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NS 02102 76456 – Fearnoch Chapel and Baptismal Well may be site number 15 on our list – and designated as a ‘tempting tangent’ rather than part of the main loop – but this place of pilgrimage is a real gem with one of the best views in Scotland. It’s only a short hike from the roadside, yet it feels secluded and spiritual, nestled in the hollow between Meall Garbh (‘rough hill’) and Cnoc Dubh (‘black hill’), with expansive views over the Kyles of Bute. Only the footings of the tiny chapel and it’s enclosure remain, behind which the well can be found cradled in a stand of birch trees. This site is best visited in spring or autumn, as it can become very overgrown and hard to identify in the height of summer. If you reach the point where you should see it on the valley floor beneath you, but it’s hidden by fern growth, then think twice about going down to it. The ferns can easily grow over 5ft tall and are a popular with ticks.
This site can easily be incorporated into the main loop; simply turn toward Colintraive instead of Glendaruel after you’ve visited Ardtaraig and before you visit Kilmodan. As you follow the A886 south toward Colintraive, a large lay-by, big enough for three of four minibuses – opens up on your left as the road bends right at ///flick.static.offshore. There’s a well paved path at the northeast corner of this bay; but that is not where we’re headed.
Instead, head to the very end of the bay and cross the road. There’s a barely visible sheep trail leading up over the hill in the direction of Meall Garbh at ///bossy.gambles.payback, follow this path as it leads in a southerly direction with a gentle incline. As you ascend the hill toward ///combines.connector.violinist, you get a good view of the lay-by behind you, and the track becomes clearer ahead. If you’re unsure, you can use the ViewRanger app or website to follow follow our GPS trail.
The track levels out, then begins to descend, and leads you in short time to a marshy area with ash trees. It can be difficult to pick out the route at this point. Keep to the left of the trees and strike out uphill toward ///connected.headline.committee on the flank of Meall Garbh. The views over the Kyles of Bute open up to your right, and the track keeps climbing. Although difficult to follow in places, this pilgrim trail is incredibly photogenic throughout; there are all sorts of interesting rocky outcrops, trees and flowers to pay attention to before you’re dazzled by the views as you crest the hill.
By the time you reach ///explained.positions.spouse, you’ll have a great view of both the well and chapel to your left, and the Kyles of Bute stretching out to your right. From here, you can look past the chapel and see the Colintraive – Rhubodach ferry as it makes it’s short hop from Cowal to the Isle of Bute.
The track then winds downhill to deposit you in front of Fearnoch Chapel, which is well sheltered in the bosom between two hills. It’s a tiny chapel, one wonders how low the ceiling would be were it not ruined. The well, on the other hand, has only grown larger over time. Once described as less than 3ft by 2ft, it now looks like a small bathing pool. Follow the path down behind the chapel, to ///kindness.compose.symphonic and you’ll see that this pool is fed by an underground spring. Even when the surface of the water is covered in leaves, there’s a clear spot just by the southernmost corner, where the well spills over into a rivulet. Plunge an empty flask in here to extract some remarkably clear, and incredibly refreshing water.
The simplest way to return to your car – or bike – is to retrace your steps. There is, however, a path leading north from the chapel and it looks like you can follow that back to the road. This path probably exists because it offers the best angles to photograph the chapel; with the full majesty of the Scottish landscape behind it. If you follow it up over the lip between Meall Garbh (‘rough hill’) and Cnoc Dubh (‘black hill’) it will lead you into the trees, at which point it fragments into a myriad of sheep trails, none of which take you back to the road.
You can see and hear the road from here though, and it’s a much shorter walk than climbing back up the way you came, so it’s tempting to turn this route into a loop (with the final leg being on the road). If you wish to do this, beware that there is a deep gully between the woods and the road. If you bear northwest as you make your way through the woods, and aim for ///chairing.spoken.shopper, you should find a relatively safe spot to reach the road, at which point, turn left and follow the road uphill back to the lay-by. The lay-by is big enough to turn your car around so you can press on towards St Modan’s Well.
On the hillside above the farm of Fearnoch are the remains of a tiny and early chapel. Its dedication is unknown. It is 5.2m in length and 3.6m wide, and sits in the centre of a little enclosure (15m x 10m). All that survives of this ancient place of prayer are the footings of its walls and a rather tumbled enclosure wall where turf, flowers and bracken are encroaching. You can see the layout of the site from an aerial photograph – almost erased, the merest hint in the landscape.
This chapel was presumably built to serve the spiritual needs of the community which farmed the land around here, the people of Fearnoch and the surrounding district. These people, after all, lived in Inverchaolain parish, but the church was a good distance away by land and sea. Even on a calm day, when the boat could be taken across Loch Striven, it would be a good day’s trek to get there and back.
About 40m to the south-west of the chapel, further down the hill among the birch trees, there is an ancient well. It was formerly known as ‘Chapel Well’ or ‘Priest’s Well’ in English, but local Gaelic-speakers called it Tobar a’ Bhaistidh ‘well of the baptism’. The source of the water is invisible. It must spring up inside the pool, and it constantly refills it while water flows out of it, running in a little rivulet which pours out of the pool at its southern edge.
In 1863 this well was recorded by workers from the Ordnance Survey, when it was quite small and well defined. It was said to be oblong, measuring three feet by one foot six inches, ‘its sides being formed by four flat rough stones’ (1). Since then the flat stones have been taken out (perhaps as part of a reworking to supply water to the farmhouse). Or more likely stolen in order to build shelters for sheep. The well has therefore lost its former definition, and has become more of a pool.
That stone slab by its edge is probably one of the slabs that lined the well when it was still known and used locally as a baptismal well. The name of the farm on which the chapel and spring lie is Fearnoch, in Gaelic feàrnach, ‘abounding in alder trees’, although the trees around this well are actually birch.