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St Giles' Cathedral, or the High Kirk of Edinburgh, is a parish church of the Church of Scotland located in the Old Town of Edinburgh.

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

Likely founded in the 12th century and dedicated to Saint Giles, the church was elevated to collegiate status by Pope Paul II in 1467. In 1559, the church became Protestant with John Knox, the foremost figure of the Scottish Reformation, as its minister. After the Reformation, St Giles' was internally partitioned to serve multiple congregations as well as secular purposes, including as a prison, and as meeting places for the Court of Session and the Parliament of Scotland. During a periods of episcopacy within the Church of Scotland, St Giles' briefly served as a cathedral in the 17th century. In 1637, a riot at St Giles' against the religious reforms of Charles I precipitated the formation of the Covenanters and the beginnings of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. In the 19th century, St Giles' was restored and the internal partitions were removed.

The current church building dates from the 14th century onwards and its distinctive crown steeple is one of Edinburgh’s best-known landmarks. Since the medieval period, St Giles' has been the site of nationally-important events and services and the chapel of the Order of the Thistle is located here. The church’s role in the Scottish Reformation and the Covenanters’ Rebellion has led to its being called "the Mother Church of World Presbyterianism". Alongside housing an active congregation, the church is one of Scotland’s most popular visitor sites, welcoming over a million visitors in 2018.

Name and dedicationEdit

Saint Giles depicted in a boss in the ceiling of the Thistle Chapel

Saint Giles is the patron saint of lepers. Though chiefly associated with the Abbey of Saint-Gilles in modern-day France, he was a popular saint in medieval Great Britain. In England, 162 ancient churches and at least 24 hospitals were dedicated to him; though his only other surviving medieval dedication in Scotland is the parish church of Elgin.[1][2] The church was first possessed by the monks of the Order of St Lazarus, who ministered among lepers; if David I or Alexander I is the church’s founder, the dedication may be connected to their sister Matilda, who founded St Giles in the Fields.[3]

Prior to the Reformation, St Giles' was the only parish church in Edinburgh and some contemporary writers, such as Jean Froissart, refer simply to the "church of Edinburgh".[4][5] From its elevation to collegiate status in 1467 until the Reformation, the church’s full title was "the Collegiate Church of St Giles of Edinburgh".[6] Even after the Reformation, the church is attested as "the college kirk of Sanct Geill".[7] The charter of 1633 raising St Giles' to a cathedral records its common name as "Saint Giles’ Kirk".[8]

St Giles' held cathedral status between 1633 and 1638 and again between 1661 and 1690 during periods of episcopacy within the Church of Scotland.[5] Since 1690, the Church of Scotland, as a Presbyterian church, has had no bishops and, therefore, no cathedrals. St Giles' is one of a number of former cathedrals in the Church of Scotland – such as Glasgow Cathedral or Dunblane Cathedral – that retain their title despite having lost this status.[9] Since the church’s initial elevation to cathedral status, the building as a whole has generally been called St Giles' Cathedral, St Giles' Kirk or Church, or simply St Giles'.[10]

The title "High Kirk" is briefly attested during the reign of James VI as referring to the whole building; however, it fell out of use until reapplied in the late 18th century to the East (or New) Kirk, the most prominent of the four congregations then meeting in the church.[11] Since 1883, the High Kirk congregation has occupied the entire building.[12]


St Giles' in 1647, showing the Tolbooth and Luckenbooths on the north of the church and Parliament House in the kirkyard to its south

The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland identified St Giles' as "the central focus of the Old Town".[13] The church occupies a prominent and flat portion of the ridge that leads down from Edinburgh Castle and sits on the south side of the High Street, which is one of the streets that make up the Royal Mile and which is the main street of the Old Town.[14][15]

