History of St Columba’s Cathedral

Barrafolk have contact with the mainland by ferry trip of approximately 5 hours to the port of Oban, where, upon arrival in Oban Bay, the scene is dominated by the beautiful Cathedral which is the seat of our our bishop, Rt Rev Brian McGee.

Today St Columba’s Cathedral stands tall and stately, and simply beautiful in its prominent location on Oban’s Esplanade. Its imposing exterior and dignified interior may belie the difficulty and the human sacrifice of its existence. It has not always been here!

When the Hierarchy of Scotland was restored in 1878 and the Diocese of Argyll and the Isles was established there was no Cathedral, and unlike the other newly formed Dioceses of Scotland, it had no suitable church to adopt as a Cathedral.  Nor was Oban, with its Catholic families in single figures at the time, the most obvious or even logical place in which to centre the newly formed Diocese and build a Cathedral.

However, far-seeing Bishop Angus MacDonald reckoned that through time Oban would become an important centre in the West Highlands and a gateway to the Islands beyond…and so it was that the town that had no Catholic church became overnight the centre of the newly formed Diocese of Argyll and the Isles.

The original ‘Cathedral’ was a room in the Cathedral House (a property bought some years earlier by the Society of Jesus for use as a summer retreat); shortly afterwards a more ‘permanent’ presence was established in the form of a wooden building standing where the Cathedral Hall now stands.

In 1886 the Marquis of Bute provided for a more ‘permanent still’ structure – the famous ‘Tin Cathedral’ – a prefabricated corrugated iron building…made to be dismantled and used elsewhere when no longer needed as a Pro-Cathedral! Although the outside might have been of inferior quality, the inside was richly and beautifully decorated. The Bishop’s Chair, Canons’ stalls, credence table in today’s Cathedral date from the earlier ‘Tin Cathedral’.

By 1919 when Bishop Donald Martin was appointed Bishop of the Diocese, a decision had to be made about the provision of a final ‘permanent’ Cathedral for the Diocese – the venerable iron building was now showing sign of severe deterioration. Times were hard and people were poor, yet the project was begun and the prominent Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, R.A. was chosen as architect, with the work being undertaken by local builders, D & J MacDougall.

The Foundation stone was laid on 14 September 1932, and by Christmas 1934 the sanctuary and part of the nave were ready and the new building (built over and round the old one) was formally opened for worship. Work continued slowly, but the war was to delay its progress to early completion significantly. It was only in 1953, in the episcopacy of Bishop Kenneth Grant, that the tower, and so the Cathedral, was finally completed…or almost – the two great bells (Kenneth and Brendan) were delivered and blessed in 1959, shortly before Bishop Grant died.

On 8 June 2004 all the Bishops of Scotland gathered with the clergy and faithful from every quarter of our scattered Diocese for the formal dedication of St Columba’s Cathedral by Bishop Ian Murray. That was a solemn and uplifting occasion – and confirmation that the Diocese of Argyll and the Isles, through the struggles and sacrifices of our forebears, has a Cathedral second to none in Scotland.