The Kilarrow Parish Church, better known as the Bowmore Round Church or Round Kirk, is impossible to miss for those passing through Bowmore on the Isle of Islay. While the reason for its shape is up for debate, the island’s oldest active church is worth a visit for its unique architecture.
In 1753, Daniel Campbell the Younger inherited the entire island of Islay at the age of 16. He had grand plans to expand his estate, but the settlement of Kilarrow was in the way. So, Campbell set about building a new town from scratch. Construction began on the church in 1767 and work began on the rest of Bowmore a year later. With wide streets arranged in a gridiron pattern and a town square, Bowmore was the first planned city in Scotland when it replaced Kilarrow.
As for the eye-catching house of worship at the top of the main street, it’s thought that Campbell may have been influenced by the round churches he saw while traveling through Italy. While the architect’s name has been lost to history, the contractor responsible for the church was Thomas Spalding, who constructed it at a cost of £1000 or $1,200, about $1.2 million in today’s money. The church opened in 1769 and is still in service today, making it the oldest church on Islay with active weekly services.
The church is designed around a single oak pillar with a diameter of 19 inches resting on a sandstone base. Eight beams that radiate out from the central pillar support the roof. The unconventional design makes it the only completely round church in Scotland. According to local legend, the lack of corners means there’s nowhere for the devil to hide.
The church also houses artifacts belonging to Reverend Donald Caskie, known as the Tartan Pimpernel, who is credited with helping more than 2,000 Allied servicemembers escape from German-occupied France in World War II.
Know Before You Go
The church is open daily from 9 am to 6 pm with services at 10 am on Sundays.