Walter Douglas Campbell

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Walter J. Douglas Campbell of Innis Chonain (1850 - 9 Mar 1914), a younger brother of the 1st Lord Blythswood, was an architect who practised in Lochawe in the period between 1881 and 1906.

Their father was Archibald Douglas of Mains, son of Colin Douglas, 16th laird of Mains. He adopted the name Campbell of Blythswood.

Walter bought from the Marquis of Breadalbane the Island of Innis Chonam, on which he built for himself a stately mansion-house. Here he settled with his sister Helen and his mother. Local tradition has it that the elder Mrs. Campbell found the long drive to the parish church in Dalmally too much for her, and that her son accordingly decided to build her a church nearby.

On the shore above Loch Awe in Argyll stands one of the most unusual churches in Scotland, Saint Conan's Kirk. Although the building looks ancient it was in fact only dedicated in 1930. Walter Campbell of Blythswood decided to extend the small parish church which stood on the site to create a memorial for the Campbell's of Blythswood family and work began in 1907.

Walter Campbell was an amateur architect and enthusiastic collector of the unusual and he decided to act as his own architect on the project, often incorporating materials, objects and curios that he had picked up in his travels into his designs. The result was an amazing eclectic mix of various styles from the Norman and Romanesque of the interior, to Celtic motifs and even pagan symbolism in the form of the stone circle at the entrance gate.

When Walter Douglas Campbell obtained a fragment of bone of King Robert the Bruce following the re-discovery of the King's grave in Dunfermline Abbey he incorporated the Bruce Memorial Chapel within the kirk with an effigy of the king to house the relic. References are made to a figure modelled by W. Hubert Paton of 'King Robert the Bruce - for St. Conan's Church, Lochawe' in the 1896 RSA Exhibition Catalogue, number 346; and again in the 1919 catalogue, number 44.

The Bruce Chapel owes its origin to the fact that it was on the hillside above the kirk that the King despatched his famous outflanking column under Sir James Douglas, which inflicted such a decisive defeat upon John of Lorne and his clansmen in the Pass of Brander.

Part of the arcading and also some of the old stonework in the body of the kirk itself comes from the pre-Reformation church of Inchinnan, which was pulled down early in the nineteenth century: Inchinnan was the parish church of the Blythswood family in their old home. The very heavy oak beams were taken from two famous old battleships, the Caledonia and the Duke of Wellington. Wood from these battleships was also used for the doors and some of the roofwork of the main building. In the arcades are two "mort-safes," the iron grids which were used early in the last century to protect graves from the body-snatchers or resurrectionists, men who in the early part of the nineteenth century made a practice of digging up recently buried bodies and selling them to the medical colleges for dissection. This practice was most prevalent near the cities, so very probably these particular mort-safes also came from Inchinnan

Walter Campbell died in 1914 and his widow waited until sculptor Carrick had returned from the war to commission him to carve his tomb. The surge in orders for war memorials caused delays, the Lochawe memorial also by Carrick which stands at the entrance gate of the kirk was itself unveiled in 1920. However there were also delays in finding a suitable stone and Carrick made a number of journeys to the Ravelston quarry in the Cheviots before finding a suitable block. In 1925 he finally began the work, obtaining Campbell's Highland Dress for his model. The result was a particularly fine tomb featuring the recumbent effigy of Campbell, his head resting on a pillow which is so beautifully worked that you expect it to feel soft to the touch. Walter and his sister rest below.

St. Bride's Chapel, contains the tomb of the Fourth Lord Blythswood, who helped to carry on the work after Walter and his sister had both died. This chapel is in a very early Norman style and contains two slabs of Levantine marble about which there is a curious little history. Although coming originally from the Mediterranean, they were shaped and polished somewhere near Louvain. The first duly arrived on Loch Awe side in the summer of 1914, but the second had to wait until the end of the First World War before it could join its neighbour. On the left side of this chapel is a very small and low Saxon doorway which opens into an equally minute room which Walter Campbell used to pretend to maintain was the cell of St. Conan himself.

Both St. Conval's Chapel and St. Bride's Chapel are protected by most beautiful wrought-iron gates bearing the initials and badges of those who lie beneath. This ironwork is yet another example of the exquisite craftsmanship which was the builder's delight.

At the far end of the Aisle there are two stained-glass windows. The first of these, which contains the Royal Arms blazoned with those of Argyll, is in memory of H.R.H. The Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria and wife of the late Duke of Argyll. The Blythswood family were on terms of intimacy with the Princess, who took a great personal interest in the building of St. Conan's. Doubtless it is to her that we owe the marble bust of the young Queen Victoria which faces the pulpit.

A Founders' Stone in front of the Communion Table, commemorates the names of Walter and Helen Douglas Campbell, was laid by the Trustees in 1954.  High above the screen is a beautiful painted-glass window with figures of angels and cherubs which Miss Helen Campbell designed and painted with her own hands.

Although it is thought that Walter Douglas Campbell mostly concerned himself with buildings in and around Loch Awe, he was also involved with the Gilmerton Convalescent Home, in Edinburgh.

1. I am unable to trace a sister, Helen. Walter's mother was Caroline Agnes, nee Dick. The church contains a memorial to Caroline Agnes Campbell of Blythswood, and there is a memorial cross in the grounds of the church.

Auld Robin the Farmer. By Walter Douglas Campbell. Illus-trated by H.R.H. the Princess Louise. (D. Douglas, Edinburgh.)
Mr. Campbell's ballad tells in spirited verse how "Auld Robin" won a curling match for the laird, who gives him the farm "for the rent o' a bobbin." The figures of the farmer and his wife are good, and the collie is worthy of being the frontis- piece; but we should like to have had a view of the frozen loch, and the match itself.


Sources for this article include:

• Saint Conan's Kirk information sheet (1954)

Photography by  Lynn Davison-Suckow

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Last modified: Monday, 25 March 2024