Cathedral of the Isles

Cathedral of the Isles

Set a few hundred yards back from Millport's seafront is Great Cumbrae's most intriguing and beautiful attraction. With seating room for barely 100, the Cathedral of The Isles is the tiny, but remarkably beautiful.

From most of the rest of Millport, the only evidence of the cathedral is its slender spire, emerging from the surrounding trees. Yet as you approach the cathedral, especially along the tree lined path from the west, your first impression on glimpsing the building is not how small it seems, but rather how big.

There are a number of reasons for this illusion. The first is the height of the spire, which at 123ft is over three times the 40ft length of the nave, or over six times its 20ft width. The second is the way the cathedral is raised above the land immediately to its south and west. Actually it is the land that has been lowered: the stone for the cathedral was quarried on site, forming terraced grounds that add to its apparent height.

And the third reason why the Cathedral of The Isles seems so much bigger than it actually is comes from the more extensive group of structures to which it is attached.

The Choir
The Nave

These are unexpected in a post- Reformation church, but anyone who has spent any time tramping round Scotland's ruined abbeys or collegiate churches soon gets the idea: the cathedral has been built with its east end attached to further ranges of buildings, two of which form something remarkably like part of a medieval cloister.

Once inside the cathedral your attention is drawn away from its small dimensions by the remarkable height of the ceilings: and by the magnificence of the workmanship, the attention to detail and the beauty of the decor. The phrase "small but perfectly formed" is usually used ironically. It applies quite literally to the Cathedral of The Isles.

The nave is relatively plain, but the choir carries intricate decoration in multi-coloured tiling, contrasting wonderfully with dark wood fixtures and fittings. On the north side of the choir is a tranquil chapel.

The odd arrangement of the Cathedral of The Isles owes much to a slightly unusual history. George Boyle, who later went on to become the 6th Lord Glasgow, returned to Scotland from his studies in Oxford in the 1840s determined to invigorate the Episcopalian movement in Scotland, and in particular on the family-owned island of Great Cumbrae.

In 1849 Boyle commissioned the architect William Butterfield to design a theological college. The beautiful church you see today was part of the complex that emerged, which also included college buildings and accommodation, a chapter house and a cloister.

The building was completed in 1851 and opened its doors for study and worship. In 1876 the building was consecrated as Cathedral of The Isles and Pro-Cathedral of Argyll.

The remainder of the complex has maintained its original role as college and study centre. Up to 35 guests can be accommodated in the 19 rooms of the College of the Holy Spirit, and a programme of conferences, retreats and seminars takes place here.