The High Kirk of St. Giles (commonly known as St. Giles' Cathedral) is one of the most important architectural landmarks along the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. The church where John Knox preached the Reformation, St. Giles' is the mother church of the Church of Scotland and informally of world Presbyterianism.
History of St Giles Cathedral
A parish church was established in Edinburgh as early as 854. This first church, a modest affair, was probably in use for several centuries before a new one was founded in the 1120s.
The 12th-century church was part of an effort of the Scottish royal family, especially David I (1124-1153), to spread Catholic worship throughout the Scottish lowlands. This church was probably quite small, Norman (Romanesque) in style, like others built at the same time. Few traces of it survive in the present building.
The parish church was formally dedicated by the bishop of St. Andrews in 1243 and subsequently named in honor of St. Giles, a 7th-century French hermit and abbot and the patron saint of Edinburgh. According to legend, Giles was accidentally wounded by a huntsman in pursuit of a hind and he is usually depicted protecting a hind from an arrow which had pierced his own body. A fine relief of this can be seen in the tympanum over the main doors of the Cathedral.
In 1385, a much larger church (early Gothic, pointed arches and simple octagonal pillars) was partially burned. No record has been found of the building of this second church. It was quickly repaired. In 1466, the church was granted collegiate status, and in 1495, the unique crown spire was added.
Many chapels were added in this period, sponsored by the craftsmen’s guilds of Edinburgh, prominent merchants, and nobles. One of the chapels was built to contain a relic of St Giles. By the middle of the 16th century, there were as many as 50 altars in the church.
In 1559, John Knox ("Scotland's Martin Luther") preached his first sermon on the Reformation at the High Kirk of St. Giles. His listeners reported that "he was so active and vigorous it looked as if he was about to break the pulpit in bits and fly out of it." Knox was instrumental in spreading the Presbyterian form of Protestantism throughout Scotland.
In 1633, King Charles I appointed Scottish Episcopalbishops and in 1635 William Forbes became the first bishop of the new diocese of Edinburgh. The church of St Giles' thus became a cathedral, as the seat of a bishop. Although it is today a Presbyterian church, which does not have bishops, St. Giles' continues to be referred to as a cathedral.
By 1800, the High Kirk of St. Giles was in a state of disrepair. Extensive restorations were undertaken in the 19th century, significantly altering the appearance of the church. The most important event of recent history occurred in 1996, when a national service was held at St. Giles' upon the return of the Stone of Destiny's return to Scotland.
What to See at St Giles Cathedral
St. Giles Cathedral combines a dark and brooding stone exterior with surprisingly graceful buttresses. Inside, a major highlight is the Thistle Chapel, designed by Robert Lorimer and finished in 1911. The Order of the Thistle has roots in the Middle Ages, but the present-day order was created in 1687 by King James VII of Scotland (James II of England). It is Scotland's great order of chivalry, and membership (appointed by the king or queen) is considered to be one of the country's highest honors.
The Thistle Chapel contains stalls for the 16 knights, the Sovereign's stall and two Royal stalls. The chapel contains a wealth of detail, both religious and heraldic, and much of it is uniquely Scottish – look for angels playing bagpipes.
Recognizable 12th-century remains in the church include a scalloped capital, now built into the wall of St Eloi's Aisle, and a corbel stone featuring a grotesque carved face, built into the wall by the door to the Cathedral shop.
Some decorations have survived from the late medieval period (1385-1560), including heraldic carvings, sections of tombs and memorials, and various religious and non-religious carvings. The oldest heraldic carvings in the church are located in the Albany Aisle and date from the early 15th century.
Near the west end of the Cathedral is a statue of John Knox, cast in 1904 by the sculptor Pittendrigh MacGillivray. In the Moray Aisle is a bronze-relief memorial to the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson (d. 1894). The memorial was cast in 1904 by Augustus St Gaudens, a renowned American sculptor and an admirer of Stevenson.
The Burns Window (Great West Window) installed in 1985, is the work of the Icelandic artist Leifur Breidfjörd, one of his largest commissions. It depicts major themes within the poetry of Robert Burns in a semi-abstract style. The lowest section, dominated by the color green, represents the natural world that Burns portrayed so vividly. The middle section contains many human figures as a symbol of human unity, regardless of race, color or creed. The topmost section contains a sunburst of Love.
St. Giles' Cathedral is an active Presbyterian church with a congregation of several hundred people. Visitors are welcome to join the religious services. At any time, the Albany Aisle in the northwest corner of the church is reserved for prayer and meditation.
St. Giles' incorporates a Cathedral Shop and a restaurant called The Lower Aisle, which serves coffee, tea and traditional Scottish snacks.
Quick Facts on St Giles Cathedral
|High Kirk of St Giles · St Giles Cathedral
|Visitor and Contact Information
|55.949518° N, 3.190906° W
|High Street, Royal Mile
|Easter-Sep: Mon-Fri 9am-7pm, Sat 9am-5pm, Sun 1-5pm
Oct-Easter: Mon-Sat 9am-5pm, Sun 1-5pm
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- Personal visits (1999-2000).
- St. Giles' Cathedral (official site)
- Frommer's Edinburgh and Glasgow, 1st ed.
- Photos of St Giles Cathedral - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of St Giles Cathedral
Below is a location map and aerial view of St Giles Cathedral. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.