The Cathedral Church of Lismore

Understanding the cathedral church of Lismore, and how it was built, is like tracing the plot in a detective novel.   The surviving structure, cut down from the medieval chancel, has undergone at least two major refits over the last 250 years, resulting in the present parish church.  Most of the clues to the original cathedral come from knowledge of what the builders found and did to the structure in the 1740s and around 1900, and the results of the archaeological excavation carried out between 1950 and 1953.  Because of its relative simplicity, it has proved possible to develop a reasonable reconstruction of the building from these clues.  Uncovering who built the cathedral, when and how, is much more difficult in the almost complete absence of documentary evidence from the time of the MacDougall ownership of Lismore.  The historian is forced to rely on knowledge of comparable activities elsewhere including building in stone on Lismore, the architecture of the remains, surviving fragments of documentary evidence, elements of oral history, and some informed speculation.

Church side website choice

Lismore Parish  Church Today

In 1749, the parish church building was created out of the chancel of the medieval cathedral, then standing ruined and largely roofless;  its appearance today (Fig. 1) is a result of the alterations to the fabric made at that time and during a major refurbishment around 1900.  The rectangular plan of the chancel (internal dimensions 15.6m x 7.2m) is retained in the modern building (although there is some uncertainty about the nature of the division between chancel and nave – see below).  However, according to the Rev. Donald McNicol (minister of the parish from 1766) its walls were reduced in height by 2 to 3 metres at the time of reroofing in 17491;  and, in 1900, the floor level was set at 5.3m below the wall head (at least 0.5m above the original floor level2).  From these records, it has been estimated that the original wall height of the cathedral chancel was 8-9m3.  With harling on the outside, and plaster and a low wooden dado covering most of the interior walls, there is limited access to the original stonework.  None of the window openings is original;  they date from either the eighteenth or twentieth century and, in the original chancel, there were no windows on the north wall.

Refurbished as a reformed church in 1749, the focus of the building was moved from  the east end of the chancelwhere the altar had been placed, to the communion table and minister’s pulpit placed near the south wall.  The congregation sat in pews facing the pulpit from three sides and wooden galleries were attached to the west, north and east walls, reached by an external stair at the east end4.  Entrance by the congregation to the ground floor was through the archway in the west wall, and the minister reached his pulpit by the round-headed doorway at the centre of the south wall (which would have been used by officiating clergy to gain access to the chancel in pre-Reformation times).  (Figs. 2,6)

The 1900 remodelling was even more drastic, reversing the medieval alignment.  A  door for the congregation was-opened at the east end, the south doorway was closed up, and the minister now enters from a vestry attached to the west wall.  The communion table and pulpit are to the west, faced by ranks of pews.  The three galleries were replaced by a single gallery on the east wall accessed by an internal stair.  At the site of the external stairway, now removed, a porch was erected to protect the east doorway.   (Figs. 4,7).

7 West End

7 West End

In spite of these very extensive works, several medieval details have survived.  On the outside, there are four buttresses on the south wall, two on the east, and one at the corner of the east and north walls.  As these are heavily harled (and have evidently been cut down when the wall height was lowered), no details of the stonework are visible, although some spalling of the harling on the south side reveals that they are built of buff-coloured sandstone.  There is also an unexplained short extension of the west wall to the north, which appears to be later than the medieval structure.  The external stonework of the round-headed doorway in the south wall is original, featuring two carved heads, now very worn and covered with a thick coat of mortar.  On the west wall there are two plain corbels (three are visible on photographs taken before the 1900 works), which may have provided support for a wooden structure within the nave of the cathedral or, alternatively, part of the nave roof (see below).  On the outside of the north wall, near the buttress, there is a rectangular recess, which has been identified as an aumbry (recess for storing chalices and communion wafers or bread).  This is evidence that there was an additional structure to the north, accessed from the chancel. (Fig. 5).

