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St Giles Cathedral



Originally founded as a parish church by King David I in 1124 St Giles’ Cathedral has undergone a number of transformations and was the centre of the Scottish Reformation with John Knox and is known as "the Mother Church of World Presbyterianism". It has served as the Court of Session and Scotland’s Parliament and today holds the Chapel of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle.


Located on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, St Giles’ Cathedral, is also known as the High Kirk of Edinburgh. It is a parish church which was founded in 1124 by King David I (1124 - 1153) and dedicated to Saint Giles.  In 1559, the church became Protestant with John Knox, the foremost figure of the Scottish Reformation (1559-60), as its minister. After the Reformation, the church served as a meeting place for the burgh's criminal courts, the Court of Session, and the Parliament of Scotland. Today it is the place for the Kirking (Blessing) of the Parliament and services for the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle.

The church's role in the Scottish Reformation and the Covenanters' Rebellion of 1666 supporting a Presbyterian Church of Scotland, and the primacy of its leaders in religious affairs, resulted in it being called "the Mother Church of World Presbyterianism".

On 23 June 1633 St Giles was visited by Charles I during his visit to Scotland for his coronation. On 29 September 1633, Charles, elevated St Giles' to the status of a cathedral to serve as the seat of the new Bishop of Edinburgh.   This resulted in the internal partition walls being removed and the interior being furnished after the design of Durham Cathedral. 

The cathedral began as a small, Romanesque building of which only fragments remain. In the 14th century, work on the building that we see today was started and this was enlarged between the late 14th and early 16th centuries. Between 1829 and 1833 it was altered by William Burn and additional work was carried out between 1872 and 1883 by William Hay with the support of William Chambers. Chambers wanted to make St Giles' a "Westminster Abbey for Scotland" by enriching the church and adding memorials to notable Scots. Between 1909 and 1911, the Thistle Chapel, designed by Robert Lorimer, was added. 

With the exception of the tower, of which the original one is known to have existed by 1387, although this did undergo substantial alteration in the mid-15th century, the exterior of the church, dates almost entirely from the restoration carried out by William Burn between 1829–33 and later. Prior to this a number of shops and buildings were built against the minster. When these were demolished, the walls of the church were found to be leaning, so the exterior of the building was encased in polished ashlar of gray sandstone tied to the existing walls with iron clamps. In addition the transepts were expanded and a clerestory, a high section of wall that contains windows above eye level to admit light, fresh air, or both was created in the nave. In addition new doorways in the west front and north and south transept were added, all of which significantly altered the church. 

Burn created a symmetrical western façade by replacing the west window of the Albany Aisle at the northwest corner of the church with a double niche.


The west doorway dates from the Victorian restoration and is by William Hay. The doorway is flanked by niches containing small statues of Scottish monarchs and churchmen by John Rhind, who also carved the relief of St Giles in the tympanum (the semi-circular or triangular decorative wall surface over an entrance). New steps and an access ramp were added to the west door in 2006.


The crown steeple at the top of St Giles is one of Edinburgh's most famous and distinctive landmarks. Dating from between 1460 and 1467 the steeple is unique among medieval crown steeples in being composed of eight buttresses, four springing from the corners and four springing from the centre of each side of the tower. Weather vanes were added to the crests of the steeple in 1590 but these were removed prior to 1800, although replacements were installed in 2005. The weathercock on top of the central pinnacle was placed in 1667 to replaced an earlier weathercock of 1567.


In front of the east façade stands a statue of Adam Smith, the Scottish economist and philosopher and father of modern economics. Smith died in Edinburgh in 1790 and is buried in the city. See the main photo abov

Also outside the minster is a plaque depicting the burial place of John Knox (1514 –1572) who was a Scottish minister, theologian, and writer who was a leader of the country's Reformation. He was also the founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. His burial place is to be found in the parking lot by the side of the minster.  The spot is marked by a plaque embedded in the asphalt on Plot 23, which reads “The above stone marks the approximate site of the burial in St Giles graveyard of John Knox, the great Scottish divine who died 24 Nov 1572.”  A statue of Knox is within the cathedral.

The interior contains the nave which dates to the 14th century and is one of the oldest parts of the church, it has been significantly altered and extended over the years. 

The ceiling over the central section is a plaster vault, which was added by William Burn during restoration of 1829–1833. Burn also heightened the walls of the central section of the nave by 16 feet (4.8 metres), adding windows to create a clerestory (a high section of wall that contains windows above eye level. Its purpose is to admit light, fresh air, or both). Burn also removed an attic which contained several rooms from above the central section of the nave. The outline of the nave roof prior to the work carried out by Burn can be seen on the wall above the western arch of the crossing. 