From its initial construction in the 12th century until the 14th century, St Giles' was located near the eastern edge of Edinburgh.[16][17] By the time of the construction of the King’s Wall in the mid-15th century, the burgh had expanded and St Giles' stood near its central point.[18] In the late medieval and early modern periods, St Giles' was also located at the centre of Edinburgh’s civic life: the Tolbooth – Edinburgh’s administrative centre – stood immediately north-west of the church and the Mercat Cross – Edinburgh’s commercial and symbolic centre – stood immediately north-east of it.[19]

From the construction of the Tolbooth in the late 14th century until the early 19th century, St Giles' stood in the most constricted point of the High Street. Houses and shops were built against the walls of the church and the Luckenbooths and Tolbooth jutted into the High Street immediately north of the church.[20] A lane known as the Stinkand Style (or Kirk Style) was formed in the narrow space between these buildings and the north side of the church.[21][22] In this lane, open stalls known as the Krames were set up between the buttresses of the church.[23]

St Giles' forms the north side of Parliament Square with the Law Courts on the south side of the Square.[15] The area immediately south of the church was originally the kirkyard, which stretched downhill to the Cowgate.[24] This was closed for burials in 1561 and handed over to the town council in 1566. From the construction of Parliament House in 1639, the former kirkyard was developed and the square formed. The west front of St Giles' faces the former Midlothian County Buildings across West Parliament Square.[25]


Early yearsEdit

David I holds a speculative model of the first St Giles' in a 20th century window.

St Giles' foundation is usually dated to 1124 and attributed to David I.[26][27][28] The parish was likely detached from the older parish of St Cuthbert’s.[29] David raised Edinburgh to the status of a burgh and, during his reign, the church and its lands (St Giles' Grange) are first attested, being in the possession of monks of the Order of Saint Lazarus.[30][31] Symeon of Durham refers to the parish church at "Edwinsburch" as being in the possession of Lindisfarne in 854; however, whether this refers to a church on the site of the current St Giles', an earlier church, or another church is uncertain.[31][27] Remnants of the destroyed Romanesque church display similarities to the church at Dalmeny, which was built between 1140 and 1166.[32] St Giles' was consecrated by David de Bernham, Bishop of St Andrews on 6 October 1243. As St Giles' is attested almost a century earlier, this was likely a re-consecration to correct the loss of any record of the original consecration.[33]

In 1322 during the First Scottish War of Independence, troops of Edward II of England despoiled Holyrood Abbey and may have attacked St Giles' as well.[34] Jean Froissart records that, in 1384, Scottish knights and barons met secretly with French envoys in St Giles' and, against the wishes of Robert II, planned a raid into the northern counties of England.[35] Though the raid was a success, Richard II of England took retribution on the Scottish borders and Edinburgh in August 1385 and St Giles' was burned. The scorch marks were reportedly still visible on the pillars of the crossing in the 19th century.[36]

At some point in the 14th century, the 12th century Romanesque St Giles' was replaced by the current Gothic church. At least the crossing and nave had been built by 1387 as, in that year, John Skuyer, John Primrose, and John of Scone were commissioned to add five chapels to the south side of the nave.[37][38]

The 12th century north door survived until the end of the 18th century.

In the 1370s, the Lazarite friars supported the King of England and St Giles' reverted to the Scottish crown.[36] In 1393, Robert III granted St Giles' to Scone Abbey in compensation for the expenses incurred by the Abbey in 1390 during the King’s coronation and the funeral of his father.[39][40] Subsequent records show clerical appointments at St Giles' were made by the monarch, suggesting the church reverted to the crown soon afterwards.[41]

Collegiate churchEdit

In 1419, Archibald Douglas, 4th Earl of Douglas led an unsuccessful petition to Pope Martin V to elevate St Giles' to collegiate status. Unsuccessful petitions to Rome followed in 1423 and 1429.[42] The burgh launched another petition for collegiate status in 1466, which was granted by Pope Paul II in February 1467.[43] The foundation replaced the role of vicar with a provost accompanied by a curate, sixteen canons, a beadle, a minister of the choir, and four choristers.[44]

