St Giles' Cathedral
Royal Mile, Edinburgh
According to a Undiscovered Scotland.com, "Despite its name, St Giles' Cathedral is not a cathedral. The title gives an idea of its magnificent scale, but was only strictly correct for two short periods when Bishops served in the Scottish Church, from 1633-8 and from 1661-89. . . . Although founded in about 1130, most of the exterior dates back to a remodelling in the years to 1833. And the interior you see today comes from a restoration completed in 1883."
Photograph 2007 and text George P. Landow
[You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]
History of St. Giles from Chambers Gazetteer of Scotland (1838)
Until the reign of James VI. the city of Edinburgh constituted only one parish, of which the church of St. Giles was the place of public worship; by this time, however, the structure had been greatly altered in its internal accommodations. The date and founder of this venerable edifice are equally unknown, but it is the supposition of Maitland and Arnot, judging from an ambiguous passage in the work of Simeon of Durham, that a church existed on this spot in the year 854, and consequently was the work of the Anglo-Saxons, while the province of Lothian was a portion of England.
Between this remote period and the reign of David II. there is a total blank in the history of the church, the first certain notice of it being a charter of that prince granting some land to a chaplain who officiated at one of its altars, in the year 1359. The fabric of the building previous to a recent alteration, was of the usual cruciform shape and of Gothic architecture, more substantial than elegant. The length of the structure was 206 feet, its breadth at the west end 110 feet, at the middle 129 feet, and at the east end 76 feet. From the centre of the whole there was, and is, a square turret, the top of which is encircled with open figured stone-work, and from each corner of the tower springs an arch, and the four meeting together produces the appearance of an imperial crown; These arches are highly ornamented with small pinnacles, and from the apex of the crown rises an equally ornamented short spire. This elegant object is prominent above the whole of the town, and, being 161 feet in height, may be seen from a great distance. The situation of the church has been well chosen, being in the very centre of the Old Town.
Of the saint to whom the edifice was originally dedicated, little appears to be known, and it is only ascertained that he was a native of Greece, who flourished in the sixth century, and dying in France, left a character for great sanctity. His fame reaching Scotland, he was constituted patron saint of the church and city, and his credit was greatly enhanced in the reign of James II. by a present being made to the town of one of his arm-bones, by Preston of Gorton, a gentleman of the county, who had procured it by the assistance of the king of France; for which valuable gift his descendants were ordained to have the honour of carrying the relique in all public processions. Till the period of the Reformation, the bone was carefully kept in the church, enshrined in silver, and was of considerable note in working miracles.
In 1446, by virtue of a charter of James III. the magistrates of Edinburgh converted the church of St. Giles into a collegiate foundation, with a regular suite of priests, besides chaplains on separate endowments, who served at altars in the church. The distinction of this religious establishment is certified by the variety of altars it contained. In latter times they were as follows: — An altar of St. Andrew, St. John the Evangelist, St. Michael the archangel, St. Salvator, St. Michael de Monte Tomba, the Holy Trinity, the Holy Cross, the Holy Blood, St. John the Baptist, St. Nicholas, St. Duthac, Santi Cruris de Lucano, St. Sebastian, Notre Dame, St. Gabriel the archangel, St. Ninian, St. Catherine, St. Gregory, St. Barbara, St. Blase, St. Dionysius, St. Francis, St. Eloye, St. Martin and St. Thomas, St. Roch and St. Nicholas, the Holy Blood and St. Anthony, Our Lady of Piety, Sjt. James, St. Lawrence, St. Mungo, St. Thomas the Martyr, the Holy Cross of the Body and Blood of Christ, and St. Crispin and St. Crispinianus. Also, the High Altar, which completed the number of the thirty-six.
As almost the whole had more than one chaplain each, there must have been, on a moderate computation, seventy-two chaplains, besides those on the collegiate foundation, who were employed in parochial duties. Of these there were a provost, a curate, sixteen prebendaries, a sacristan, a beadle, a minister of the choir, and four choristers, thus making up a body of about a hundred persons, all of whom were supported by particular mortifications of lands, oblations at the altar, donations of money or food, or by living among the families of the endowers. The chief clergymen on the foundation had a farm south of Edinburgh, which was called St. Giles' Grange, a name now remaining under the title of The Grange. The patronage of the private benefices was in the gift of the descendants of the endowers, and the town-council, or bishop of the diocese, had the patronage of those on the foundation. Originally, the patronage was in the gift of the bishop of Lindisfern, while he had a jurisdiction over Lothian. Ultimately, the magistrates became the patrons.
