St Ninian's Cathedral overlooks a busy junction on the north side of the centre of Perth. Its tight and slightly enclosed site, the passing traffic, and the lack of a tower or spire make it all too easy to overlook St Ninian's: but to do so means missing out on a beautiful interior with a welcoming feel that could be a million miles away from the traffic outside.
St Ninian's Cathedral was consecrated in 1850, becoming the first cathedral to be built in Britain since the Reformation. It is part of the Scottish Episcopal Church, a member of the world-wide Anglican Communion which traces its history back to St Columba and the early days of Christianity in Scotland.
Like its sister-church south of the border, the Church of England, the Scottish Episcopal Church is governed by Bishops. This is one of the things that distinguishes it from the much larger Church of Scotland, a Presbyterian Church governed by representatives of the congregation. This may not initially sound like a major difference, but it was King Charles I's efforts to impose government by Bishops on the Presbyterian Church of Scotland which led to a riot in St Giles' Cathedral in Edinburgh on Sunday 23 July 1637.
This in turn led directly to the Bishops' Wars; the Wars of the Covenant; the English Civil War; the execution of Charles I; and Cromwell's occupation of Scotland: 23 years of wide-ranging conflict that did not really end until the restoration of Charles II in 1660. Those days are, thankfully, long gone, but it helps to know that differences of opinion about church governance were once, quite literally, a matter of life and death.
Although a minority denomination across the Scottish population as a whole, it was estimated in the mid 1800s that three quarters of the "landed proprietors of Scotland" were Episcopalians, a by-product of so many sons being educated at English public schools. St Ninian's Cathedral's origins owe much to the enthusiasm of Walter Forbes, 18th Lord Forbes and to George Boyle, later to become the 6th Lord Glasgow, after the latter returned to Scotland from his studies in Oxford in the 1840s determined to invigorate the Episcopalian movement in Scotland.
The two engaged the architect William Butterfield to produce a design, and work began in early 1850. This was planned as the first stage of construction eventually intended to produce a four-bay nave with aisles, transepts, a chancel, and two west towers. The first stage, sufficiently complete to be consecrated by the end of 1850, resulted in a chancel with a north aisle and a single bay nave. Work on a second phase intended to move further towards Butterfield's overall design took place in the two years to 1890. This added three more bays of the nave plus aisles, and the lower part of a single western tower, the architect having decided this would be better than the two western towers originally planned. Transepts were added either side of the base of the tower, ending level with outer sides of the aisles.
The next phase of construction took place in the two years to 1901. The chancel was changed to allow a south aisle and chapel to be added, and a cloister and chapter house were built to the south of the cathedral. In a final major bout of building in the years to 1911, the Lady Chapel was added to the end of the south choir aisle and the base of the western tower was changed to become a western gable for the nave, after it was discovered that the ground here was not strong enough to take the weight of a tower. Further additions were made, primarily to the cloister and buildings to the south, in 1936.
Internally, you get no sense at all of the complex story of the building of the cathedral. What you do get is a sense of space and tranquility. The various elements seem to flow into one another effortlessly. The nave would feel at home in a very much older church. The west end is dominated by a large stone font with its decorative wooden surroundings, while the east leads you into the chancel. The chancel, as you might expect, has a slightly more enclosed and intimate feel, assisted by the magnificent woodwork that is so prevalent here. But perhaps the most beautiful space is the Lady Chapel, reached through a wrought iron doorway.
The Lady Chapel is separated from the chancel by a superbly decorated arch in which there is a life size bronze statue of Bishop George Howard Wilkinson at prayer. This was commissioned after his death in 1901. Elsewhere in the cathedral there are many other beautiful decorative items, including but not restricted to the many fine stained glass windows.