michele! I'm so glad you enjoyed them!

  15. Suz Says:

    Fabulous post for those of us who love Scotland! Loved the pix. Many thanks!

    Sue Swift/Suz deMello

  16. Fraoch Says:

    Are any of the stones identified as Knights Templar? I know that there were some stone slabs found in Western Scotland with depictions of Knights Templar in the same relief found elsewhere in the Western world, just wasn't sure if they were here or found on Skye. Do you know more about the Sculpture school at Loch Awe? I see these slabs and they remind me of the ones that are very similar to those found at Dundrennan Abbey in the Scottish southwest. Might be the same school of sculpture.

  17. Fraoch Says:

    An interesting and very helpful book for understanding Scottish graveyards and the monument symbols is UNDERSTANDING SCOTTISH GRAVEYARDS by Betty Wilsher I have used this book often when I was in Scotland going thru graveyards and kirkyards looking for family plots.

  18. Thanks so much, Sue! I'm glad you enjoyed it!

  19. Hi Jody,
    I read that it has been suggested that some of the grave slabs resemble Knights Templar but I don't think they were able to prove it. It's probably a debate among scholars. Some seem to think the carvings depict regular knights, warriors or soldiers of the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries who fought for their lords and chiefs. Or lords and chiefs themselves. They wore armor also. I don't know about the sculpture school at Loch Awe either. From what I learned, these types of slabs were found all over the Western Highlands and that probably extends down to the Scottish southwest and Ireland. Some of these slabs were carved in Ireland which is not too far away from any of the places on Scotland's west coast by galley. Thanks for the book recommendation!

  20. Barbara Says:

    Oh My Gosh, Vonda, absolutely fantastic! It just makes me want to jump on the first plane out. Loved the scenery but espcically the shots of the grave slabs. Thanks so much.

  21. Thanks so much, Barbara! I'm glad you enjoyed it. Yes, I recommend jumping on a plane. :) I can't wait to go back to Scotland myself.

  22. Vanessa Holland Says:

    Wow, amazing stones. The carvings are incredible. Thanks for posting this, Vonda. I'd love to visit there someday.

  23. Thanks Vanessa! I'm glad you liked it and I hope you get to visit too!

  24. Wonderful pictures and information! I was lucky enough to visit Scotland many years ago and these pictures make me want to go all over again. Thanks for posting them.

  25. How could we not love these photos - WOW those are some ancient stones. I'd love to be able to see someone carving these symbols into the stones. True work of art for the generations.

  26. Anonymous Says:

    Really liked your photos and the narrative about the church and burial slabs. I visited with my family in February 2011, because our immigrant ancestor, who was exiled in 1685, was born and lived in Kilmartin Glen. He founded a line of McCollums in America.

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