The Parishes of Kintyre

Our first evidence for the number of parishes in Kintyre comes from Pont’s notes in Macfarlane’s Geographical Collections which were probably composed by about 1595. Vol II pp 186-8 says “And in Kintyre there is ten paorish churches more than the Monastrie of Saidill” (ie 10 plus Saddell). The same figure is given on pages 526-7. In 1678 nine parishes (including Saddell but excluding Kilcalmonell) are given in the rental of that year. The same nine appeared in a list made in 1672 (GD 112/17/1 quoted in Kintyre Magazine No 22 pp 11-14) – allowing for some ambiguities over the spelling of Kilkivan which was often mis-spelt. The 1678 list also gives us land-assessment data, parish by parish, which allows us to make some comparisons. (The two parishes that have gone ‘missing’ between 1595 and 1678 were probably Kilcalmonell and Killarow. Kilcalmonell because Pont undoubtedly defined Kintyre as Tarbert southwards whereas the 1678 rental must have regarded it as part of Knapdale. Killarow because although this parish belonged to Ardchattan Priory, and is still documented as such in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was possibly something of a ‘ghost’ parish by 1595).


Trying to establish these early parish boundaries is fraught with difficulty. We may have their names from mediaeval times but the evidence is ambiguous and sometimes contradictory. In trying to trace them in Kintyre I have used the following sources:


a) legal documents such as sasines when they state which parish a property belonged to.

b) Minutes of the Synod of Argyll (1639-1651 & 1652-1661) – but it must be borne in mind that the proposals contained therein were not always translated into reality.

c) Origines Parochiales Scotiae (with maps).

d) Maps such as RHP 4300 which identify parish boundaries and disputes.

e) Lists which were organised on a parochial basis. Unfortunately the sixteenth-century evidence in the Exchequer Rolls is only partly organised by parish. Within a North or South Kintyre framework most of the data is organised by estate – and estates criss-crossed parish boundaries. In later lists, such as the Argyll Hearth Tax Roll of 1693, parishes were lumped together which is no use when we want to differentiate between them. However, in the ‘Commons of Argyll’, D Mactavish gives lists from 1685 and 1692 which have at least a nominal parish orientation. We have similar lists in Cregeen for 1777 and Stewart for 1792 (see List of Sources).


Anomalies always remain. For some reason Feochaig was reckoned part of Kilcolmkill. Backs was reckoned part of Skeirchenzie – I think because of ownership rather than geography. I have assumed that parishes originally had geographical integrity – that they were composed of groups of farms physically adjacent. I have also assumed that they very likely matched other administrative boundaries such as land-assessment units. Proving this is more vexatious.


In the tables I have given the parishes against the total valuations which appeared in the 1678 rental. Unfortunately this evidence dates from several centuries after the first creation of parishes – centuries during which there had undoubtedly been amalgamation and loss of knowledge. I have then added my own estimate of land-values by parish, using the data from my summary tables of North and South Kintyre. This is an inexact science since it is difficult to be sure of mediaeval parish boundaries and, as Langlands points out in his map of Killean & Kilchenzie (RHP 4300), these were sometimes in dispute even in the eighteenth century.


To try and relate medieval parishes to their earlier predecessors I have also tried to estimate the number of early church sites within each parish. This process is a little arbitrary. Not every kil-name was necessarily an early church. Kil can be for coille (wood) and sometimes it just occurs by mistake as is probably the case with Blaeu’s Kattikil (actually Cattadale). In addition not every kil-name has survived. Sometimes we have a half-forgotten burial-ground, or a carved stone, or a burn with a title such as Allt na Cille. And, as stated above, we are not even sure of all the parish boundaries – an issue which particularly affects the east coast of North Kintyre.


My rationale is that the 9 parishes we see in 1678 actually represent an amalgamation of  the 10/11 parishes of c. 1595 and the probably rather larger number of the early Middle Ages. The parish system developed endogenously. In the centuries of the Early Christian era there may have been a burial (and ritual) site in every few davachs. By or during the twelfth century there was probably some considerable amalgamation as the mediaeval parishes emerged. (To maintain a trained and educated man as local priest would require the resources of a good number of davachs). Over the following centuries the parishes evolved and underwent yet more rationalisation at the time of the Reformation. The Protestant Church embarked on further changes from the seventeenth century but fortunately the ministers also began to record them. Given the length and complexity of the process I do not think we can get back much of the detail of the early church establishment – but perhaps we can reach some idea of its shape.


There is also the thorny question of dedication. Certain saints are associated with the early missionary activities of the Irish. These would include Ciaran, Kenneth and Calmonell. Then there are the saints who may be British – such as Blaan. And lastly there are those associated with a later fashion for saints of the Roman church – John, Michael and Mary. Many of the churches later credited to Mary turn out to have been originally dedicated to St Maolrubha and I suspect this is probably the case with Kilmory by Killean. However there are a striking number of sites in Kintyre dedicated to St Michael. There is the parish of Kilmichael, Kilmichael in Carradale, Kilmichael in Ballachroy, Cladh Mhicheil by Gartnagrenach, Tobar Mhicheil by Barr Mains and I think there was also a Kilmichael in Saddell which is now lost. It is tempting to associate these with the family of Somerled who also founded the monastery at Saddell and dedicated it to the Virgin. Did they see the warrior archangel as their particular strength and protector?


The problem is how are we to meld together these Irish, British and mediaeval influences on early parochial structure. Did they compete? Did they have different areas of influence? Or did a new dedication simply replace an old? Are the churches to St Michael to be seen as new creations? Or did they usurp earlier sites formerly dedicated to now forgotten saints? As will be seen my conclusions are restrained but I think the work worth attempting because of my belief that the organisational structure of the early church was intimately linked with the skeleton provided by a comprehensive land-assessment system. I suspect parishes in Kintyre can probably be linked to specific numbers of davachs (and therefore fractions of ouncelands) although the weakness of our data may prevent us from doing this except in the most general terms.

Bookmark and Share
Posted in Kintyre
2 comments on “The Parishes of Kintyre
  1. Kevin Byrne says:

    I am very interested in your rationale. I am at present researching the religious position in Colonsay and Oransay 1472 – 1560, and I cannot confidently identify a “parish”, would be glad of any detail that you might stumble across. The lesser chapels may have been used for special “patron saint” day services, as in the “Pattern Day” still common in Ireland. Thank you for your interesting site.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *