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The village of Dunoon is the commercial heart of Cowal, and no visit to our peninsula is complete without it. There are many welcoming places to stay and plenty interesting visitor attractions. Castle House Museum, for example, is sure to delight anyone with an interest in the history of Cowal. And let’s not forget the churches! St John’s Church on Argyll Street is a magnificent feat of architecture in the Normandy Gothic style; and High Kirk, though more modest in appearance, stands upon a site that once held the Cathedral Church of both the Roman Catholic and Episcopalian Bishops of Argyll.
It’s the long and interesting history of this latter site that recommends it to visitors interested in the development of Christianity in Cowal. Although it doesn’t quite meet the criteria to be included as one of our 15 main sites of pilgrimage, we’d like to include High Kirk as an honorary site, and we encourage you to visit.
If you arrive in Dunoon on foot (perhaps as a passenger on Calmac ferries, or whilst enjoying some leisure time after completing your pilgrimage), then you’ll find High Kirk near the museum on Castle Hill, overlooking the pier. A pleasant wander through the Castle House grounds and gardens will lead you into a sprawling graveyard with stones dating back to the 18th century.
In early times the church was linked to Dunoon Castle, a stronghold and occasional Royal residence, which stood on the adjoining hilltop. The church met the religious needs of the castle occupants and administered to the needs of the inhabitants of the cottages which were scattered around it. It was a church of considerable importance, and records of its links with the Cathedral of Glasgow and Paisley Abbey are to be found in old documents bearing the signatures of Rectors of the church. In these documents it is referred to as the Parish Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
In a Charter dated 1453, King James II granted to the Bishop of Argyll and his successors, the Parish Church of Dunoon with its tithes and church lands. The Reformation, established in 1560, brought Presbyterian ministers to Dunoon Parish Church and, in the seventeenth century, Bishops of the Scottish Episcopal Church (notably Bishop Andrew Boyd) were resident, possibly in the Bishop’s palace, thought to be sited where the near-by Primary School now stands.
Towards the end of the 18th century the church building, being badly dilapidated, was demolished and the stones used to erect Gillespie Graham’s Late Decorated Gothic Revival Church on the same site. The church, built to seat 500 and opened in 1817, constitutes only part of the present building because, even as early as 1839, it was necessary to enlarge it. In 1840 the tower was heightened by ten feet and a bell was installed. In 1909 the church was lengthened and widened by Andrew Balfour.