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The Captain of Dunstaffnage, Bishop Martin and Sir Gilbert Scott (architect) standing inside the new cathedral with the pro and tin building in the background. Photograph: the Scottish Catholic Archives

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The Cathedral Church of St Columba standing in a prominent position on the north east side of Oban Bay is the seat of the Roman Catholic Bishop of Argyll and the Isles and mother church of the Diocese of Argyll and the Isles. Described for its architecture as one of the finest churches in Scotland it, and its unique predecessor made of tin, has an interesting history. This week Iain Thornber continues with his insight on how they came to be built.

Although an office bearer in the Established Church, local laird and clan chief, Colonel MacDougall of MacDougall of Dunollie, supplied the site. Angus John Campbell (1888-1958), 20th Captain of Dunstaffnage Castle, was another landowner who supported the Faith by donating the land for both Connel and Dunbeg Catholic churches, and through giving money and great devotion to St Columba’s Cathedral and its modest tin precursor. The Campbells of Dunstaffnage were Protestants, but as a young man Angus converted to Catholicism. Unusually for a convert, he was elected a Knight of Honour and Devotion of the Sovereign and Military Order of Malta, and also made a Privy Chamberlain of the Sword and Cape to His Holiness The Pope. High honours which ensured he was invited to attend many Catholic functions throughout Scotland.
The plans for the 1884 structure were drawn up by the builders, Messrs Isaac Dixon and Co of Liverpool. In technical terms it was a clerestory church, or pro-cathedral, intended as a stop-gap until money could be raised for a more substantial one. But, as is so often the case then and now with anything to do with most buildings in the Highlands, temporary becomes permanent and it stood four square to the wind and rain, and lashed by salt spray for almost 50 years, which says a great deal for the quality of the tin and of the men who built and maintained it.

An external view of the tin pro cathedral. Photograph: the Scottish Catholic Archives

Eventually, however, the march of time prevailed, happily coinciding with enough money being raised to enable at least part of the new cathedral to be used for worship on the same site. The architect was Sir Gilbert Scott R.A. (1880-1960), remembered for his work on Cambridge University Library, Battersea Power Station and designing the iconic red telephone kiosk. He was also noted for his blending of Gothic tradition with modernism, which is clearly seen and works so well in St Columba’s. The builders were D & J MacDougall, Drimvargie, Oban, glowingly commended by the Oban Times as, ‘among the best builders in Britain’. Be that as it may, they were given a great many prime, high-end, contracts in the Diocese and beyond. These included the Royal Bank, Municipal Buildings, Rosebank House and a new pier for the Lighthouse Commissioners in Oban and Hyskeir light. Their mansion houses were: Kingairloch (Ardgour), Ichrachan (Taynuilt), Eriska (Benderloch), Lochbuie (Mull), Ardsheal (Appin) and Kilbowie (Oban). The foreman in charge of the new cathedral contract was Mr Joseph MacKinnon. Bishop Martin had the view from the beginning, that as much work as possible should be given to local tradesmen and for this he earned the gratitude of many for his thoughtfulness.

The final services in the pro-cathedral prior to its demolition to make room for the progress of the new building were held in November 1933. The occasion was marked with a certain sadness among the worshippers in having to say farewell to a building that had served the Catholics of Oban for so many years, and, which had been the nursery, as it were, for their increased numbers. Bishop Martin, who succeeded George Smith, in his address, spoke of that feeling of severance, but gladdened his hearers by referring to the solid and beautiful edifice, that was gradually taking shape, which he hoped he would be spared to see in its completion.

At the evening service something extraordinary occurred. The Te Deum, the hymn of praise, was intoned by the Bishop and sung by the choir in thanksgiving for the many graces and blessings received during the past half century. This was followed by the De Prefundis, recited for the repose of the souls for those who had worshipped within its walls. Then, as the two hundredweight bell in the tower which had sounded the Angelus three times a day for almost half a century, was being rung for the last time, an extra strong pull by the bell-ringer brought it crashing to the floor of the belfry. Fortunately there was no damage of any kind and no one was hurt. The bell had anticipated its removal!