During the period of these petitions, William Preston of Gorton (modern Craigmillar) had, with the permission of Charles VII of France, brought from France the arm bone of Saint Giles, an important relic. From the mid-1450s, the Preston Aisle was added to the southern side of the choir to commemorate this benefactor and 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.[45][46] Around 1460, extension of the chancel and the addition thereto of a clerestory were supported by Mary of Guelders, possibly in memory of her husband, James II.[47]

In the years following St Giles' elevation to collegiate status, the number of chaplainries and endowments increased greatly and by the Reformation there may have been as many as fifty altars in St Giles'; though this figure is uncertain due to some altars possessing multiple dedications, only one of which is named in references.[48][49][50] In 1470, Pope Paul II further elevated St Giles' status by granting a petition from James III to exempt the church from the jurisdiction of the Bishop of St Andrews.[51]

During Gavin Douglas’ provostship, St Giles' was central to Scotland’s response to national disaster of the Battle of Flodden in 1513. As Edinburgh’s men were ordered by the town council to defend the city, its women were ordered to gather in St Giles' to pray for James IV and his army.[52] Requiem masses for the King and the memorial mass for the dead of the battle were held in St Giles' and Walter Chepman endowed a chapel of the Crucifixion in the lower part of the kirkyard in the King’s memory.[53][54]

The earliest record of Reformed sentiment at St Giles' is in 1535, when Andrew Johnston, one of the chaplains, was forced to leave Scotland on the grounds of heresy.[55] In October 1555, the town council ceremonially burned English language books, likely Reformers’ texts, outside St Giles'.[56] The theft from the church of images of the Virgin, St Francis, and the Trinity in 1556 may have been agitation by reformers.[57] In July 1557, the church’s statue of its patron, Saint Giles, was stolen and, according to John Knox, drowned in the Nor Loch then burned.[58] For use in that year’s Saint Giles' Day procession, the statue was replaced by one borrowed from Edinburgh’s Franciscans; though this was also damaged when Protestants disrupted the event.[59]


At the beginning of 1559, with the Scottish Reformation gaining ground, the town council distributed the treasures of St Giles' among trusted townsmen to keep them safe from the Reformers and soldiers were hired to defend the building.[60] At 3 pm on 29 June 1559 the army of the Lords of the Congregation entered Edinburgh unopposed and, that afternoon, John Knox, the foremost figure of the Reformation in Scotland, first preached in St Giles'.[61][62] The following week, Knox was elected minister of St Giles' and, the week after that, the purging of the church’s Roman Catholic furnishings began.[63]

Mary of Guise (who was then ruling as regent for her daughter Mary) offered Holyrood Abbey as a place of worship for those who wished to remain in the Roman Catholic faith while St Giles' served Edinburgh’s Protestants. Mary of Guise also offered the Lords of the Congregation that the parish church of Edinburgh would, after 10 January 1560, remain in whichever confession proved the most popular among the burgh's inhabitants.[64][65] These proposals, however, came to nothing and the Lords of the Congregation signed a truce with the Roman Catholic forces and vacated Edinburgh.[65] Knox, fearing for his life, left the city on 24 July 1559.[66] St Giles', however, remained in Protestant hands even as ladders to be used against Protestant forces in the Siege of Leith were assembled inside the church and even as French soldiers disrupted the sermons of Knox’s depute, John Willock.[65][67]

The events of the Scottish Reformation thereafter briefly turned in favour of the Roman Catholic party: they retook Edinburgh and the French agent Nicolas de Pellevé, Bishop of Amiens, reconsecrated St Giles' as a Roman Catholic church on 9 November 1559.[65][68] After the Treaty of Berwick secured the intervention of Elizabeth I of England on the side of the Reformers, they retook Edinburgh. St Giles' once again became a Protestant church on 1 April 1560 and Knox returned to Edinburgh on 23 April 1560.[65][69] The Parliament of Scotland legislated that, from 24 August 1560, Scotland was officially a Protestant country.[70]

