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The Round Church stands in a magnificent location at the head of the village of Bowmore's Main Street. From here it dominates the village and offers views down the centre of Main Street to Loch Indaal and beyond. It has been described as Islay's best known building, and, give or take a few distilleries, that is very probably true.
The Round Church is the commonly used name for what is formally know as Kilarrow Parish Church. It was built between 1767 and 1769 by Daniel Campbell of Shawfield and Islay, who at the time owned Islay in its entirety. The following year work began on a planned village which greatly expanded the existing settlement of Bowmore. Campbell's development of Bowmore was not driven solely by altruistic motives. The new settlement was intended to generate increased rental income, and to allow the clearance of the area's main settlement of Kilarrow, near Bridgend. This in turn was intended to remove development from the area around Campbell's hereditary home, Islay House, and allow its gardens and grounds to be extended. A cynic might suggest that the development of the church was intended to help gain the acceptance of those being moved from Kilarrow to new planned village at Bowmore.
The identity of the architect used by Campbell is not known for certain. According to some sources the design is French, and produced by an architect he met during a grand tour of Europe in the 1750s. A more popular and more attractive theory is that the design was produced by John Adam, a member of the famous Adam family of architects. It seems he was commissioned by the 3rd Duke of Argyll to design a church for the new settlement of Inveraray in 1758. His circular design was never built in Inveraray, however, because it couldn't be divided to allow services in both English and Gaelic. Daniel Campbell had links with the Campbells of Inveraray and it seems likely this gave him access to John Adam's plan which as a result found a home in Bowmore.
The building of the Round Church was overseen by a contractor from the mainland, Thomas Spalding. The exterior diameter of the church is 60ft (just over 18m), and the walls are 2ft 9in thick. At the heart of the construction is a massive central pillar some 19 inches in diameter, made of oak. This is supported on a sandstone slab, and in turn it supports eight radial beams which form the main structure of the roof.
In 1830 a U-shaped gallery was added to help accommodate a rapidly increasing parish population. The gallery is supported on eight pillars which are reduced scale copies of the main central pillar. The internal layout of the ground floor was changed in 1890, at the time an organ was installed.
Visitors to Bowmore today find a church whose highly unusual circular plan makes it appear much younger than its (nearly) two and a half centuries. Folklore suggests that the circular design was intended to ensure that the devil could fine no corners in which to hide. But as even the identity of the architect is uncertain, the motives behind the design can at best be speculative.