St Giles Cathedral (sometimes also referred to as the High Kirk of Edinburgh or the ‘Mother Church of Presbyterianism’) has played a central role in the history of Edinburgh for centuries. Certainly, for us, it is an important location for a variety of reasons- most importantly it is a major ‘character’ on our walking tours. However, it is also one of my favourite places to go when I simply want to relax and reflect.
I’ve written many blog posts while sitting quietly, admiring the incredible architecture and beauty that can be found within its sacred walls. There have been numerous architectural changes both inside and outside St Giles since it was first erected. Related to that, I think it’s time I provide a little historical context to better situate this iconic building.
According to their website, St Giles’ was founded in 1124 and is attributed to King David I (he also founded the Abbey of Holyrood- more on that in our Palace of Holyroodhouse article). This means that St Giles’ pre-dates most of the Old Town and helps us understand its crucial historical significance. St Giles’ has seen much drama unfold over the centuries, and little is known of the original church. Most of it was rebuilt in 1322 due to a fire caused by the invading English army. The English were retaliating due to a significant event that had taken place two years earlier. 700 years ago, on the 6 April 1320, the Scots signed a letter affirming their independence from England and sent it to the Pope. That letter is now known as the Declaration of Arbroath, and it is one of the most important documents in Scotland’s history. St Giles’ Cathedral continued to be a Catholic church for 400 years.
However, in 1560, the Scottish Parliament abolished papal authority and declared Scotland a Protestant country. Ironically, the Protestant Lords of the Congregation had joined forces with the English to help them establish power. The converted priest, John Knox, also played a large part in the Scottish Reformation and establishing Protestantism. Mind you, Scotland’s royal family at this point was still Catholic with Marie de Guise (mother of Mary, Queen of Scots) acting as regent since 1554. When she died in 1560, the Auld Alliance with France also ‘died’. Poor Mary didn’t stand a chance when she formally came to power in 1561 (more on the Stuart family can be found in our article on Stirling Castle). This history helps us to see how St Giles’ Cathedral became known as the Mother Church of Presbyterianism.
In the late 1800s the Cathedral underwent a significant refurbishment. Lord Provost William Chambers wanted to return the Cathedral to “its original medieval sacred space”. He brought on Scottish architect, William Hay, to do the work. The restoration plans were announced in 1867 but were not finished until 1883 due to the need for fundraising, planning, and the actual work. Much of the interior partitions that had been installed over the centuries were removed and the spaces were indeed opened. Sadly, William Chambers died three days before the re-opening service. Although, there is some comfort in knowing that he had been carried in to see the restoration privately before he died. Architecturally, much of what we see today at St Giles’, is due to the Chambers Restoration.
I don’t know about you, but lately I find myself making the concerted effort to take more virtual explorations. One of the best ways to do this is through photos. Considering the grand scope of St Giles’, I think this will be the best way to share the exquisite beauty found throughout this architectural gem. Of course, I would love to point out every aspect, but that would require me to write a book. Instead, I’ll do what we often do in our articles, and I’ll focus on some highlights. So, let’s head out on our virtual tour and explore a bit more of the High Kirk of Edinburgh.
Situated alongside the Royal Mile, we walk by and stop outside St Giles’ Cathedral every day when we are doing our walking tours. It is an extremely photogenic building and the fantastic Gothic architectures invites people- whether visitor or local- to stop and admire it. Here are just a few exterior shots:
Now that we’ve explored a bit of the exterior, lets continue our virtual journey inside and head over to the entrance on the western façade. This elegant, Victorian door welcomes residents as well as visitors from around the world year-round. Carefully make your way up the steps and head inside to see what wonders are ready to welcome us on our journey.
Entry to St Giles’ Cathedral is free. However, donations are welcome as they help with the expensive upkeep of such a grand building. As we walk up the ramp, we need to make a quick stop at the reception desk and pay the required £2 for the photo pass. The staff member hands over a sticker which I have carefully secured in a visible location on my jacket. This allows me take photos throughout the entire building and signals to other staff that we’ve paid the fee. If you are able to visit St Giles’ in person some day and want to take photos, please be sure to pay this nominal fee. Unfortunately, on every visit, I see numerous guests without a sticker taking pictures. This is disrespectful and only does a disservice for future generations of visitors.
As you step away to the right of the reception desk, you are standing in the Moray Aisle. For me, the highlight here is the fantastic bronze relief of our old friend, Robert Louis Stevenson. The relief was done by famous sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens. It’s the perfect memorial as I greatly admire both men’s work.
As we work our way down the aisles on the southern side of St Giles’, we come to the Chepman Aisle. Here, we find an elaborate memorial built out of marble for James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose. Ironically, his arch-rival- Archibald Campbell, 1st Marquess of Argyll- has a monument located straight across to the northern side of St Giles’ in the St Eloi Aisle. However, for now, we’ll stay on the southern side and continue our exploration.
We have now made our way to the Preston Aisle because there is another special memorial that I would like to acknowledge. A plaque honours the architect, Sir Robert Lorimer, and his work- the Thistle Chapel which is a ‘hidden’ surprise just around the corner. I have previously written about Lorimer and the Thistle Chapel so please check out that article to get more information on both. In the meantime, we’re going to walk around and head into the Chapel (it's located in the southeastern part of St Giles'). Here are some photos to help you on our virtual tour:
There are so many architectural features- small and large- to be admired inside St Giles’ Cathedral. Every time I visit, I always find something I hadn’t noticed before. That is why it is best to make sure to carefully explore all around- you never know what surprises you’ll come across. Here are some photos taken throughout St Giles’:
Special Events at St Giles’
One of the wonderful aspects of St Giles’ Cathedral is that it offers a range of community events throughout the year. For example, the past couple of years, St Giles’ has hosted two unique events as part of the Burns and Beyond Festival (which celebrates the life and work of Scotland’s National Bard, Robert Burns). Two years ago, they had the ‘Museum of the Moon’ event where they had a temporary installation of a moon measuring 7 metres in diameter! It was truly awe inspiring to see such a unique exhibition within St Giles’.
This year, Chinese New Year coincided with Burns Night (25 January), and they installed a canopy of over 400 Chinese lanterns alongside giant displays of various selections from Robert Burns’ poems. The incredible interior architecture really lends itself to such temporary exhibitions. We look forward to what they have in store for us next year!
St Giles also has other events on offer such as musical concerts and guest speakers. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, St Giles is closed. However, we encourage you to check out their events page when they reopen.
Worshipping at and Visiting St Giles’ Cathedral
On their website, St Giles’ states that, “in keeping with successive editions of the Church of Scotland Book of Common Order, its worship is both catholic and reformed, with resonance for Christian people of many different denominations”. However, they affirm that they “welcome people of all faiths and none to enjoy the peace of the building and listen to our services”. If interested, they are providing online services while they are closed.
Once travel resumes, please check out their website for more information on visiting. And please considering donating during these difficult times or when you visit Edinburgh in the future- they are going to need our support!
I hope you have enjoyed our virtual exploration of St Giles’ Cathedral. If you haven’t done so already, please subscribe to our blog to get the latest articles on Edinburgh and Scotland sent straight to your inbox. You can also support us by following us on our various social media platforms (Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest).
Until next time- Explore & Discover!