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NS 16334 79178 – Arnadam Chapel is a good place to start your pilgrim journey because it’s easily accessible and is part of the Ardnadam Heritage Trail; so the route is clear, with a good deal of interpretation at the site. You can walk, or cycle from Dunoon if you have accommodation there, and there are plenty of parking options too. Expect to enjoy a pleasant half-hour walk from the car park to your destination, which is an old archaeological site (now somewhat overgrown). The walk is an undulating route, climbing gently at times, through woodland and crossing streams. The chapel foundations sit between two rushing burns, and is a treasure trove of mosses and bracken, with pleasant views over toward Beinn Mhòr; the highest mountain on the Cowal Peninsula.
Driving uphill on the A885, you’ll see a brown sign indicating a picnic area to the left (or to the right if you’re driving from Sandbank, or Holy Loch Marina). The turning you seek is a wee lane with poor surfacing, which appears at ///decency.liberated.centuries. Drive slowly to protect your suspension (or alternatively, leave your car in the business park opposite). There’s a bay where the road forks, at ///moment.idea.severe, which will take three cars, but there’s a bigger car park if you carry on ahead at that fork, then take the next right to ///sandals.declares.besotted. This area is out of site of the main road and has a picnic table, so it may be a better place to leave bicycles.
If you’re on foot and intending to follow the Heritage Trail all the way back into Dunoon, then you may want to stop first at ///ledge.strikers.dealings, where there’s a neolithic burial cairn named “Adam’s Grave”. This involves backtracking to the first parking area, taking the fork running north, and following it for 10 minutes until you see some houses. At this point you can strike right (north-east) into the field, aiming for the cairn. There’s no path and the ground is rough going so it may be best to follow the fence lines.
Otherwise, the start of the walk is indicated by an information board just up from the turn-off for the main parking area. You can actually spend all day exploring the heritage trail, which ascends the ‘camels hump’ to offer a wonderful view over Dunoon, and can be followed southward down into town itself. The path is clear and easy to follow, although it can be boggy in places, and the wooden bridges, crossing the various streams you encounter, are in various states of repair. Dress sensibly and tread carefully.
Because it’s not far from the main access road to Dunoon, you will hear traffic noise, but it’s very easy to focus instead upon the birdsong, the breeze and the burbling of the brooks. The site opens up to your left after about 30 mins walk. The first thing you see is an interpretation board at ///magical.marriage.crafts, and there are two more at other corners of the site.
This is a pleasant place to spend time (weather permitting); there are gnarled oak trees round about, stone walls dressed in vibrant coloured mosses, lichen making abstract artwork on the stones of the chapel, and a strong flowing stream drowning out any other noise. So there’s plenty to see and do after reading the interpretation boards – including chatting to locals, as this is a popular dog-walking spot. The chapel foundations are still visible, although overgrown, creating the outline of a surprisingly small building.
Excavations at Ardnadam between 1964 and 1982 revealed a very long sequence of occupation and use of the site. There is evidence of Neolithic occupation of the site – perhaps 5,000 years ago – and an Iron Age round-house and enclosure wall. Within the wall are the remains of an early Christian chapel, possibly built deliberately within the enclosure when it was still in use.
The remains of an altar at the east end of the chapel remind us that churches and chapels in our period usually faced east, towards the rising sun. Christians remembered that Christ was the sol iustitiae ‘the sun of justice’, and that when the prophet Malachi said ‘the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in his wings’ (4:2) he was understood to be talking prophetically about Christ. During the Mass – whether in a tiny chapel like this or in a huge cathedral – the priest and the congregation prayed together facing east in a dramatic enactment of hope, facing that rising sun.
A paved area was found about 5 meters south-west of the chapel in the midst of which was a post-hole which may once have had a cross standing in it (no trace survives of such a cross however). A number of burials were also found nearby, many of them containing quartz pebbles. Some of the burials were marked by small upright stones, and some of these were marked with a cross.
Sadly we have no record of any saint who was honoured at this site. The place-name Ardnadam did not apply originally to the chapel, and is in any case of no help. It is probably Gaelic àird an daimh, ‘height of the stag’ (though modern pronunciation disguises this), and has nothing to do with anyone called Adam.
A pleasant fifteen-minute walk away (NS161800 or ///messy.slimming.bubble) are the remains of a badly damaged but still interesting Neolithic cairn, popularly known in the nineteenth century as ‘Adam’s Grave’ or ‘Adam’s Cave’ – presumably arising from a misunderstanding of (or jocular reference to) the local farm name, Ardnadam. The huge slab of the top of the burial chamber is still there, along with what may be the two ‘doorposts’ of the entrance, and several other massive stones. Of course, it predates the chapel by three or four millennia, but it is a fascinating site, and well worth a visit. It is one of a number of sites in Ardnadam Glen from this period when people first began farming, growing crops and domesticating animals, so becoming less dependent on nomadic hunter-gatherer practices.