John Knox preaching the funeral sermon of the Regent Moray, depicted in a 19th century window

It took workmen, assisted by sailors from the Port of Leith, nine days to clear stone altars and monuments from the church. Precious items used in pre-Reformation worship were sold.[71] The church was whitewashed, its pillars painted green, and the Ten Commandments and Lord’s Prayer painted on the walls.[72] Seating was installed for children and the burgh’s council and trade guilds. A pulpit was also installed, likely at the eastern side of the crossing.[73] In 1561, the kirkyard to the south of the church was closed and most subsequent burials were conducted at Greyfriars Kirkyard.[74]

Church and crown: 1567-1633Edit

In 1567, Mary, Queen of Scots was deposed and succeeded by her infant son, James VI, St Giles' was a focal point of the ensuing Marian civil war. After his assassination in January 1570, the Regent Moray, a leading opponent of Mary, Queen of Scots, was interred within the church; Knox preached at this event.[75] Edinburgh briefly fell to Mary’s forces and, in June and July 1572, William Kirkcaldy of Grange stationed soldiers and cannon in the tower.[76] Although his assistant John Craig had remained in Edinburgh during these events, Knox, his health failing, had retired to St Andrews. A deputation from Edinburgh recalled him to St Giles' and there he preached his final sermon on 9 November 1572.[77] Knox died later that month and was buried in the kirkyard in the presence of the Regent Morton.[78][79]

James VI in 1585

After the Reformation, parts of St Giles' were given over to secular purposes. In 1562 and 1563, the western three bays of the church were partitioned off by a wall to serve as an extension to the Tolbooth: it was used, in this capacity, as a meeting place for the burgh’s criminal courts, the Court of Session, and the Parliament of Scotland[80] Recalcitrant Roman Catholic clergy (and, later, inveterate sinners) were imprisoned in the room above the north door.[81] The steeple was also used as a prison by the end of the 16th century.[82] The vestry was converted into an office and library for the town clerk and weavers were permitted to set up their looms in the loft.[83]

Around 1581, the interior was partitioned into two meeting houses: the chancel became the East (or Little or New) Kirk and the crossing and the remainder of the nave became the Great (or Old) Kirk. These congregations, along with Trinity College Kirk and the Magdalen Chapel, were served by a joint kirk session. In 1598, the upper storey of the Tolbooth partition was converted into the West (or Tolbooth) Kirk.[84][85]

During the early majority of James VI, the ministers of St Giles' – led by Knox’s successor, James Lawson – formed, in the words of Cameron Lees, "a kind of spiritual conclave with which the state had to reckon before any of its proposals regarding ecclesiastical matters could become law".[86] During his attendance at the Great Kirk, James was often harangued in the minister’s sermons and relations between the king and the Reformed clergy deteriorated.[87] In the face of opposition from St Giles' ministers, James introduced successive laws to establish episcopacy in the Church of Scotland from 1584.[88] Relations reached their nadir after a tumult at St Giles' on 17 December 1596. The King briefly removed to Linlithgow and the ministers were blamed for inciting the crowd; they fled the city rather than comply with their summons to appear before the king.[89] To weaken the ministers, James made effective, as of April 1598, an order of the town council from 1584 to divide Edinburgh into distinct parishes.[90]


Riot against the introduction of the prayer book

James’ son and successor, Charles I, first visited St Giles' on 23 June 1633 during his visit to Scotland for his coronation. He arrived at the church unannounced and displaced the reader with clergy who conducted the service according to the rites of the Church of England.[91] On 29 September that year, Charles, responding to a petition from John Spottiswoode, Archbishop of St Andrews, elevated St Giles' to the status of a cathedral to serve as the seat of the new Bishop of Edinburgh.[92][93] Work began to remove the internal partition walls and to furnish the interior in the manner of Durham Cathedral.[94]