Within the church, the mouldings of the round-headed doorway in the centre of the south wall are relatively undamaged, featuring a pair of stylized heads.  Towards the east end are three round-headed sedilia (seats for clergy officiating at mass) and a small piscina (basin for washing communion vessels, with a drain hole to the outside) (Figs).    The north wall features a doorway with a pointed arch, flanked by two carved heads;  these may represent a bishop wearing a mitre (left) and a tonsured clergyman (right).  Although this doorway is closed up, and invisible from the outside, cracks in the harling reveal its position.  The two doorways, sedilia and piscina are carved from a buff coloured stone, thought to be Carboniferous sandstone from the InninmoreBay

quarry on Morvern, opposite Craignure on Mull.  Together they display at least 19 masons’ marks.  The west wall is pierced by a semicircular (1m high) arch in buff-coloured sandstone supported on dressed sandstone verticals (2m).  Within this arch is a plain semicircular doorway in green sandstone (apparently from quarries near the mouth of Loch Feochan on the mainland to the south of Oban)  (height 2.5m), which was revealed by removing plaster in 1956/7.  The outer arch is not the work of a master mason:  it does not appear to have any mason’s marks, the verticals do not meet the arch accurately, and the outline of the arch itself is irregular.  (Figs 9-12)

Archaeological Evidence

A thorough excavation of the accessible area immediately to the west of the church in 1950-535 revealed the extent of the medieval nave (externally 24m x 9.3-9.4m).  Allowing for the thickness of the walls (1-1.2m), this was exactly the same breadth as the chancel, and there was no evidence of a transept.   The foundations were of massive slate and, apart from a base course of dressed sandstone, the walls were of rough construction:  mixed limestone and whinstone, of varying sizes and shapes, with a core of rubble stone, bonded with a sand and sea shell mortar.  There were buttresses to the north and south near the west end of each wall, and at least one doorway was found, around 1m wide, at 4m from the west end of the south wall.

The debris within the ruined nave revealed that the building had been roofed with thick slate, but the site yielded little carved stonework and few dressed stones.  There was no indication of how the nave was floored (and no record for the chancel when its floor was raised) but, in contrast to normal practice, where there are steps up to the altar, the chancel of Lismore cathedral was around a metre below the nave.   This is shown clearly in Donald Black’s reconstruction.  (Fig. 3)  With a floor even higher than the nave, a small square tower (internal walls 1.2m thick, 2.7m x 2.7m) was attached to the west wall of the nave, slightly to the south of the centre point.  Without any evidence of a doorway, it was concluded that its entrance was by a stair within the cathedral.  Examination of the masonry confirmed that the tower was a later addition to the building.

Several features of the north wall of the chancel (doorway, lack of windows, presence of an aumbry) indicated that there must have been an additional chapel to the north of the chancel.  The existence of such a structure was not fully established in the 1950s excavation but further work in 19706 found the footing of the west wall of a chapel near the position of the doorway and confirmed that the buttress at the NE corner had been part of a structure 6.3m in length.   Because of the modern graveyard wall, it was not possible to determine the breadth of the chapel.

Reconstruction of the Medieval Cathedral

There is no way of estimating the original height of the nave but, arguing from similar plain cathedrals in Ireland, Brown & Duncan (1957) proposed that the nave and chancel would have been of the same height.  (In Donald Black’s pictorial reconstruction of the building, the nave is seen as taller than the chancel.)  Interpreting the west wall of the present church as a later addition (see below), they presented an image of the main body of the cathedral as a dark tunnel, with few windows, of uniform height, possibly with a wooden screen to separate chancel from nave.  The scarcity of carved stones suggested that the nave, where the congregation would have stood to receive mass, was plain and unadorned – in contrast to the chancel whose carved details show traces of earlier painting in red and black.  However, this argument is not entirely persuasive because it is known that most of the sandstone from the ruined nave was salvaged to build the manse in the 1740s, and there are several pieces of carved sandstone in the manse garden and the churchyard.  Large sandstone paving stones in the manse garden are probably from the floor of the nave.  However, the green sandstone of the manse porch, similar to the stone of the west wall arch, was almost certainly imported specially for the major building work carried out in the 1840s.

