Oban – Where we came from

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Our story in Oban begins with the Victorians, though the Episcopal Church has a long and momentous history in the West Highlands, tracing its history back through the Jacobite times, in which the Episcopal Church took a prominent part and for which it suffered severely, back to the days before the disestablishment, when the Church of Scotland was itself Episcopalian and before that back to the foundation of the Diocese of Argyll, about 1200, and the Diocese of the Isles, pre-1189, for which diocese St John’s in 1920 became the Cathedral; back to the Celtic Church, whose principal saints are commemorated in the names of the Cathedral Choir Stalls.

St John’scongregation was first gathered in 1846, when Oban was only a village and the present site was open fields. Some of the congregation were Anglicans from England and Ireland, but many were local Episcopalians from Appin, Ballachulish, and Glencoe, where the Episcopal Church has existed in continuity from the times before the Disestablishment. Two local lairds, MacDougall of Dunollie and Campbell of Dunstaffnage, were crucial to the project of starting a building, and both the families are still connected with the congregation.

The original architect, Charles Wilson, died before the plans were finalised, and his partner David Thomson picked up the commission and designed what is now the middle zone of the Cathedral, completed in 1864. In 1882 a south aisle was added. Bishop Chinnery-Haldane had plans underway for a new church building in Oban, and on his premature death in 1906 the congregation was encouraged to build a new Church as his memorial. Plans were drawn up by James Chalmers of Glasgowfor a large church, of Cathedral proportions, to be built on the existing site. Much of the funding derived from the Bishop’s own family, including the cost of the magnificent reredos behind the High Altar.

Work finished when funds were exhausted in August 1910, and by then only the Sanctuary, Chancel, one Transept and one bay of the Nave were completed. This was knitted in to the existing building, albeit that the latter was twelve foot lower than the Sanctuary, and orientated at right angles to the new structure, which had to be buttressed by remarkable riveted girders. Two major campaigns to rebuild or complete the building have not been successful. One, the famous Oban Cathedral Fund Appeal run from Staten Island, New York, and spearheaded by the redoubtable Mary Alice Cisco, foundered in the Crash on Wall Street. The other led by two Highland Chiefs from the Diocese, Maclean of Duart and Cameron of Lochiel, only raised funds sufficient for Ian G Lindsay in 1968 to improve the existing structure, including the creation of the Narthex. In 1988 the high structure was stabilised after 80 years of settlement and pressures, not the least being the noise of Concorde’s trial flights, which were in part monitored by movement to the Cathedral structure, which lay below the flight path. These last works were financed largely by the residuary bequest of a couple who came on their honeymoon to Oban in 1910 and had, at that time, thought it a shame that the builders had needed to call a halt for lack of funds.

Although, only partly built, the Cathedral has a dignity and a presence that is quite remarkable. The combination of Gothic masonry and bolted girders seems to produce an interior of genuine contemporary spirituality.

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