Remembering Edinburgh Lives Past: St Giles’ Cathedral

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St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh, Scotland

About half way down the Royal Mile is St Giles’ Cathedral, dedicated to the patron saint of Edinburgh.  It has been an important part of religious life in the city for almost 900 years and some of that rich history is still visible – albeit submerged under 19th century renovation.

During the Middle Ages, the city of Edinburgh had no cathedral as it was under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of St Andrews.  Actually, St Giles was only a cathedral, in the sense that it was the seat of a bishop, for two brief, unhappy, periods in the 17th century – so the word “cathedral” has no real relevance to the church at all.

The church was founded in c1124 by either Alexander I or his brother David I.  Most of current interior dates from the period of rebuilding after 1322, after the church was burned down (supposedly by the English army) and wealthy local merchants saw to it that a grand Gothic structure was constructed in its place.  The present nave, transepts and chancel date from this period.

Over the next couple of hundred years the church had about 50 side-chapels added.  These were for the benefit of wealthy individuals but also local guilds, and the rather haphazard construction of these chapels not only enlarged the church, but also left it with a strange footprint.

The Scottish parliament passed a series of acts in 1560 which brought an end to the Pope’s authority over the Scottish Church.  The country officially became Protestant.  This was in part thanks to the role of John Knox, a firebrand preacher who mingled his religious sermons with political criticism, and led the Edinburgh elite to push for Protestantism.

Knox became the minister of St Giles’ and spent a year getting rid of all the church valuables.  Items were sold off to a local goldsmith or for scrap metal.  The reliquary containing St Giles’ forearm was got rid of.  The interior was whitewashed.  By the 1580s the church was partitioned into separate preaching halls, which was the way the reformed Presbyterians worked their magic, and in the 18th century the building actually consisted of four separate churches serving four separate parishes.

In the 1820s, the buildings around St Giles’ were demolished and people were shocked to see what a bad state the church’s exterior was in.  In 1829, the architect William Burn was given the task of restoring the building, and he set about demolishing some chapels to make the building more symmetrical.  He also inserted new windows, made the walls safe and re-clad the exterior.

In an attempt to create a ‘Westminter Abbey for Scotland’, the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, William Chambers, wanted St Giles’ to be opened up to resemble its pre-Protestant design.  From 1872 to 1883 the whole building was cleaned, the old galleries and partition walls were removed and the results of their efforts is what we see today.

Stained Glass

During the Reformation, the windows of the cathedral were plain.  During the 19th century restorations, it was decided that stained glass scenes be put up in their place.  This was a big deal for the Presbyterian faithful who viewed imagery with suspicion.  It was decided that the glass would be acceptable if the panels illustrated Bible stories and as such were an aid to teaching.  By the 20th century, saints were depicted in the windows too – something which would have had Knox really turning in his grave.  In the carpark.

The window by the pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones was rather impressive.  The upper section shows the crossing of the river Jordan, while the three panels show three important figures from the Old Testament – Miriam, Ruth and Jephtha’s daughter.  It took two years for Burne-Jones to get his design approved – he wished he’d charged more for his work because of all the hassle – and the window was installed in 1886.

John Knox

John Knox was born near Edinburgh, and was educated at St Andrews University before becoming a priest.  He heard the Reformist George Wishart preaching and converted to Protestantism – he was involved in the troubles that occurred after Wishart was burned at the stake for heresy, and, to cut a long story short, Knox was one of the Wishart supporters that got carried off by the French to serve as slaves in their galleys.

When Knox was released, he chose to go to England, where he was appointed pastor of Berwick-on-Tweed.  His preaching earned him fame, and he became an influential figure in the Protestant Church, even delivering a sermon to the young, sickly King Edward VI.  Upon the succession of the king’s Catholic sister, Mary, persecution of the Protestants began, so Knox moved to Geneva – the haven of Protestants everywhere.  He became a friend of John Calvin and served as minister to fellow exiles.

