6 Apr 2010

Easter Sunday at Britain's smallest cathedral

It was one of those days that seemed to create itself moment by moment, like tracks being laid down before an approaching train. With the weather forecast promising afternoon sun, I left the flat on Sunday morning with only a vague plan for the day.

However a bus, a ferry and another bus later, I found myself walking up the path towards the Cathedral of the Isles, just as the Easter service bells began to ring.

Located on the tiny island of Great Cumbrae, The Cathedral of the Isles is the smallest cathedral in Britain, and is noted in some references as also being the smallest Cathedral in Europe. According to my count, there were about 50 of us packing the pews on Sunday, not far off from the nave’s maximum capacity of 80.
If you could form artistic and spiritual passion into a Victorian gothic stone nugget, then hollow it out and sit inside it, you would have this wee cathedral. It was built in 1851 by order of George Boyle, whose family owned the island.

Inspired by his studies at Oxford, George, who later became the 6th Earl of Glasgow, returned to Scotland and commissioned architect William Butterfield to design a theological college on Cumbrae.

On approach, the 123-foot spire makes the cathedral look much larger than it is, as do the attached buildings that make up the College of the Holy Spirit. Today the college runs regular retreats but has also opened its doors to tourists who fancy an island escape with equal portions of history, art and peace.

Like many people I admire cathedrals for the remarkable acoustics, so I was especially pleased that the Easter service included singing by a small but talented choir, giving me an opportunity to compare my experiences.

Unlike large cathedrals, where the sound can rise like smoke and seem to drip off the walls before weaving outwards into the centre of the room, I found that in this small space, no sooner had the hymn left the singer’s mouth than the sound was everywhere at once. I watched one singer’s lips and tried to feel the angle of the song as it left her, but could not. Again and again I heard a perfectly round resonance.

The Cathedral’s small parish works vigorously to maintain the building and share its history with locals and visitors.

After the service one of the church elders was kind enough to show me one of the Victorian vestments which has been returned following restoration and is now only used during special occasions. This beautiful garment is nearly the same age as the Cathedral itself, and considerably more fragile.

Even something as simple as notes from the old Cathedral Service Register, like this one from 28 December 1879, are treated as priceless:

Evensong was interrupted by a great storm which blew in the West window of the church - the same gale which blew over the first Tay Railway Bridge. No collection was taken.
Despite rolling up at the last minute, decked out in my tourist gear of camera and backpack, I was warmly welcomed by everyone I met. When the service was over I stepped out into the warm sunshine and headed out to discover more about Cumbrae and its main town, Millport.

More of Cumbrae for the next post, and I will finish by including a couple of links for those interested in knowing more about the Cathedral of the Isles.

Anyone wishing to become a Friend of the Cathedral for £10 a year, which helps with projects like the restoration I mentioned, click here to learn more. To swoon over the idea of staying on site, visit the guest house page.

  © Blogger template 'Isolation' by Ourblogtemplates.com 2008

Back to TOP