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St Giles' Cathedral, also known as the High Kirk of Edinburgh,[1] has been one of Edinburgh's religious focal points for approximately 900 years. Its distinctive crown steeple is a prominent feature of the city skyline, at about a third of the way down the Royal Mile which runs from the Castle to Holyrood Palace. The present church dates from the late 14th century, though it was extensively restored in the 19th century, and is protected as a category A listed building.[2] Today it is sometimes regarded as the "Mother Church of Presbyterianism".[3] The cathedral is dedicated to Saint Giles, who is the patron saint of Edinburgh,[4] as well as of cripples and lepers, and was a very popular saint in the Middle Ages. It is the Church of Scotland parish church for part of Edinburgh's Old Town.

St Giles' Cathedral
High Kirk of Edinburgh
St Giles Cathedral - 01.jpg
The west façade of the building
St Giles' Cathedral is located in Edinburgh city centre
St Giles' Cathedral
St Giles' Cathedral
Location of St Giles' within central Edinburgh
Coordinates: 55°56′58″N 3°11′27″W / 55.94944°N 3.19083°W / 55.94944; -3.19083
LocationRoyal Mile, Edinburgh
DenominationChurch of Scotland
Previous denominationRoman Catholic
StatusParish church
Founded12th century
DedicationSaint Giles
Past bishop(s)Bishop of Edinburgh
Functional statusActive
Heritage designationCategory A listed building
Designated14 December 1970
Minister(s)Calum MacLeod
Listed Building – Category A
Official name: High Street and Parliament Square, St Giles (High) Kirk
Designated14 December 1970
Reference no.LB27381

St Giles' was only a cathedral in its formal sense (i.e. the seat of a bishop) for two periods during the 17th century (1635–1638 and 1661–1689), when episcopalianism, backed by the Crown, briefly gained ascendancy within the Kirk (see Bishops' Wars). In the medieval period, prior to the Reformation, Edinburgh had no cathedral as it was under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of St Andrews, whose episcopal seat was St Andrews Cathedral. For most of its post-Reformation history the Church of Scotland has not had bishops, dioceses, or cathedrals. As such, the use of the term cathedral today carries no practical meaning. The "High Kirk" title is older, being attested well before the building's brief period as a cathedral.



Hew Scott's accountEdit

There is record evidence of a church here, very likely on the present site, in the year 854. In 1120 King Alexander I, rebuilt the church in the Norman style. Of this building characteristic features survived until 1798. During the fourteenth century, Edinburgh was captured and plundered by the English under Edward II. and Edward III., and twice St Giles was laid waste. After restoration, the church was more thoroughly ruined at the Burnt Candlemas in 1387, when Richard II. sacked the city. The western part of the fabric was soon in use again ; but the restoration of the choir and transepts, which were much enlarged, lasted on into the sixteenth century. In 1467 the city endowed St Giles as a collegiate church. It now became usual to speak of the nave, where the stonework was ancient, as the Old Kirk, while the eastern part of the building was called the New Kirk. When the movement for reform drew large crowds to St Giles, separate services began to be regularly held in the Old and New Kirks. Soon this was not enough, and the great church was partitioned off into smaller sections. In 1571 St Giles was seized by Kirkcaldie of Grange, and held by him as a stronghold for Queen Mary. This resulted in serious damage to the structure.

At the Reformation the parish of St Giles was coextensive with the city of Edinburgh. Our Lady's Kirk of Field and the other College Kirk of the Holy Trinity were not parochial charges. To meet the spiritual needs of the growing population, the first plan of the Reformers was to add to the staff of the parochial clergy. Thus St Giles was given four, and even five ministers. The better to carry out this method, the parish was divided into four districts, called the Quarters of the city. These were distinguished as the North-East Quarter, the South-West Quarter, etc. Each Quarter was placed under the special care of one of the ministers.

