Morvern Lines – 25.2.21

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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 concludes his insight on how they came to be built.

Later a sale of work to help fund the new cathedral was held in the church hall followed in the evening by a dance which was opened by Bishop Martin and largely attended by members of the congregation and well-wishers. The music was supplied by Macfarlane’s Orchestra and £160 was raised.

Of great interest to the many visitors who came to see the cathedral going up and to look around, was a model of the building made by a member of the Pro-cathedral choir, Mr J. E. Corbett. The model was of wood, correct to scale (eighth part) in every detail, from the thickness of the walls to the details of the general layout. All the windows were glass hand-painted, and lightened from inside to give the effect of stained glass windows. Externally the model was coloured correctly and looked very realistic. One half of the entrance door was open, showing a tiny porch complete with panelling, table, doormat, and half-glazed doors in the aisle. Apparently it was completed in six weeks with the aid of a fretsaw, penknife and a few files, which was thought all the more remarkable as Mr Corbett had never attempted wood work of any description, confining his artistic ability to water-colour painting.

Built in pink Aberdeenshire and blue Kentallen granite, the new cathedral took shape, gradually enveloping the old tin building which was left standing for as long as possible to provide a place of worship.

Bishop Martin travelled to USA, Canada and Ireland to raise funds but the Wall Street crash in 1929, leading to the Great Depression in Europe, delayed its completion as did the Second World War, and it was not until 1959 when the enormous bells, ‘Brendan’ and ‘Kenneth’ were blessed, that the building was finally finished.
Following the death of Sir Charles Gordon in 1845, his family later found difficulty in maintaining the Mission.

Drimnin chapel, Morvern. Photograph supplied by Iain Thornber.

A private oratory was opened in Drimnin House where Saint Mary McKillop, Australia’s first saint, whose parents worked on the estate, attended Mass on her visit to the UK in 1873. Thereafter the chapel was used only occasionally for marriages, baptisms and funerals until it was finally abandoned and stripped of its contents – some of which went to the tin pro cathedral and from there into the new cathedral.
One of the Drimnin priests was Father Hugh Cameron, later Monsignor and Vicar General of the Diocese, who served in Barra from 1908-21. From Castlebay he wrote a letter to Mrs Mary Theresa Gordon, Sir Charles’ daughter- in-law, dated May 5, 1921: ‘As Drimnin was my first mission and I still retain very pleasant recollections of it, I should be sorry indeed to see it [the Mission and the Catholic connection] die out. Some time ago within the last year there was some wish on the part of the Board of Agriculture to settle a colony of people from Barra along the shore of the Sound of Mull to relieve the appalling congestion here, and I took it on myself to suggest that if land were to be acquired it should be as near as possible to the church at Drimnin since naturally the whole of the proposed settlers would be Catholics.

‘I don’t know whether any progress at all has been made in connection with this scheme, or whether any overtures have been made to you with a view to the Board’s acquiring the estate if you were disposed to sell. I am not at all very sanguine that anything may come out of it, but I should be glad to see a Catholic colony established near you so as to keep the old foundations alive.’
In a second letter later in the same year he wrote: ‘I called at the Board of Agriculture in Edinburgh but found the Drimnin proposals like all others, shelved at the moment on account of Treasury stringency. I hope the scheme won’t be lost sight of, but if it is to mature I fear it will not be under my direct auspices for I am to be transferred to Rothesay at the next term. Canon MacDonald is to go to Glenfinnan and Fr Macdougall replaces me here.

‘I can’t say that I am overjoyed at the prospect of practically ending my 20 years connection with the Highlands, but apparently there is nothing else for it.’
Hugh Cameron was born at Inveroy, Lochaber, in 1876. He was educated at Rome’s Propaganda College (not Scots College) and at St Sulpice in Paris. Before and after the First World War he served as chaplain to the Lovat Scouts. His involvement with Barra’s overcrowding may be sensed in his erection of a corrugated-iron chapel on Vatersay. While serving Kingussie he died at Rome in 1931.

Donald Buchanan’s Reflections of the Isle of Barra (1943) suggests he went there in search of documents pertaining to Hebridean history.

Between 2008-2012 Drimnin Chapel was restored to its original form by Mr and Mrs Derek Lewis, eventual successors to the Gordons. It was rededicated in 2010 in the presence of His Royal Highness Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex; Donald Cameron of Lochiel Lord Lieutenant of Inverness, Lochaber, Badenoch and Strathspey; the Rt Rev Bishop Toal, Bishop of Argyll and the Isles; Mgr Thomas Wynne; the Rev Donald MacCorkindale Church of Scotland minister for the Parish of Morvern and many friends in the local community.

I am grateful to Father Michael MacDonald, Ardkenneth, South Uist, for drawing my attention to contemporary photographs of the Tin Cathedral and its successor in the superb Scottish Catholic Historical Collection, and to Donna McGuire, its archivist, for her unstinting help in scanning and supplying them.

I would like to thank Alastair MacEeachen, Benbecula, who answered a nonstop flow of emails while I was researching this article, and Mr and Mrs Derek Lewis, who gave me access to their records.

Alastair Roberts, retired full time writer, who lives beside Loch Morar, has done more than anyone in recent times to record and preserve the history of the Catholic Church in some of the remotest places in the West Highlands and Islands. His latest book, Chapels of the Rough Bounds: Morar, Knoydart, Arisaig, Moidart, adds to an already impressive list of scholarly titles and can be obtained at the Mallaig Heritage Centre (www.mallaigheritage.org.uk) and Arisaig’s Land, Sea and Islands Centre, price £7.50, plus p&p. (Email: info@arisaigcommunitytrust.org.uk)