Faith in Cowal | Pilgrim Trails

Explore Scotland's Early Christian Landscape

Celtic Faith Trails

About Faith in Cowal

This website was created to support and inform people interested in faith tourism and pilgrim routes in Scotland, particularly in Cowal, Argyll. In 2015 a set of 15 sites was identified by Dr Gilbert Markus, each with ties to Celtic or Medieval Christianity. Visiting all of these sites will introduce the pilgrim to the whole of Cowal, and to a rich diversity of Scottish Highland landscapes and villages. 10 of these sites form a central, 80 mile driving loop that make an ideal basis for a weekend break or pilgrim retreat in the Scottish Highlands.

Kilmun Church, site number 10 on our trail, was selected as the ‘pilgrim hub’ for the Faith-in-Cowal experience, by virtue of it’s incredibly rich and continuous historical importance. From pre-Christian times, through the saints’ era of Columba and Munnu, a sought after prize in the Clan Campbell and Clan Lamont conflicts, to the present day, where it houses an ancient stone, a mausoleum of Campbell Dukes & Earls, and a delightful Visitor Centre.

We’re currently busy developing off-road walking routes connecting all of our sites, and thereby creating a network of pilgrim trails covering the whole of Cowal. Pilgrims come in all types, so we also intend to create cycling guides between some of our sacred sites, as well as sailing routes to those most conveniently reached by water (the motorways of our ancestors). Currently these Scottish pilgrim routes must be considered unofficial: the routes borrow existing thoroughfares, and do not bear any Faith in Cowal waymarks. Many of the routes involve small sections of improvised hikes between Forestry roads, without even any real path to follow, but our digital pilgrim guides are very comprehensive.

Going forward, we’re hoping to organize a selection of spiritual retreats and pilgrim events. Bookmark our blog, or follow us on Facebook and Instagram, so you can stay up to date. And if you’re interested in helping us achieve these stretch goals, then get in touch!

This project is funded by Church of Scotland, but the routes, the sites and the Churches are always open to all comers. Whether you come to Cowal to pray or to meditate, to practice faith or practice yoga, to walk, cycle sail or simply sit and enjoy Scotland’s landscape, you’ll always find a warm welcome, and a pilgrim trail to suit your needs.

About Cowal

The Cowal peninsula, in Argyll, is one of the most accessible parts of the Scottish Highlands. Yet, despite that, it’s one of the most peaceful places you could hope to holiday in the UK. We’re right next door to Glasgow; only an hour or so from Scotland’s central belt; and just down the road from Glen Coe valley. But if you’re looking to escape the urban jungle –  without ending up in a tourist trap – there are few better places on the UK mainland you could do so.

It feels as if you're on an island, even though you can drive to Glasgow Airport in around 90 minutes.

Argyll is a landscape of rugged mountains, crystal clear inland lochs, and oak forests rolling down from weather beaten hillsides toward the Firth of Clyde and the Irish sea. Warmed by the gulf stream, the climate here is described as ‘subtropical’, or ‘temperate rain-forest’. This means it’s often humid and rainy, rarely very cold, and always dramatic. Cowal is one of the most rewarding landscapes to visit in Scotland; and not least because most people have never heard of it!

The south west corner of the Cowal peninsula is brazenly labelled ‘Argyll’s Secret Coast‘, which may seem like a strange thing to boast about, but we prefer to enjoy our ruggedly sublime surroundings free from litter louts and ticket touts. If you’re looking for an authentic Scottish experience, and aren’t afraid to lose yourself on a hillside, tame a tumultuous sea loch, or find yourself on a forestry trail, then you are most welcome to come and join us!

Kilmun Church, perched on the edge of Holy Loch, is the hub of the Faith-in-Cowal pilgrim retreats.
Kilmodan Church has a lapidarium housing several impressive stones carved in the 'Loch Awe' style.
Kilmodan Church has a lapidarium housing several impressive stones carved in the 'Loch Awe' style.

About Faith

Cowal is more than luscious landscapes and lonely loch-sides though; being just a stone’s throw from Ireland and so well connected by loch, lane and river to the heart of Scotland, it’s no surprise that the Cowal peninsula is an area where some of the earliest signs of Christianity in the Gaelic world are to be found. Some of the sites we uncovered in developing this pilgrim route probably pre-date St Columba and his 6th Century monastery on the Isle of Iona

"Tobar a' Bhaisdth": a Baptismal well tucked into a valley with fantastic views over the Kyles of Bute.
Kilmorich churchyard, at the head of Loch Fyne is easy to reach and enjoys wonderful sunsets.

In the era we refer to (somewhat problematically) as Celtic Christianity, monks such as Columba and Munnu traveled by boat from Ireland, and on foot throughout the Highlands to spread the ‘Good News’ of Jesus’ message to the warring clans of pagan Scots. Their faith was something vibrant and living, which they used to galvanize early Christian movements; convert down-trodden hill farmers and mighty clan chiefs; construct chapels; consecrate wells; and in time have churches named in their honour.

Today, many people are returning to the idea that faith isn’t something to be practiced only on a Sunday, or celebrated only in a church. The natural world has always offered a way of celebrating faith in something greater than ourselves, and every day it offers something different. These places, where the heavens come so close to the land, are special in so many ways, but the rich heritage of faith and pilgrimage associated with the sites on our faith trails are what this website is all about.

Their faith was something vibrant and living, which they brought here and used to galvanize early Christian movements.

Faith In Cowal

Using this website you can explore the archaeology and history of early Christian Cowal as well as some of its medieval inheritance. Many of these ancient sites are still occupied parish churches, while others are abandoned cairns; bracken covered foundations on remote hillsides, or romantic ruins on loch-shores.

Reports, photographs, stories and even poetry will give you, dear reader, a virtual immersion in the Cowal area and its early Christian past. This will pale into insignificance, of course, should you choose to undergo a real immersion – by visiting Cowal, travelling around the sites, and actually experiencing this rich historic landscape. By doing so you will be sharing, in some way, in the life and the prayer of the people of Cowal.

Within these pages you’ll learn about the saints whose names appear throughout the places of Argyll and Cowal; you’ll see the carved stones that bear witness to the faith of generations of Gaelic-speaking communities who lived here; and you’ll be gently encouraged to create your own Cowal pilgrimage.

The route, as it stands, is designed to be driven or cycled for the most part. We wanted to start with an accessible faith trail. We’re currently developing off-road walking routes, as well as sailing routes, which we feel are a more authentic way to experience the landscape of the Gaelic saints, but each of the chosen sites is worth visiting even if it took no effort to get there!

Fàilte chridheil ort! – A warm welcome to you!

COVID-19

Stay Safe

Click the image for current guidance

Most of our sites are still open, and will make for a nice, socially distanced way to celebrate your faith, or to partake in a pilgrimage.

HOWEVER

They are small sites, with small parking areas. If there is already a car in the parking areas, THINK TWICE about visiting. Perhaps try a different location. Don't stray too far from home (there are sites all over Cowal), and stay at least 2m/6.5ft away from other groups at all times. Please stay up to date with with current government guidelines (click the picture link).