The choir of St Giles was known as the New Kirk, the East Kirk, or the Little Kirk, while the Old Kirk to the west was also called the Great Kirk. At length, in 1598, Edinburgh was broken up into four parishes. The North-West Quarter, as the remanent part of the ancient parish, continued to occupy the choir of St Giles, which alone became the High Kirk of the city. In it the Magistrates, the Court of Session, and other dignitaries officially worshipped. In it also was the royal pew. From its place of worship this district became known as the High Kirk Parish. The South-East Quarter became, the Old Kirk Parish, and its congregation still met in the Old Kirk. For the other two Quarters separate churches were provided. To the North-East Quarter was given the fine old church of the Holy Trinity, and for the South- West Quarter a new place of worship was built at the top of the Greyfriars burial-ground.

In 1633, when a bishopric of Edinburgh was set up, the choir of St Giles was made to serve as its cathedral. But all that was annulled in 1637. Again in 1661 the choir was fitted up anew for cathedral functions. This lasted till 1689, when once more it was made a parish church. It had been intended to make the whole church a cathedral, but that was not carried out.

In 1641 the parochial areas of Edinburgh were recast, and two new city parishes were founded. Each of these got its name from an outstanding public building in it. One was called the Tolbooth Parish, and the other the Tron Parish, from the city Tron, or Weighhouse, which stood very near the east end of St Giles, close to the Cross.

From 1829 till 1833 a restoration of St Giles was carried out by the city, at a cost of nearly £21,600. Toward this Government gave a grant of £12,000. That renovation is remembered rather for what the restorers destroyed than for what they achieved. In 1870 Dr William Chambers, who had been Lord Provost of the city, began a far more real restoration. With aid from various sources, and very largely at his own expense, this was finished in 1883. But just as his great undertaking saw its end, the generous worker died. Two days after the reopening of the restored church (23 May 1883), the funeral service of Dr Chambers was held in it. The renewed church can seat a congregation of 3000. [5]

The crown steeple dates from the late 15th century

The oldest parts of the building are four massive central pillars, often said to date from 1124, although there is very little evidence to this effect. In 1385, the building suffered a fire and was rebuilt in the subsequent years. Much of the current interior dates from this period. Over the years many chapels, referred to as 'aisles', were added, greatly enlarging the church and leaving it rather irregular in plan. In 1466, St Giles was established as a collegiate church by Pope Paul II.[6] In response to this raising of status, the lantern tower was added around 1490, and the chancel ceiling raised, vaulted and a clerestory installed. By the middle of the 16th century, immediately before the Reformation arrived in Scotland, there were about fifty side altars in the church, some of which were paid for by the city's trade incorporations and dedicated to their patron saints.


Knox preaching in the High Kirk

At the height of the Scottish Reformation the Protestant leader and theologian John Knox, who had returned from Geneva and Frankfurt, was chosen minister at St Giles by Edinburgh Town Council and installed on 7 July 1559.[7] A 19th-century stained glass window in the south wall of the church shows him delivering the funeral sermon for the Regent Moray in 1570. The reformer was buried in the kirkyard of St Giles on 24 November 1572 in the presence of the Regent Morton who, at his graveside, uttered the words, "There lies one who neither feared nor flattered any flesh". [8] A bronze statue of Knox, cast by Pittendrigh MacGillivray in 1904, stands in the north aisle.

During the Reformation the Mary-Bell and brass candlesticks were scrapped to be made into guns,[9] and the relic of the arm of St Giles with its diamond finger ring (acquired in 1454) and other treasures were sold to the Edinburgh goldsmiths Michael Gilbert and John Hart, and the brass lectern to Adam Fullerton, for scrap-metal. By about 1580, the church was partitioned into separate preaching halls to suit the style of reformed Presbyterian worship for congregations drawn from the quarters of Edinburgh. [10] The partition walls were removed in 1633 when St Giles became the cathedral for the new see of Edinburgh. In that year King Charles I instructed the Town Council,

St Giles interior, 2012

Whereas (...) we have, by the advice of the chiefest of our clergy (...) erected at our charges a bishopric of new, to be called the Bishopric of Edinburgh; and whereas to that purpose it is very expedient that St Giles Church, designed by us to be the Cathedral Church of that bishopric, be ordered as is decent and fit for a church of that eminency (...) and not to be indecently parcelled and disjointed by walls and partitions, as it now is, without any warrant from any of our royal predecessors. Our pleasure is that with all diligence you cause raze to the ground the east wall in the said church, and that likewise you cause raze the west wall therein, between this and Lammas ensuing.[11]

