There can be no doubt that Islay’s most iconic building is the Kilarrow Parish Church which is better known as the Round Kirk at Bowmore. It continues to attract visitors from around the globe and all are impressed by the building’s unusual design, its sense of history and the palpable peace experienced within its sanctuary. The church was commissioned by Daniel Campbell, the Younger of Shawfield, then laird of the island, and was opened for public worship in 1769. The building work was carried out by Thomas Spalding at the invitation of Campbell who was well acquainted with Spalding’s trade skills as they were often utilised at mainland properties owned by the laird’s family.
Spalding was a native of Fife, in the east of Scotland, and a member of an old Scottish family who had been yeomen to the Earls of Moray. Following the completion of the Round Church he continued to live on the island where his services were much in demand in roads and bridge building locally and on the isle of Jura. Proof of his esteem and success as a builder led to Campbell offering him free land in any part of the island which appealed to him. Spalding, a man of independent mind, did not accept his benefactor’s generous offer. At the advanced age of 103 years, he laid the foundation stone to the extension Campbell was adding to his Islay House mansion at Bridgend. He died two years later at the patriarchal age of 105 years and is buried in Kilmeny cemetery.
Thomas Spalding’s son Donald was an Edinburgh businessman who made his way to London where he was to spend the remainder of his life. He was a Gaelic stalwart and a founder member of Comunn Fior Ghaidheal Lunnainn. The last of the Spalding line to bear the family name locally was Ballygrant builder Gilbert John Spalding. He was a great grandson of Thomas Spalding and was well known on the island, and in the Kilmeny area in particular, until his death over 30 years ago.
The idea of a round church came to Campbell during a grand European tour, a feature of the gentry’s life at that time. He was especially impressed by Italian architecture and based the design for his new village (Bowmore) on those he had seen in northern Italy. This gave birth to a planned village with wide streets, a square at the foot of the hill, and all crowned with a round whitewashed church with square tower. There is no compelling evidence available to identify the architect responsible for the design of the Round Church. Some schools of thought suggest that he was Dutch while others claim that he was of French descent. It is more likely, however, that Thomas Spalding was largely responsible for the design of the structure which was erected at a total cost of £1,000.
Bowmore Round Church Today
The church is open to the public and can be visited. Church services are held on Sunday’s.