Castle Semple Collegiate Church

The Castle Semple Collegiate Church was actually one of the first places I tried to visit in the area. It was a bit confusing to work out where it was at first as it’s not particularly accessible by car. My first attempt was by car following directions on Google maps, but after driving around in quite a wide circle (around the estate perimeter, essentially!) I soon found access from the east cut off by a sign saying private road. I could probably have walked along this but decided not to and that there had to be an easier way, which was publicly accessible.

On the second day of sailing lessons for my teen at Castle Semple, the sun was out. I had brought a packed lunch, googled the instructions for reaching the church, rather than looking at a map, and finally set off. My ultimate goal was the Kenmure Temple, but the Collegiate Church was en route.

I began by walking along the shore of the Castle Semple Loch from the Visitor Centre. The path is clearly marked and takes you past the sailing club and then the windsurfing and paddle boarding club. I had purchased Bluetooth headphones and was listening to my first full-length audiobook — Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks — which was a very appropriate background for my walk. I’d been worried about not being able to hear the noise of my surroundings as I listened, but loop this turned out not to be the case.

The first point of interest was Blackditch Bay which is discussed in more detail on my post about the Kenmure Temple. Here I turned uphill towards the National Cycle Route. (NCR). I could have followed the trails through the woods, but I’m rather fond of railway lines and decided it was likely to be a more direct route so I turned right at the first junction onto the NCR 7 It was a warm day and the scent of all the plants growing at the side of the cycle track was lovely. The sort of day I imagine I you read phrases like ‘heavy summer heat’ and which I associate more with other places, rather than here in Scotland.

I have no idea what most of the plants were — the only one I recognised was the Giant Hogweed, which is one to avoid touching, as it can cause bad burns, especially when exposed to bright sunlight. I have installed an app on my phone so that I can identify these in the future, but if anyone recognises them, then please let me know in the comments.

The track, as you’d expect from a former railway line, is mostly straight. I’m interested in the way it has altered the original landscape — there are sections where rocks have been blasted away, other places where it bridges a road or more often a farm track underneath and others where a road passes over it. Often in these places you can see paths that have been created down the sides, linking those on foot from one height to another. The paths down from one overhead road to the track were clearly used by graffiti artists whose work enlivened the dull concrete bridge.

There were some joggers on the track and more cyclists than I had expected. In the future, I will use a bike to access the church as it is quite a long walk. Access to the site itself is not available directly from the cycle track. Once you have passed the church on your left, the road forks and you need to take the left fork off the road and onto a farm track. Turning left at the barred gate takes you to the church itself, while turning right takes you onto a farm track which curves under the cycle track and presumably down to the farm buildings from the former Castle Semple. This may have also provided access to the Castle itself, before it was demolished, but I’m not sure about this.

From the cycle track, the church was impressive. Roofless, but with most of the walls intact, it sits in a green field. Historic Scotland takes care of the property and, according to them, it is likely that other buildings (most notably the grammar school linked to the church and manse buildings and a cemetery) are likely buried beneath this grass and may in the future be excavated.

The church was founded in 1504 by John Sempill, First Lord Sempill. King James IV visited it that year and donated 14 shillings to the ‘new college.’ There were several collegiate churches, places of learning and of religion, another one being formerly located in Dumbarton on the site currently occupied by Dumbarton Central Train Station. Unlike Castle Semple Collegiate Church, all that remains of the Dumbarton one is a window arch (that I have always described as a whalebone) which is now located outside the sheriff court.

The church fell out of use as a place of learning and worship in 1560 because of the Reformation, but continued to be used as a burial place. In the past, two interior walls had been built to subdivide the burial spaces but these were removed during more recent restoration work. The original building was altered to include the elaborate, canopied tomb in the chancel after John, 1st Lord Sempill, was killed at the Battle of Flodden in 1513. Around 40 years later, c.1550, one of his descendants added the polygonal apse at the east end of the building. The difference between the very plain original building and the more Gothic style of the apse is visible in the shape of the windows as well as the building shape.

There are a number of highly carved stones inside the building and some interesting grave markers. The tower is also fairly intact and it was interesting that inside it was more obvious that the stones used in the construction were really quite irregular — on the oter surface, the pointing makes this less noticeable (at least, to me!) It is one of the better preserved collegiate churches remaining in Scotland and occasionally services are still held here.

If I were to go and visit again, I would reverse the order in which I visited the Kenmure Temple and the Castle Semple Collegiate Church. Visiting the church en route meant that I had to go off the cycle track, all around the church, and then back again. After visiting the temple, I then retraced most of this to go and explore the cascades and the ice-house and then make my way into the Parkhill Woods. Still, it only took me around three hours to begin at the Visitor Centre, then visit the Temple, Church, Cascades and Ice-house so it wasn’t a significant detour and it was a nice day so I was happy enough to get the extra steps logged in on my phone!

Writing Prompt

Both the building and the route I took to reach it have been used for different things over the centuries: the cycle track was previously a railway line and the collegiate church became used as a burial ground rather than a place of worship. Visit a place you are familiar with or a new place which has changed its usage.

  • How does the place feel today?
  • Is it still in use or has it been abandoned again?
  • What signs can you see of its previous existence?
  • How well did it fit its changed use?

You could write a story about:

  • How and why the change took place
  • The liminal time between the two uses
  • An event in the second lifetime of the place, which is directly impacted by the original use

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