A sculptural feast
The simple, rectangular Keills Chapel, dedicated to St Cormac, served as the parish church of Knapdale until the parish was split into two in 1734. It is one of few churches from the 1100s and 1200s surviving in Argyll.
What sets it apart is what it contains: a sculptural feast of almost 40 carved stones, ranging in date from the 8th to the 16th century. Pre-eminent among them is the 8th-century Keills Cross.
The Keills Cross
This free-standing, ring-headed high cross, carved from blue slate, stands some 2m high. Only one face is decorated. Panels of spiral ornament, animals and key-interlace decorate the shaft. The centre of the cross-head has a raised, circular boss hollowed in the middle.
The lower arm almost certainly depicts the story of Daniel in the lions’ den – a robed figure holds a bible in his left hand, whilw his right is raised in blessing, and on either side lions lick a robed figure’s head. The upper arm shows St Michael slaying a dragon.
The cross was most likely made by a craftsman from Iona, where three more fine high crosses
can be seen. The central boss is paralleled on the Kildalton Cross
, on Islay.
However, mystery surrounds its presence at Keills. It isn’t mentioned as being here in the 1830s, and excavation of its base in the adjacent graveyard (the cross was moved inside in 1979) suggested that it had been erected relatively recently. Its status as the only cross of its type on the Scottish mainland could well be in doubt.
Best of the rest
The collection also includes fragments of another early Christian free-standing cross and four early Christian, cross-decorated grave-slabs.
The remainder comprises late-medieval sculpture, mostly grave-slabs. These are generally long, tapering stones decorated with a variety of motifs, among them swords, targes (shields), crosses and craftsmen’s tools.
Several bear inscriptions. Among the best is a grave-slab depicting a harp (similar to the Queen Mary Harp in the Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh), and Latin inscriptions translating as ‘O’Cuinn had me made’ and ‘Here lies … and Allan his son.’
The impressive collection of grave-slabs includes examples from all five ‘schools’ of sculptors working for West Highland patrons in the later Middle Ages (1300s—1500s). These sculptors worked in Knapdale as well as at Iona, Loch Awe, Kintyre and Loch Sween.
- The Keills Cross – an outstanding 8th-century sculpture from the Iona ‘school’ of craftsmen.