The Roman Catholic St Columba's Cathedral stands in a prominent position on the north east side of Oban Bay. Its imposing tower looms over the Corran Esplanade, though much of the building is more retiring, appearing to retreat north eastwards between the hotels that line the Esplanade. As a result the only views of the cathedral that allow an appreciation of most of its structure are from across the bay, though McCaig's Tower does give a viewpoint that allows you to get a sense of the size of the building.
The story of Roman Catholicism in Oban and in Argyll and the Isles more widely says much about the wider history of this part of Scotland over the past two centuries. In 1842 the town's tiny Catholic population was served by a priest making the difficult and expensive journey from Drimnin, on the Morvern coast of the Sound of Mull opposite Tobermory. If this seems an odd arrangement, it is because there were at the time some 400 Catholics resident in the Drimnin Parish, where, as in a number of other remote areas of Scotland, the religion had maintained its popularity following the Reformation.
During the 21 year period between 1842 and 1869 there were just 11 Roman Catholic baptisms recorded in Oban. During the same period, however, parts of Morvern became subject to clearance by landlords who felt they could make more money from sheep farming than from maintaining a large crofting population. As a result the population of Drimnin Parish declined dramatically, to the point where it was no longer viable to maintain a parish priest there. From 1869 the spiritual needs of the growing number of Catholics in Oban were met by Jesuit priests staying in a holiday house purchased by the Order on the Esplanade, and over the next ten years 45 baptisms were recorded.
In 1878 the Catholic Church appointed its first Bishop of Argyll and the Isles, Bishop MacDonald, and based him in Oban, the largest settlement in the diocese and its obvious transport hub. At the time the diocese had just 16 priests, of whom nearly half were recorded as being unfit for hard work. The Catholic population of Oban continued to grow, and over the next thirteen years there were 300 baptisms in the town.
A Bishop needs a cathedral, and a congregation needs somewhere to worship. The diocese was very poorly resourced, however, and the early solution was to use Cathedral House, the name then given to the Jesuit holiday house on the Esplanade, to celebrate mass. A slightly more practical solution arrived in 1886, in the form of Oban's famous "tin cathedral". This was a surprisingly elaborate prefabricated corrugated iron building constructed as a temporary pro-cathedral using funds provided by the 3rd Marquess of Bute. The Marquess also provided funds for the fixtures and fittings, which it was intended should transfer to a more permanent cathedral when the money to build one could be found. At that point, it was believed, the pro-cathedral would be dismantled for reuse elsewhere.
As it turned out, the tin cathedral served Oban for nearly five decades. It was Bishop Donald Martin, who took up post in 1919, who decided that a replacement was overdue. Fundraising initially went well, helped by trips the Bishop made to the USA and Canada, but the financial collapse of 1929 delayed matters. Work began on the new cathedral in May 1932, and as this grew it gradually enveloped the existing tin cathedral, in which services continued to be held. The new St Columba's Cathedral opened for worship on Christmas Eve 1934, though by this time it was still only partly complete. Work on finishing the cathedral was virtually halted by the Second World War, and it was not until 1953 that the tower was built, with the bells "Brendan" and "Kenneth" being blessed in 1959.
St Columba's Cathedral was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and built in pink granite transported from Aberdeenshire. The style has been described as a blend of Gothic and Romanesque. Though it is partly hidden from view, the building still manages to convey an imposing sense of grandeur and bulk. Once inside, this translates into an impressively large space, given a sense of much greater age than the chronology allows by the absence of clerestory windows in the upper part of the nave extending above the flanking aisles.