The effect was only temporary. The internal partitions were restored in 1639 and, after several re-arrangements, lasted until the Victorian 'restoration' of 1881–3.[12]

17th century and religious conflictEdit

On Sunday 23 July 1637 efforts by Charles I and Archbishop Laud to impose Anglican services on the Church of Scotland led to the Book of Common Prayer revised for Scottish use being introduced in St Giles. Rioting in opposition began when the Dean of Edinburgh, James Hannay, began to read from the new Book of Prayer, legendarily initiated by the market-woman or street-seller Jenny Geddes throwing her stool at his head. The disturbances led to the National Covenant and hence the Bishops' Wars; the first conflicts of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, which included the English Civil War. The 18th-century historian of Edinburgh, William Maitland, relying on the records of Edinburgh's Town Council, described the scene in the following passage which reflects his monarchist sympathies,

The St Giles Riot of 1637

King Charles I. being resolved to put in execution his darling scheme, of having all his people of the same religion, ordered a liturgy, or service book, with one of canons, to be prepared, for the use of the Scottish Church, which being accordingly performed, his Majesty, without further ceremony, issued a proclamation for the due observance of them throughout Scotland. This being impolitickly done, without the Privity of the Secret Council, or general approbation of the clergy; they were regarded as foreign impositions, devised by Archbishop Laud, and forced upon the nation by the sole authority of the King; which occasioned great heart-burnings and mighty commotions amongst the people. (...) And the twenty third [of July] being the day appointed for its reading in St Giles's Church; in the morning of that day, the usual prayers were read by Patrick Henderson the common Reader; which were no sooner ended, than Henderson, by way of farewel, said to his auditory, Adieu good people; for I think this is the last time of my reading prayers in this place, which occasioned a great murmuring in the Congregation. (...) No sooner had James Hannay, Dean of Edinburgh, appeared in his surplice, and began to read the service, than a number of women, with clapping of hands, execrations, and hideous exclamations, raised a great confusion in the church, which Dr. Lindsay Bishop of Edinburgh willing to appease, stept into the pulpit, and reminded people of the sanctity of the place: But this, instead of calming, inraged them to such a degree that Janet Geddes, a furious woman, ushered in the dreadful and destructive civil war, by throwing a stool at the Bishop’s head: And had it not been for the magistrates of Edinburgh, who turned out the frantick multitude, they would probably have murdered him; but such was the noise without, by knocking at the doors, throwing stones in at the windows, and incessant cries of Pape, Pape, Antichrist, pull him down, that the said magistrates were obliged to go out to appease their fury. But the populace watching his return homewards, renewed the assault, that, had he not been rescued by a superior force, they would undoubtedly have dispatched him. Thus began those horrible troubles, which ended in the destruction of the King, subversion of the Church and State, and loss of the rights and liberties of the people.[13]

West St Giles, or New North ChurchEdit

There was a meeting-house in the Lawnmarket in 1692, to which a parish was allocated 25 March 1698, termed the New North, for whose accommodation the north-west portion of St Giles was fitted up 20 December 1699. Having been the place where Sir John Gordon of Haddo was imprisoned previous to his decapitation in 1644, it was generally called Haddo's-hold, and from its size, the Little Kirk. During alterations in St Giles, the congregation was accommodated in the Methodist Chapel, Nicolson Square, from 1829-35, and in Brighton Street Chapel from 1835 to 1843, when they returned to the nave of St Giles. At the restoration of the Cathedral by Dr William Chambers, a sum of £10,000, raised chiefly by voluntary contributions, was vested in the Edinburgh Ecclesiastical Commissioners, and a new building erected near the Meadows, to which the congregation removed in 1880.[14]

18th centuryEdit

Shops at St Giles, seen from Parliament Close

In the late 17th century a carillon was made for the cathedral by James Meikle. On the day in 1707 when the Treaty of Union was signed to merge the Parliament of Scotland with the Parliament of England and create the Kingdom of Great Britain, the bells of St Giles were wittily played to the tune Why should I be so sad on my wedding day?[15]

The building continued to be sub-divided. In the late 18th century it consisted of four separate churches named the East or New Kirk, the Mid or Old Kirk, the Tolbooth Kirk, and West St Giles' Kirk (also known as Haddo's Hole Kirk).[16]

