My Favourite Place: Dreaming St Conan’s Kirk

St Conan's Kirk
St Conan’s Kirk
(taken with Impossible Film)

When I was nine I dreamt of going to Mars. I dreamt of being swept away to fantastical lands, I dreamt of joining David at Groosham Grange, and travelling with Sarah in her quest to the Goblin City. I’m still a dreamer, but I no longer dream of escape. The ordinary and the fantastical inhabit the same world. There’s ghosts, vampires, goblins, cyborgs, and aliens round every corner, lurking down every close. There’s mermaids and krakens in the ocean, dragons in the sky.

There is a place I visit where I don’t have to dream. The fantastical is already there in the trees, the stones, the flying buttresses, and the beautifully carved owls sneakily observing with their hollow eyes. Growing up, church-going felt oppressive, but I would transform the church with exploring and storytelling. Wielding my torch, I would crawl through a hole in the back of the dungeon, and down through the floor to a cupboard I claimed as my own. I was the rat in the walls, the flittering ghost. I was poisoned and exorcised. I didn’t belong. But in St Conan’s I found a church that was stripped of institutional meaning. Or maybe I had done the disassembling. Maybe this was where my dreaming came in. If religion should be anything it should be a joy. So I brought my joy and I was met with a thousand stories, I was met with the bristling, shimmering electricity of so many things waiting to happen.

I spent my childhood in theatres, in cinemas, between the pages of books; fiction and reality were never clearly demarcated, but I didn’t imagine I would find a bricks and mortar dreamscape. There is a theatrical feel to St Conan’s, as if the walls will shift and transform. The elaborate fish-chairs in the chancel and the intricate birds in the nave simmer with potential life. The stained glass angels with their blood-red wings battle serpents at the witching hour. The spiralling staircase, tucked away in a corner, is inaccessible to visitors, but I know it will lead to a tower where an old woman brews potions and reads stories to hybrid animal-machines. Just as I know the sundial that overlooks Loch Awe will open a portal to another world as the gnomon’s shadow signals noon.

Like a child, I brought a bottle of bubbles on my trip and I cast little glimmering orbs across the grounds. The floating crystal balls sparkled and popped, disappearing into the ether. One persistent sphere was caught by the delicate tendrils of a plant snaking up the wall. Sometimes I forget I’m a dreamer. So caught up in lists, in administration, in deadlines; made ill and stiff and aching with the weight of it all. Then I close my eyes and see that shimmering orb. I’m back at St Conan’s, lying on the warm stone, looking up at the rainwater rabbit heads, with their blank zombie eyes and their gaping mouths ready to gush forth the blood of angels and serpents. I feel the heat of the sun, and watch the clouds tumble past the tower. I’m floating, held gently like the bubble amidst the leaves of the plant. Dreaming isn’t an escape. It’s a way of living in this world. I watch the bubble sway as the plant is buffeted by the breeze. Tell me my future, I say. And I know my future is here.

(Dreaming St Conan’s was written for the Scottish Book Trust’s ‘My Favourite Place’)

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