Kildalton Cross and Chapel should be on everybody’s list of things to do on Islay. Surprisingly enough you’ll usually find yourself alone strolling through the chapel grounds. When you head for Kildalton from Port Ellen you slowly see the landscape change and it almost feels as if you’re on a different island as soon as you’ve left Port Ellen.
The Journey is the Destination
This part of Islay has quite a history to tell and many remains can be seen or visited along your way, either from the road or more inland. Think about the Standing Stone at Kilbride Farm, Dunyvaig Castle at Lagavulin, Solam Plaque village behind Callumkill Estate, Fairy Hill and of course Kildalton Cross and Chapel, the former Kildalton parish church. Vivien Martin wrote a lovely article about this stretch of Islay titled Plague, Priests and Pirates on Islay. The journey is often as interesting as the destination, so much is true when you make the trip to Kildalton Cross and Chapel.
Robert C. Graham, the author of the book The Carved Stones of Islay wrote about the parish of Kildalton when he visited in 1885. He wrote: “The road from Port Ellen to the ruined church of Kildalton, distant seven miles, is one of the most beautiful on Islay. First it skirts a wild coast, against whose half-submerged rocks the waves at times break grandly, then it passes through the pleasant woods of Kildalton, where red and fallow deer may be seen in the early summer, grazing heedless of passers by.”
The fine cross at Kildalton is one of two examples of the type with the encircling glory now remaining erect in Scotland, the other being St. Martin’s Cross at Iona. This type is a common one on the cross-slabs of Pictland, and the high crosses of Ireland mostly show the same form. In its ornamentation, however, the Kildalton Cross is much more distinctly related to the Scottish group of crosses than to the Irish group. The magnificent High Cross was carved in the 8th century from green-grey epidiorite from Port na Cille, a nearby quarry.
Kildalton cross stands 2.65 metres in height, with arms 1.32 metres across. The carvings are still clearly visible despite the age of the cross. On the east face (towards the sea), at the top are two angels with, below them, David fighting a lion. Further down, two birds feed on a bunch of grapes then on the shaft, a carving of Virgin with Child and angels. The right arm panel depicts Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac, while the left shows Cain murdering Abel. The central boss on the west side is surrounded by seven smaller bosses intertwined with serpents. In the construction of the cross arms are four lions (all with damaged heads) intertwined with more serpents, similar to those on the shaft of St Martin’s cross, Iona.
Kildalton Chapel served the medieval parish of Kildalton, which was an independent parsonage in the patronage of the Bishops of the Isles. The chapel was erected in the late 12th or early 13th century. The building as you can see it today has had some restorations, although some interior features including the remains of the piscina and aumbry are still seen. The building remained in use until the end of the 17th century, when services took place in Lagavulin. Another feature of the chapel and graveyard are the beautiful carved stones and graveslabs. All the slabs and crosses are described in great detail in Robert Grahams book Carved Stones Parish of Kildalton
Visiting Kildalton Cross and Chapel
It’s hard to imagine when you walk the grounds of this impressive place that Kildalton Cross was made 1400 years ago. The place and surrounding area must look pretty much the same as it did back then. If you visit Kildalton make sure to walk up the wee hill behind the chapel. The views from there over the chapel grounds and surrounding landscape are stunning.
When you visit Kildalton you probably notice that the track doesn’t stop there. A few metres further down is the gate to Ardmore House where there’s a sign saying it’s a private road. This means that you are not allowed to drive there but it’s ok to walk. The track takes you through some beautiful woodland with old mossed oaks and birch trees. The track itself gives access to Ardmore House, but if you keep left after half a mile or so you head down to the coast. Or you can take another track to the left and enjoy the woodland and surrounding area from one of the wee hills. There is plenty of wildlife such as fallow deer, buzzards, oystercatchers, pheasants and various song birds. You have to return back the way you came. The more adventurous can walk along the coast to Claggain Bay