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NS 09095 75301 – Inverchaolain Church is perhaps the most isolated of our pilgrim sites in the sense that, by land at least, it isn’t near any of the others. It’s a long drive out of Dunoon, along a road that doesn’t really go anywhere. But it is a very lovely drive; skirting the shore the entire way, you’re treated to views over the Firth of Clyde, followed by views across to the Isle of Bute, the bustling town of Rothesay, and the distinctive silhouette of the Isle of Arran looming behind. You’ll then pass old Toward Castle and the expansive grounds of Knockdow Estate, before rounding the corner and heading north past the oil fuel filling station. This is for military ships, not for your car. It somehow makes the already impressive views even more imposing when you’re suddenly faced with a giant grey war ship, or brightly coloured oil tanker.
There being only one road (albeit single track and in need of repair in places), it’s relatively easy to find Inverchaolain Church. There’s a large parking area – big enough for three cars, or a small minibus perhaps – located directly out front at ///pints.exonerate.embodied.
There’s also an interpretation board titled ‘Discovering Cowal’, which has information about the area as a whole, rather than the church specifically. These boards are dotted around Cowal (you will find one near Kilfinan Church and one in Cairndow too) and, although they’re dated, they’re still quite interesting. This one does the courtesy of explaining how to pronounce the name: ‘Inver-hoo-lan‘.
Incidentally, rather than cycling or driving to Inverchaolain, you could choose to walk from Dunoon, perhaps then supplementing that by doing what a car can’t do, and following the trail through Glenstriven Estate to Ardtaraig and looping back to Dunoon via Ardnadam and the camels hump.
However you get there, the churchyard is a very peaceful place to be. It sits at the roadside, but this road is rarely used so, on a clear day, all you can hear are the birds singing. There are wonderful views from behind the church looking north toward the head of Loch Striven, and the churchyard itself is a panoply of lichen covered gravestones. There are headstones dated much earlier than the church building, which is the fourth incarnation of a chapel on this site.
Unlike most of the churches on our pilgrim trail, the exterior is not painted white; instead it’s a rather understated grey slate and pebble-dash, surrounded by mature evergreens. The large doors are, unfortunately locked – the church is now the property of a private owner – but you can still peer through the windows to see the handsome interior.
Lack of indoor access means that this is a site best visited in pleasant weather. Doing so will allow you to spend time in the churchyard enjoying the incredibly vibrant hues of lichen and moss adorning the ancient headstones. There are a number of plots bordered by iron fencing, which has been there so long it is slowly being reclaimed by nature.
All in all, it’s a wonderfully peaceful place to pass some time, making it hard to comprehend the layers of history and lives that have come together in this place. Inverchaolain Church is a very ‘tempting tangent’ for the discerning pilgrim in Scotland.