The completed cathedral had a chapel to the north of the chancel, possibly accessed only through the chancel, which would have served as a sacristy (for storing the valuables of the cathedral, including chalices and vestments) and chapter house (where the clergy held meetings).  Overall, this was an austere and utilitarian building to which the later addition of a tower would have added a little distinction.  We know nothing about any associated buildings, including the accommodation for the clergy.

The Building of the Cathedral

Archaeological plan from Brown Duncan 1957

Archaeological plan from Brown and Duncan 1957

Attempts to establish when the cathedral on Lismore was built, and by whom, are hampered by the fact that there would have been a Céli Dé (Culdee) church on the site before the founding of the diocese, and that the building work may have spanned many decades, possibly in several phases, as resources permitted.  For example, the archaeological investigation of the 1950s showed that the western tower was a later addition to the nave.

In the absence of documentary evidence of the actual building work, the following are the only firm pieces of evidence from contemporary records.  In 1314, Gilaspec Maclouchlan granted income of his lands in Strathlachlan to the Dominican house in Glasgow, being “bound in the event of his failure in payment to give one mark sterling to the fabrick of the cathedral  church of Argyle”7. The first mention of a cathedral at Lismore in the Paisley Register of charters is 1327, when the rights to the income from the Kintyre church of Kilkerran were confirmed by Bishop Andrew8.  In view of the acute unrest of the early years of the 14th century and the exile of the bishop from 13099, these records indicate that a substantial building had been erected before the end of the 13th century.

The few distinctive features of the building that survive are of little use in dating.  As the transition from Romanesque (featuring round-headed arches) to Gothic (First Pointed, as in the north wall doorway) styles of architecture generally took place around the end of the 12th century in Scotland, this change was taking place at the time of the creation of the diocese (c1190).  Most of the carving work in the chancel was already old-fashioned when completed, but the masons’ marks may have some value in dating.  The stylised letter M on a line, an unusual mark, found on both doors and the sedilia, occurs also on a carved stone from Achinduin Castle, which is known from a charter to have been occupied by 130410, and was probably completed several decades before, as part of the chain of coastal stone castles erected by the ruling MacDougalls.  It seems that the same master mason worked on both the cathedral and Achinduin Castle.

This places the building of the chancel, at least, in the second half of the 13th century, and it is compatible with other information.  The years of the maturity of Alexander III (around 1260-1286) were a period of peace and relative prosperity for Scotland, reflected in the completion of several great churches, several of which had begun in the peaceful years of Alexander II (e.g. cathedrals at Elgin, Dornoch, Fortrose, Dunblane).  The church in Argyll had a strong leader, Laurence (bishop 1262-1299) with a national and international reputation11.  If building had not already started when he was appointed, he certainly would have done so, and he would have looked to his MacDougall relations for financial and practical support.  The relative simplicity and utilitarian nature of the cathedral, appropriate for a poor diocese, may have arisen out of the ascetic ideals of the Dominican Order, still in the early decades of its existence12.

Taking these various clues into account, a scheme of building can be proposed, which, although partly speculative, poses questions that can be answered by more detailed study of the fabric, stripped of its covering, and archaeological work.  It is generally accepted that there was an early monastic church on the site and, if the report of a community of Céli Dé on Lismore in the 12th century can be trusted13, then they would have replaced or adapted Moluag’s building, resulting in a simple rectangular chapel of no great architectural merit, by analogy with contemporary larger parish churches in Argyll and elsewhere in Scotland.