The foundation stone of the new Cathedral was laid on September 14, 1932, by the Right Reverend Donald Martin in the presence of a distinguished company. With him were Mgr Mackintosh, Roy Bridge Canon Macdonald, Dunoon; Canon Macneill, Morar; and Canon Butler, Rothesay. The choir was composed of Rev John F Clark, Barrhead; Rev McCann, Glasgow; Rev Cassidy, Perth; Rev Wilfred Gettins, Taynuilt; Rev Francis MacElmail, Clifton, Bristol; Rev Charles MacDonald, Moidart; Rev Kenneth Grant, Glasgow; Rev MacDonald, Glencoe; Rev Dominic MacKellaig, Barra; Rev John McQueen, Oban; and Rev Donald Macmaster, Oban. After the celebration of the Chapter Mass by Canon MacDougall of Inverie, Bishop Martin, vested in cope and mitre and holding his pastoral staff, and proceeded by the cross-bearer, choir, clergy and Chapter, went to the site of the future altar, where a wooden cross had been erected.
His Lordship blessed the holy water and the foundation stone and then with a silver and ivory-handled trowel, presented by Messrs D & J MacDougall, marked the foundation stone in three places with the Sign of the Cross. Afterwards His Lordship knelt down and the Litany of the Saints was sung; the cantors being Fathers Cassidy and Clark.

The massive stone was then cemented and laid in position. After the singing of the psalm Misere Mei, the Bishop, accompanied by the Chapter and choir, passed through the south door of the chancel and walked round the church blessing the partly erected exterior walls and the ground on which the new cathedral would stand. On the return of the procession to the site of the foundation stone, the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus was sung by the choir, and the ceremony closed with the episcopal blessing.

Before the foundation stone was laid in position two glass vessels were placed inside a cavity underneath containing a parchment in Latin which translated read: ‘On the 14th September in the year of Our Lord, 1932, on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Pope Pius X1, happily reigning who, out of his great kindness towards us, gave the two large medals herein included, George V being King of Great Britain – this foundation stone of the Cathedral Church of St Columba, Oban – a church indeed, built with great help by America and Canada – was laid by me, Donald, Bishop of Argyll and the Isles, in the presence of the Chapter and a large gathering of the faithful’.
The two medals, one silver, and one bronze, gifted by the Pope, a complete set of Vatican State coins, a full set of British coins for 1934, copies of the Oban Times and The Universe (a weekly newspaper for Roman Catholics in Great Britain and Ireland), and a statement written by a Carmelite Nun at Oban expressing thanks for the generosity of Canadian and American friends in contributing to the cost of the building, were put into the two vessels and deposited under the stone.

Among those present at the ceremony were: the Duke of Argyll; the Marchioness of Bute; Lord Rhidian Crichton-Stuart; Mr Michael Crichton-Stuart; Major Colin MacRae of Feorlin, and Lady Margaret MacRae; Miss Gwendoline MacRae, Mr John MacRae; Colonel Iain Colquhoun of Luss; the Captain of Dunstaffnage; Mrs Bardwell; Colonel Ian M Campbell of Airds; Mrs James Cameron-Head and Mr Francis Cameron-Head, Inverailort; Miss Bellingham, Castle Bellingham, Ireland; the Hon Mrs Finlay; Mrs Campbell Preston; Provost MacAlister, Oban, and ex-Provosts MacArthur and Hutton; Bailies McLachlan and Livingstone; Councillor Maxton; Mr A. S. Black, Town Clerk; Mr J W N Black, Town Clerk Depute and Mr David Galloway, Burgh Surveyor. Priests were present from Perth, Glasgow and all parts of Argyll and the Isles.