Writing at the end of the 18th century, the historian Hugo Arnot described St Giles as "disfigured by low booths, built adjoining to the walls of the church, possessed by jewellers.".[17] Henry Cockburn described small shops extending round St Giles into Parliament Close,[18] where in the 17th century one of them had belonged to the goldsmith George Heriot, to whom King James VI was in the habit of paying social visits.[19]

19th centuryEdit

Plan of St Giles in 1877, showing how the building was subdivided into three separate churches at that time

By the 1820s, with the demolition of the Luckenbooths from the High Street and removal of the shops in Parliament Close, the exterior of St Giles was fully exposed for the first time in centuries and could be seen to be in poor condition and an embarrassment to the city. In 1829, architect William Burn was appointed to carry out a restoration and to beautify and preserve the building. This process demolished some chapels to improve the symmetry of the external appearance, inserted new, more standard, window openings and tracery, and encased much of the exterior in a skin of smooth ashlar.

During the years 1872–83, Sir William Chambers, Lord Provost of Edinburgh, planned and financed a further major restoration with the aim of creating a national church building: "a Westminster Abbey for Scotland." Chambers approached the City Architect, Robert Morham to recreate a single volume from the existing subdivided spaces. He hired architects William Hay and George Henderson to oversee his plans.[20] The building was cleaned and old galleries and partition walls were removed, creating a single interior space for the first time since the 1630s.

The churchEdit

Thistle ChapelEdit

Ceiling of the Thistle Chapel.
Angel playing bagpipes, Thistle Chapel.

The Thistle Chapel is the chapel of The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, Scotland's foremost Order of Chivalry. The chapel was conceived in 1909 and built in 1911 to designs by Robert Lorimer[21], at the south-east corner of the church. It is small, but exquisite, with carved and painted fittings of extraordinary detail. One figure depicts an angel playing bagpipes. The Order, which was founded by King James VII in 1687, consists of the Scottish monarch and 16 knights. The knights are the personal appointment of the monarch, and are normally Scots who have made a significant contribution to national or international affairs. Knights have included Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Lord Mackay of Clashfern and Sir Fitzroy Maclean.

Along the chapel's sides are the knights’ stalls. These stalls, which feature the knight's coat of arms on stall plates, are capped by elaborately carved canopies atop which are the knight's heraldic helm and crest.[22] Unlike most other British orders of chivalry, the heraldic banners of knights do not hang inside the chapel itself but in a dedicated section within the cathedral.

Stained glassEdit

Scottish Saints window

In the later 19th century, stained glass began to be put into the windows which had been largely clear or plain since the Reformation. This was a radical move in a Presbyterian church where such decorations were regarded with great suspicion. They were finally allowed on the basis that they illustrated Bible stories and were as such an aid to teaching, and not flippant decoration, or worse still perceived idolatry. Only a small number of windows were completed as part of the 19th-century restoration, but this began a process that resulted in the vast majority of windows containing stained glass by the middle of the 20th century. The windows were planned to form a continuous narrative starting in the north-east corner and finishing on the north-west side. One of the last windows of this plan depicts Saint Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland, holding his cross with, on either side of him, Saint Columba and King David I (accorded the status of a popular saint). The depiction of saints, rather than Bible stories alone, by the mid 20th century shows how much attitudes to decoration had changed in the intervening period. Saint Andrew wears a flowing peacock-blue cassock and his features are modelled after prominent Edinburgh physician James Jamieson. Unusually, this window was funded by a grateful patient who insisted that Saint Andrew bear the features of the doctor. Below Saint Andrew are depicted Saint Giles, with his hind (a traditional association), and Saint Cuthbert. The dedication beneath the Saint Andrew window states: "James Jamieson Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons Edinburgh and Elder of the Kirk, born 1841, in Bowden, and died 1905".


Memorial to Archibald, Marquis of Argyll
Tomb of James, Marquis of Montrose

Notable monuments include those to James Graham, Marquis of Montrose (1612–50), his arch-enemy Archibald Campbell, Marquis of Argyll (1607–61) and the 19th-century author Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–94). A framed copy of the National Covenant of 1638 is also on view. The Protestant Reformer, John Knox, was buried in the old kirkyard, now a car park for the High Court of Scotland. The approximate position of his grave is marked by an engraved stone set in the tarmac. William Forbes, the first Bishop of Edinburgh, was also buried here.