It was in Geneva that Knox wrote “First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women” – a wonderfully catchy title, for an unashamedly misogynistic theme of the need to depose ‘ungodly’ female monarchs, for they were ‘unnatural’ leaders.  Funnily enough when Mary’s sister Elizabeth I came to the throne, and she a Protestant, she wasn’t too impressed by Knox’s work and personally opposed him.  Damn right.  Go Elizabeth.

John Knox window, St Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh, Scotland.  It shows Knox delivering the funeral sermon of Regent Moray, who was assassinated by a supporter of Mary Queen of Scots.

John Knox window, St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh, Scotland.  It shows Knox delivering the funeral sermon of Regent Moray, who was assassinated by a supporter of Mary Queen of Scots.

Luckily for Knox, the Scottish Lords wanted to make Scotland Protestant, so they invited Knox back to his homeland to lead them.  With the death of Mary of Guise in 1560, they country officially became Protestant.  Knox died in 1572, and was buried in the kirkyard.  A sign of how much he’s respected is the fact that his grave is now under a carpark.  For the High Court of Scotland.  The approximate site of the grave is marked by a stone in the tarmac.  Classy, guys.  Real classy.


One of the most striking aspects of St Giles is the large number of memorials – there were so many interesting stories that I probably spent more time reading them than looking around the church.  Interestingly, the earliest surviving monuments only date from the 1840s, and more than a third are war memorials to Scottish regiments or individuals who were killed throughout the British Empire.

There are two larger monuments which are quite interesting.  The first is to James Graham, Marquis of Montrose – the other is to his arch-enemy was Archibald Campbell, Marquis of Argyll.  Their stories are linked through the palaver of the National Covenant – basically James I (when he was solely King of Scotland) reintroduced episcopacy to the Church of Scotland, meaning that the bishops had all the power – something the Presbyterian majority was unhappy with.

His son, Charles I, continued on the same path and imposed a Book of Common Prayer, which didn’t go down well in Scotland, sparked rioting and led to the opposition signing the National Covenant.  A copy can be seen in the cathedral (I missed it).  In 1638, the Covenanters swore to maintain religion in the form that existed in 1580, that is, Presbyterian.  Charles I went to war to defend his reforms and subsequent lost.  That started him on a losing streak – first the Civil War, and then his head.

The situation was very complicated, though basically Montrose was initially on the side of the Covenanters, but after meeting Charles I, decided to support him instead.  Anyway, he’s got down in history as a romantic royalist, and he was hanged by the Covenanters, with his body parts being sent around the country as a warning to all royalists, and his head was kept on a stake outside St Giles for 11 years.

When Charles II became king after the death of Oliver Cromwell,  he ordered that Montrose’s body be reassembled and be given a state funeral in St Giles’.  But it was in 1886 that the current memorial was constructed – and all because Queen Victoria asked why there was no memorial to him.

On the other side of the church is the memorial for Montrose’s enemy – Archibald Campbell, 1st Marquis of Argyll.  He was a Covenanter and became the de facto head of the Scottish government during the strange turmoil of the 1640s/50s.  He had a part in Montrose’s execution, and when Charles II became king, he had Argyll charged with treason – collaboration with Cromwell – so he too was executed.  His head was displayed on the same spike as Montrose’s (which had been vacated not long before) where it remained for three years before getting a decent burial.

Following the creation of a memorial to Montrose, a campaign started to get one for Argyll.  As a symbol of reconciliation, the memorial was unveiled in 1895.

So In Summary

I was a little surprised when I looked at my photos after my trip to St Giles’: I really didn’t feel they did the place justice.  I think this is because the way the building feels is so much more striking than the actual structure itself – it is filled with thought-provoking details and insights into Scottish history.  It made for a very pleasant visit, and as I mentioned earlier, I really enjoyed looking at the interesting and moving memorials.

Further Information

Entry to the cathedral is free, but you need to pay for a photography pass.

A very good and helpful website is available to check out:

How to Get There

Quite honestly, if you’re going to the Royal Mile, you’re going to see the church – it’s easy to find.  However, if you need transport information, check out these guys:




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