History of St John's Cathedral

Our story in Oban begins with the Victorians, though the Episcopal Church has a long and momentous history in the West Highlands, tracing its history back through the Jacobite times, in which the Episcopal Church took a prominent part and for which it suffered severely, back to the days before the disestablishment, when the Church of Scotland was itself Episcopalian and before that back to the foundation of the Diocese of Argyll, about 1200, and the Diocese of The Isles, pre-1189, for which dioceses St John's in 1920 became the Cathedral; back to the Celtic Church, whose principal saints are commemorated in the names of the Cathedral Choir Stalls.

St John's congregation was first gathered in 1846, when Oban was only a village and the present site was open fields. The original architect, Charles Wilson, died before the plans were finalised, and his partner David Thomson picked up the commission and designed what is now the middle zone of the Cathedral, completed in 1864. Some of the congregation were Anglicans from England and Ireland, but many were local Episcopalians from Appin, Ballachulish, and Glencoe, where the Episcopal Church has existed in continuity from the times before the Disestablishment. Two local lairds, MacDougall of Dunollie and Campbell of Dunstaffnage, were crucial to the project of starting a building, and both the families are still connected with the congregation.

In 1882 a south aisle (which is now the Narthex) was added. Bishop Chinnery-Haldane had plans underway for a new church building in Oban, and on his premature death in 1906 the congregation was encouraged to build a new Church as his memorial. Plans were drawn up by James Chalmers of Glasgow for a large church, of Cathedral proportions, to be built on the existing site. Much of the funding derived from the Bishop's own family, including the cost of the magnificent reredos behind the High Altar.

Work finished when funds were exhausted in August 1910, and by then only the Sanctuary, Chancel, one Transept and one bay of the Nave were completed. This was knitted in to the existing building, albeit that the latter was twelve foot lower than the Sanctuary, and oriented at right angles to the new structure, which had to be supported by remarkable steel buttresses.

And so in general terms the building has remained ever since, despite two major campaigns to rebuild or complete it. One, the famous Oban Cathedral Fund Appeal run from Staten Island, New York, and spearheaded by the redoubtable Mary Alice Cisco, foundered in the Crash on Wall Street. The other, led by two Highland Chiefs from the Diocese, Maclean of Duart and Cameron of Lochiel, only raised funds sufficient for Ian G Lindsay in 1968 to improve the existing structure, the improvements including the creation of the Narthex from the 1882 south aisle. In 1988 the high structure was stabilised after 80 years of settlement and pressures, not the least being the noise of Concorde's trial flights, which were in part monitored by movement to the Cathedral structure, which lay below the flight path. These last works were financed largely by the residuary bequest of a couple who came on their honeymoon to Oban in 1910 and had at that time thought it a shame that the builders had had to call a halt for lack of funds.

The Cathedral Building ~ see pictures of parts of the Cathedral on our photos page

1.The Narthex was built in 1882, as a side aisle to the original church, and is now both a baptistry for the fine onyx and marble font shown and a meeting place for the congregation. It is thus similar to a 'Galilee Porch', such as is found at Durham Cathedral.

2. The west wall (formerly the back wall of the original 1864 church) contains two windows with modern paintings by Sarah Campbell of Dunstaffnage. The left-hand window depicts the dream of Jacob at Bethel, linking earth and heaven. His stone pillow is traditionally supposed to be the Coronation Stone formerly in Westminster Abbey, now in Edinburgh Castle, and which was once housed at Dunstaffnage Castle. The right-hand window is the vision of St John the Divine (after whom the building is dedicated), in which the elders cast their crowns on a sea of glass.

3. The lifebelt comes from H.M.S. Jason which was hit by an enemy mine near Coll, during the First World War, and 25 people were lost. The crew, before their last fateful tour of duty had worshipped at St John's, which was much used by the Forces during both World Wars. It has been said that many War Memorials are finely designed, but 'this War Memorial was the means of actually saving one or two lives'.

4. The tall Choir Stall ends are intended to represent tall round-headed carved stones in a Celtic graveyard. The carvings on the right hand side include the sign of St Mungo, the Diocesan Arms (with a Blessing issuing from God's hand), and Christ in Majesty; and all the designs have formal 'roots' going down the panel.

5. The twelve canon stalls in the back row on either side of the choir stalls are dedicated to Celtic Saints. Most of the stalls have tip up seats, such as are found in medieval churches. The Bishop's special stall has a raised canopy, with the Diocesan Arms behind it; while the Provost's stall is surrounded with carved thistle.

6. The blocked transept arch contains a massive metal eagle the sign of St John the Evangelist, whose theology is supposed to soar over the rest of the Bible. The bronzed metal sculpture is by George Wyllie, Gourock.

7. The reredos behind the altar is over 40 feet high, with a canopy including gilded thistles, in a decorative style in contrast to the plain Norman style of the stonework, and was designed by the architect, James Chalmers, himself. It is in memory of Bishop Chinnery-Haldane, who is depicted as St Columba in the right-hand statue. The left-hand statue is St John, who is supposed to have drunk from a poisoned chalice and survived, and the statue has the traditional imagery of a chalice with a little dragon peeping out. The oil paintings, by the Glasgow artist Norman MacDougall, are a synopsis of the life of Jesus Christ; the Annunciation to Mary (the outer two paintings); the Pieta; and above it the Ascension, set in the West Highlands, with the faces of the apostles being the faces of some of the congregation in 1910.

8. The organ, by J Wood and Sons Ltd, was installed in 1994 (more details below)

9. The pulpit is of St Bee's stone.


The Organ at St John's Cathedral


Contra Bourdon                32                           Open Diapason                 8

Principal                          16                           Chimney Flute   8

Bourdon                           16                           Principal               4

Violone                            16                           Nason Flute        4

Octave                              8                           Twelfth                2 2/3

Flute                                 8                           Fifteenth             2

Choral Bass                      4                           Piccolo 2

Trombone                        16                           Sesquialtera         12.17 II

Schalmei                          8                            Mixture          19.22.26 III

Trumpet                           8

    Great to Pedal

    Swell to Pedal                    Swell to Great

    Choir to Pedal                    Choir to Great

    Great/Pedal Pistons Coupled




Quintadena                    16                           Spitz Flute            8

Principal                          8                           Principal               4

Gedackt                          8                           Flute      4

Spitz Gamba                   8                           Nazard 2 2/3

Voix Celeste                    8                           Block Flute           2

Octave                            4                           Tierce    1 3/5

Flute                               4                           Dulzian                 16

Fifteenth                         2                            Crumhorn               8

Larigot                            1 1/3                      Tremulant          

Mixture                  IV

Contra Fagotto                16                           Swell to Choir

Trompette                        8

Clarion                            4



6 thumb pistons for each manual. 6 toe pistons for pedals.

6 general pistons (thumb and toe). 8 coupler pistons.

Memory Capture System, A, B, and C.

Expression Pedals for Swell and for Choir.

MIDI and Playback facilities.