Of the several military memorials many are to the Royal Scots with individual memorials to each battalion. That of the 1st is by Sir Robert Lorimer.[21]

A Jacobean style memorial to John Inglis, Lord Glencorse stands on the wall over the stairs to the lower level.

A brass plaque to William Carstares lies on one of the northern columns.

360° Panorama of the interior of St Giles, Edinburgh


In July 2014 the Reverend Calum MacLeod was elected by the congregation to be the new Minister of St Giles'.[23] He was formally inducted as the new minister by the Presbytery of Edinburgh in October 2014. The previous minister was the Very Reverend Dr Gilleasbuig Macmillan; he was inducted to the charge in 1973 and retired on 30 September 2013.[24]

Notable peopleEdit

The Kirk has been the site of weddings and funerals of notable Scots. Pioneering scientist Bella MacCallum, sports scientist Paul MacKenzie and Olympic gold medallist Sir Chris Hoy were married there. Notable people whose funerals took place at the Kirk include pioneering physician and suffragist Elsie Inglis, politicians Robin Cook (a lifelong atheist) and Douglas Henderson, and writer and literary agent Giles Gordon.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "St Giles' Cathedral Edinburgh". Retrieved 30 October 2015.
  2. ^ Historic Environment Scotland. "HIGH STREET AND PARLIAMENT SQUARE, ST GILES (HIGH) KIRK  (Category A) (LB27381)". Retrieved 1 March 2019.
  3. ^ "St Giles' Cathedral". St Giles' Cathedral. Retrieved 8 April 2008.
  4. ^ "St Giles Cathedral – Building and History". Archived from the original on 30 October 2014. Retrieved 19 November 2011.
  5. ^ Scott, Hew (1915). Fasti ecclesiae scoticanae; the succession of ministers in the Church of Scotland from the reformation (Vol. 1 ed.). Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd. pp. 48–69. Retrieved 16 March 2019.  This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  6. ^
  7. ^ M Lynch, Scotland, A New History, Pimlico, London 2000, p.196
  8. ^ J H S Burleigh, A Church History of Scotland, OUP 1960, p.195
  9. ^ "Extracts from the Records 1560, Jan–June". Retrieved 6 June 2014. 26 May 1560
  10. ^ Edinburgh Records – Burgh Accounts, vol. 2, Edinburgh (1899), ix–xiii, 91–92, 117–118; Reformation building works,92–166.
  11. ^ A M Mackenzie, Scottish Pageant 1625–1707, Oliver & Boyd 1949, pp.102–03
  12. ^ Gifford, McWilliam, Walker, The Buildings of Scotland, Edinburgh, London 1984
  13. ^ W. Maitland, History of Edinburgh, Hamilton, Balfour & Neil, Edinburgh 1753, p.71
  14. ^ Scott, Hew (1915). Fasti ecclesiae scoticanae; the succession of ministers in the Church of Scotland from the reformation (Vol. 1 ed.). Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd. pp. 142–143. Retrieved 16 March 2019.  This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  15. ^ from Sir John Clerk, Memoirs, 1676–1755, ed. John M Gray, quoted in N McCallum, A Small Country, Scotland 1700–1830, Edinburgh 1983, p.16
  16. ^ H M Milne (ed.), Boswell's Edinburgh Journals 1767–1786, Mercat Press 2001, p.6
  17. ^ H Arnot, The History of Edinburgh 1799, reprint Edinburgh 1998, p.172
  18. ^ H Cockburn, Memorials of His Time, Edinburgh 1856, p.108
  19. ^ E F Catford, Edinburgh, The story of a city, London 1975, p.45
  20. ^ Buildings of Scotland:Edinburgh by McWilliam Gifford and Walker
  21. ^ a b Dictionary of Scottish Architects: Robert Lorimer
  22. ^ "The Thistle Chapel". St Giles.
  23. ^ "St Giles' appoints new minister". 15 July 2014. Retrieved 15 July 2019 – via
  24. ^


External linksEdit