The main road taking traffic heading south into the heart of Oban is George Street. Amid the confusion of shops and restaurants it is surprisingly easy to overlook a large red stone building standing on the west side of the street.
This is St John's Cathedral, or the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine. There are two cathedrals in Oban. St Columba's is the Roman Catholic Cathedral and looks south-west over Oban Bay, while St John's is the Cathedral of the Scottish Episcopal Church.
The Scottish Episcopal Church is 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: which is why it has cathedrals. 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.
St John's Church was originally built in 1864 and was aligned east-west, with its eastern gable facing onto what is now George Street. The church was largely paid for by the MacDougalls of Dunollie and the Campbells of Dunstaffnage. In 1882 a broad south aisle was added, which now forms the narthex that houses the font and serves as a meeting place for the congregation. Bishop Chinnery-Haldane, who was elected in 1883, had plans drawn up for a much larger church, and after his death in 1906 the idea was raised once more as a memorial to him. The Glasgow architect James Chalmers won a competition to design the new church, and work began in 1908.
When the money ran out in August 1910 only the chancel, sanctuary, one transept and one bay of the nave had been completed, leaving a considerable part of the intended structure unbuilt. Compared with its 1864 predecessor the new church was turned to align north south and had a floor level 12ft higher. St John's Church became a cathedral in 1920, and although there have been plans drawn up to "complete" a church now over a century old, most notably in the 1960s, the church is largely as it was when work stopped in 1910.
The location, the redness of the stone and the confusion of rooflines resulting from its incomplete structure conspire to ensure that St John's Cathedral will never win a beauty contest for its exterior appearance.
On entering the church, however, all the awkwardness of the exterior disappears and you find yourself in an inspiring church quite unlike any other you will have ever seen. There are plenty of oddities with the interior layout and structure, but here they translate into charm and character. Most strikingly, because only part of the nave was ever built, elements that would have helped support the structure of the church simply never appeared. This resulted in the need for two large riveted steel buttresses to be inserted, simply to ensure the stability of what they had been able to build. Other steelwork has been inserted within the roof of what became the nave, and the result is a unique and intriguing blend of a Romanesque cathedral and the Forth Rail Bridge. This probably seemed highly unsatisfactory to the initial congregation, but today these elements add greatly to the considerable attraction of the interior of the building.
On entering the cathedral from George Street you emerge in the narthex, separated from the main body of the church by a glass wall added in the 1960s. Sliding glass doors then give access to the nave. From here you progress into the beautiful chancel dominated by the 1994 organ. The sanctuary, at the far end of the chancel, is home to a magnificent 12m high reredos, featuring the faces of some of the 1910 congregation as apostles.
On the east side of the nave is a lifebelt from HMS Jason, which serves as a memorial to the 25 members of her crew who lost their lives when the ship struck a mine off the island of Coll on 7 April 1917. There are many other fascinating details to look out for, including the very contrasting styles of stained glass. One triple window formed the east window of the original church and dates back to 1864. On the opposite side of the nave are the Bethel and Revelation Windows, very much more contemporary in style and produced by Sarah Campbell of Dunstaffnage.