When the Reformation took place, the spoil of the numerous shrines and altars of St. Giles was considerable, and as illustrative of the kind of trumpery which usually pertained to such edifices, we present a fist of the articles seized by the town-council: — The arm of St. Giles, enshrined in silver, weighing five pounds three ounces and a half; a silver chalice, weighing twenty-three ounces; the great Eucharist or communion cup, with golden weike and stones; two cruets of twenty-five ounces; a small golden bell, with a heart of four ounces and a half; a golden unicorn; a golden pix [or small box] to keep the Host [or real body of Christ] in; a small golden heart with two pearls; a diamond ring with several small stones; a silver chalice, paten and spoon, [that is a small vessel to hold particles of the real body, and a spoon to lift them out, and place them in the mouth of the devotee,] of thirty-two ounces and a half; a communion tablecloth of golden brocade; St. Giles' coat [the saint himself having been stolen,] with a piece of red velvet which hung at his feet; a round silver Eucharist; two silver censers of three pounds fifteen ounces; a silver cup for incense; a large silver cross with its base, weighing sixteen pounds thirteen ounces and a half; a triangular silver lamp; two silver candlesticks of seven pounds and three ounces in weight; two other candlesticks of eight pounds thirteen ounces in weight; a gilt silver chalice of twenty ounces and a half in weight; a silver chalice and cross of seventy-five ounces in weight; divers priestly robes of golden brocade; deacons, sub-deacons, and cap abbas, with the thessodal of red velvet, embroidered with gold; and sundry vestments, of green silk damask. The whole was sold by the town, and out of the proceeds some repairs were made on the church, the surplus going into the town funds. The bells in the spire which rung for prayers continued, except one called St. Mary's bell, which was taken down, and, along with some brass pillars in the church, recommended to be made into cannon for the defence of the city, though, afterwards these things were also sold.
After the Reformation, St. Giles' was divided into sections by thick walls which reached from the floor to the roof. One of these divisions at the east end was constituted the parish church, the others were fitted up for courts of justice, a grammar school, a town clerk's office, a prison, and a workshop for weavers' looms. Maitland explains the reason for the latter establishment, by telling us that these looms were put up by the magistrates for the purpose of certifying the quantity of cloth which could be produced from certain quantities of warp and weft, in order to check embezzlement in weavers. In 1585 the spire of St. Giles' was furnished with a clock brought from the abbey of Lindores in Fife.
From being only one parochial district the town was, in 1625, divided into four parishes, by order of Charles I., and for the accommodation of the inhabitants, some other divisions of the church of St. Giles' were fitted up as places of worship, each parish having two ministers; at the same time the magistrates and council were constituted the patrons of the churches. By these mutations, the choir or east part of St. Giles' Church, was styled the High Church; one occupying the centre of the building, the Old Church; one entering from the south-west corner, the Tolbooth Church; and one at the north-west corner, the New North Church. In 1633, when Charles constituted the bishopric of Edinburgh, the High Church was ordained to be the cathedral of iocese, and to be fitted up for the bishop with a dean and twelve prebends. In pursuance of this arrangement, the magistrates, in 1686, made an attempt to give the place of worship the air of a cathedral by delegating the dean to repair to Durham to take a draught of the choir of the cathedral there; but it does not appear that any actual measures were taken to fit up the church on a new model, and in a short time after there was no longer any necessity for such a process,* the whole Episcopal system being destroyed by the General Assembly of 1638.
In more modern times the church of St. Giles was purified entirely from all secular business, and besides the above four churches, it contained an aisle for the meetings of the General Assembly. About two years ago, the fabric began to be subjected to some very extensive alterations and outward improvements, which were the more necessary on account of the excoriations and ravages of 1817. By intercession with government, it has been agreed to contribute a certain sum (£10,000,) from the Treasury, for the purpose of remodelling and beautifying the structure. The chief alteration as to shape, consists in the compression of the west end, where formerly there were two churches, into one, and the conversion of the central part of the building into meeting-places for the General Assembly and the Presbytery of Edinburgh. In place of the two parish churches thus destroyed, other two are guaranteed by the magistracy to be erected elsewhere, though it is evident, from the altered circumstances of the population of the Old Town, that the four parishes might be conjoined, and the ministers transferred to districts where the increased population may render their ministrations more necessary. The design of the remodelled church is by Mr. Burn, and does credit even to that architect.
The High Church, just described, continues through all changes in the building to be par excellence the metropolitan church of the country, or the St. Paul's of Scotland, if such a comparison might be available. Though on a strict ecclesiastical level with all other Pres* Though even a small portion of the old edifice was thus never fitted up for a bishop and chapter, and although Scotland is a Presbyterian country, the affectation of modern times designates the Church of St. Giles a cathedral. This absurdity, we observe, is even committed by the General Assembly. byterian Kirks, it has acquired a certain dignity in its character not enjoyed by the rest of the Edinburgh churches. Such a peculiarity is perhaps to be attributed to the circumstance of its being the church selected by the judicial authorities of the land, in which to make their appearance on Sundays. Since 1563 the magistrates and council have had a regular seat in the church, in front of one of the galleries, while the Barons of Exchequer and the Lords of Session have similar seats all round. There is also an enthroned seat for the King's Commissioner to the General Assembly.*
From the year 1636 till the present day, the city and suburbs, including the New Town, have been from time to time divided into additional parishes, until at length the number of the whole is thirteen, five of which have two ministers and the remainder one each. Besides these parochial districts is the very extensive parish of St. Cuthberts and the Canongate, both of which have two ministers.
Chambers, Robert. The Gazetteer of Scotland. Glasgow: Blackie and Son, 1838. Internet Archive online version digitized with funding from National Library of Scotland. Web. 30 September 2018.
St Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh. The church's own site. Viewed 22 September 2007.
"St Giles' Cathedral." Undiscovered Scotland.com. Viewed 21 September 2007. This wonderful site contains pages on almost every building along the Royal Mile and the streets that cross it.
Last modified 9 October 2018