Although this chapel could have been incorporated into later building, it is likely that it was demolished to make way for new higher-quality building.  However, the original monastic site was retained even though this did not leave sufficient level ground for the completion of a much larger building without running into bedrock to the west.  This suggests that the chancel was started before the builders recognised the problem and the difficulties it would pose for the building of the nave:  would the master masons who left their marks in the chancel have been content with a cathedral in which there were steps down rather than up to the altar area?  There is also the question of the west wall.  The existing theory is that a massive structure (described as a pulpitum, dividing chancel from nave, supporting a wooden rood screen above) was inserted into the building at a much later stage.  In view of the general poverty of the diocese, this seems unlikely, and the west wall can be interpreted more simply as the exterior wall of the chancel, which served as the cathedral until the nave was completed.  The wide archway would have been the main entrance for the congregation.   None of the archaeological evidence from the nave (continuity of the plinth at the footing of the walls and buttresses, and use of a course of dressed sandstone above the foundations) rules out the completion of the nave after the chancel.  Clearly, the founding bishop and his successors would have given priority to building the chancel where mass and the other offices took place.  As a first estimate, it would seem likely that it was in service before the end of the third quarter of the 13th century, with the nave completed before the death of Laurence, and the tower attached during the following century.  The lack of an exterior plinth at the foot of the north wall indicates that the north chapel was completed at the same time as the chancel.

We will never know who actually built the cathedral but there is an oral tradition on Lismore that foreign masons, possibly from Italy, died on the job and were buried nearby in the Uaigh nan Romanach – Grave of the Romans14.  This may well be a memory of the itinerant masons who worked across the country in the peaceful years of the 13th century.  Another oral tradition draws attention to the only well-engineered track on the island, rising on a gentle gradient from Port na Morlach to Balimakillichan and on to Clachan.  This is said to have been the route for hauling sandstone, landed at the port from Morvern, for the masons at work on the cathedral.

In spite of the presence of master masons (at least for the chancel) the standard of building may not have been high, and certainly the upkeep of the building must have been poor, because the nave was said to be in ruins by 151315, possibly only two  hundred years after its completion.  The whole church appears to have been roofless by the time of the Reformation (1560), and the north chapel disappeared completely.

In conclusion, if this account of the building of the cathedral is correct, then the congregation today sits in the same area occupied by the first Celtic church and the succeeding chapel of the Céli Déi.  The continuity of worship stretches back nearly 1500 years.


1 McNicol D. (1791).  First Statistical Account of Scotland, Vol I.LII. United Parishes of Lismore and Appin.

2 Brown AL, Duncan AAM. (1957).  The Cathedral Church of Lismore.  Transactions of the Scottish Ecclesiological Society 15: 41-50.

3 Carmichael I. (1947).  Lismore in Alba.  Perth: D Leslie

4 RCAHMS (1975).  Argyll: An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments, Vol 2: Lorn. London: HMSO.  Erskine Beveridge Photographs. 

5 Brown & Duncan 1957

6 RCAHMS (1975).

7 Origines Parochiales Scotiae: The Antiquities Ecclesiastical and Territorial of the Parishes of Scotland.  Bannatyne Club. Edinburgh, 1854.

8 Registrum Monasterii de Passelet Cartas.  Maitland Club.  Edinburgh, 1832.

9 As a member of the MacDougall family who were at war with Robert Bruce, he departed to England as a refugee; Dowden J. (1912).  The Bishops of Scotland. Glasgow.

10 RCAHMS (1975)

11 Turner D. (1998).  The bishops of Argyll and the Castle of Achanduin, Lismore, AD 1180-1343.  Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 128: 645-53;  Watt DER. (1977).  A Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Graduate to AD 1410.  Oxford.

12 Bishops Lawrence (1262-1299), Andrew (1300-1342), Martin (1342-1387) and Finlay (1419-1426) were all friars of the Dominican Order, sponsored by the MacDougalls and the Scottish Crown.

13 Céli Déi in Argyll: Henry Silgrave’s Chronicle of English History completed in the mid 13th century.

14 Lismore in Alba

15 Brown & Duncan, 1957