Standing near the West Door is the font made from Caen stone,  which is a light creamy-yellow Jurassic limestone quarried in north-western France near the city of Caen. This was carved by John Rhind (1828–1892) who was a Scottish sculptor, based in Edinburgh. It is in the form of a kneeling angel holding a scallop and is an exact replica of the font found in the Church of Our Lady in  Copenhagen. Originally it stood near the pulpit but has been moved a couple of times before being placed near the west door.


The present arcade,  (a succession of contiguous arches), was carried out by William Hay. Burn had earlier heightened the medieval arcade and replaced the octagonal 14th century pillars with pillars based on the 15th century design in the Albany Aisle. Hay replaced these pillars with replicas of the octagonal 14th century pillars of the choir. Originally, the south arcade of the nave was lower with a clerestory window above each arch.  The arches of the clerestory windows are still visible above each arch of the arcade on the south side of the nave, although these have been filled in.  

In the centre of the church are the piers of the crossing which date to the original building work carried out in the 14th century and may be the oldest part of the present church.  The piers were likely constructed around 1400, at which time the present vault and bell hole were created. 

Situated in the crossing, is the communion table made from a Carrara marble block and installed in 2011.  


The pulpit dates to 1883 and was carved in Caen stone and green marble by John Rhind to a design by William Hay. The pulpit is octagonal with relief panels depicting the acts of mercy.

An octagonal oak pulpit of 1888 with a tall steepled canopy stands in the Moray Aisle. St Giles' possessed a wooden pulpit prior to the Reformation. In April 1560, this was replaced with a wooden pulpit with two locking doors, likely located at the east side of the crossing; a lectern was also installed. A brass eagle lectern stands on the south side of the crossing. The bronze lectern steps were donated in 1991 by the Normandy Veterans' Association.  

The first stages of both transepts were probably completed by 1395, in which year the St John's Aisle was added to the north of the north transept. 

Initially, the north transept extended no further than the north wall of the aisles and possessed a tunnel-vaulted ceiling at the same height as those in the crossing and aisles. The arches between the transept and north aisles of the choir and nave appear to date from the 14th century. At the Burn restoration, the north transept was heightened and a clerestory and plaster vaulted ceiling constructed. The ceiling and open screens within the vestibule were added in 1940. 

Initially, the south transept only extended to the line of the south aisles; it was extended in stages as the Preston, Chepman, and Holy Blood Aisles were added. The original barrel vault remains as far as a transverse arch supported on heavy corbels between the inner transept arches; this arch was likely inserted after the creation of the Preston Aisle, when the inner transept arches were expanded. The transverse arch carries an extension to the lower part of the tower. The south transept was heightened and a clerestory and plaster vaulted ceiling were inserted by Burn during his restoration.

Moving forward is the choir, which was initially built as a hall church; this is where the nave and aisles are approximately of equal height, this is normally under a single roof: A method which is unique in Scotland. Its construction took place in two periods one in the 14th and one in the 15th century, when the choir was extended to approximately its current size

It has two choir aisles, although the north is only two thirds the width of the south aisle, which contained the Lady Chapel prior to the Reformation and its resiting.

The western three bays of the choir date to the initial period of construction.

On the south side of the choir is The Preston Aisle which is named for William Preston of Gorton, who donated Saint Giles' arm-bone to the church. Preston's coat of arms can be seen in the bosses and capitals of the chapel. The town council began construction of the Aisle in 1455, and undertook to complete it within seven years. However, the presence in the Aisle of a boss bearing the arms of Lord Hailes, Provost of Edinburgh in the 1480s, indicates that construction took significantly longer.

William Preston of Gorton had, with the permission of Charles VII of France, brought the arm bone of Saint Giles from France. From the mid-1450s, the Preston Aisle was added to the southern side of the choir to commemorate this benefactor. Preston's eldest male descendants were given the right to carry the relic at the head of the Saint Giles' Day procession every 1 September.

Standing between the south choir aisle and Preston Aisle, is the current monarch's seat with its tall back and canopy. Made of oak it supports the royal arms of Scotland; and incorporate elements of the previous royal pew of 1885. There has been a royal loft or pew in St Giles' since the 16th century.


The Albany Aisle contains a number of chapels and memorials.


One of the largest memorials in the minster is the Jacobean-style monuments with a life size effigy  to  Archibald Campbell, 1st Marquess of Argyll. This was constructed in the St Eloi Aisle in 1895. It is made of alabaster and marble and takes the form of a small shrine, supported by a pair of columns. 


An important chapel is the Thistle Chapel, which is of Gothic architecture, and is rich in architectural details.  It is the chapel of the Order of the Thistle, founded by James VII in 1687.

Originally, James ordered Holyrood Abbey be fitted out as a chapel for the Knights, but this was destroyed before the Knights ever met there.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, a number of proposals were made either to refurbish Holyrood Abbey for the Order or to create a chapel within St Giles' Cathedral. In 1906, Edward VII ordered a new Chapel to be constructed on the south side of St Giles.





              All  Photographs were taken by and are copyright of Ron Gatepain

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