Work on the church was incomplete when, on 23 July 1637, the replacement in St Giles' of Knox’s Book of Common Order by a Scottish version of the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer provoked rioting due to the latter’s perceived similarities to Roman Catholic ritual. Tradition attests that this riot was started when a market trader named Jenny Geddes threw her stool at the Dean, James Hannay.[95][96] In response to the unrest, services at St Giles' were temporarily suspended.[97]

The events of 23 July 1637 led to the signing of the National Covenant in February 1638, which, in turn, led to the Bishops’ Wars, the first conflict of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.[98] St Giles' again became a Presbyterian church and the partitions were restored.[99] Before 1643, the Preston Aisle was also fitted out as a permanent meeting place for the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.[100]

19th century memorial to the Marquess of Montrose

In autumn 1641, Charles I attended Presbyterian services in the East Kirk under the supervision of its minister, Alexander Henderson, a leading Covenanter. The King had lost the Bishops’ Wars and had come to Edinburgh because the Treaty of Ripon compelled him to ratify Acts of the Parliament of Scotland passed during the ascendancy of the Covenanters.[101]

After the Covenanters’ loss at the Battle of Dunbar, troops of the Commonwealth of England under Oliver Cromwell entered Edinburgh and occupied the East Kirk as a garrison church.[102] General John Lambert and Cromwell himself were among English soldiers who preached in the church and, during the Protectorate, the East Kirk and Tolbooth Kirk were each partitioned in two.[103][104]

At the Restoration in 1660, the Cromwellian partition was removed from the East Kirk and a new royal loft was installed there.[105] In 1661, The Parliament of Scotland, under Charles II, restored episcopacy and St Giles' became a cathedral again.[106] At Charles’ orders, the body of James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose – a senior supporter of Charles I executed by the Covenanters – was re-interred in St Giles'.[107] The reintroduction of bishops sparked a new period of rebellion and, in the wake of the Battle of Rullion Green in 1666, Covenanters were imprisoned in the former priests’ prison above the north door, which, by then, had become known as "Haddo’s Hole" due to the imprisonment there in 1644 of Royalist leader Sir John Gordon, 1st Baronet, of Haddo.[108]

After the Glorious Revolution, the Scottish bishops remained loyal to James VII.[109] On the advice of William Carstares, who later became minister of the High Kirk, William II supported the abolition of bishops in the Church of Scotland and, in 1690, the Parliament of Scotland restored Presbyterian polity.[110][111][112] In response, many ministers and congregants left the Church of Scotland, effectively establishing the independent Scottish Episcopal Church.[113] In Edinburgh alone, eleven meeting houses of this secession sprang up, including the congregation that became Old St Paul’s, which was founded when Alexander Rose, the last Bishop of Edinburgh in the established church, led much of his congregation out of St Giles'.[114][115][116]

Four churches in one: 1690-1843Edit

Until the 19th century, smaller buildings encroached upon St Giles'.

In 1699, the courtroom in the northern half of the Tolbooth partition was converted into the New North (or Haddo’s Hole) Kirk.[117] At the Union of Scotland and England’s Parliaments in 1707, the tune "Why Should I Be Sad on my Wedding Day?" rang out from St Giles' recently-installed carillon.[118] During the Jacobite rising of 1745, inhabitants of Edinburgh met in St Giles' and agreed to surrender the city to the advancing army of Charles Edward Stuart.[119]

From 1758 to 1800, Hugh Blair, a leading figure of the Scottish Enlightenment and religious moderate, served as minister of the High Kirk; his sermons were famous throughout Britain and attracted Robert Burns and Samuel Johnson to the church. Blair’s contemporary, Alexander Webster, preached strict Calvinist doctrine in the Tolbooth Kirk.[120][121]

At the beginning of the 19th century, the Luckenbooths and Tolbooth, which had enclosed the north side of the church, were demolished along with shops built up around the walls of the church.[122] The exposure of the church’s exterior revealed its walls were leaning outwards.[11] In 1817, the city council commissioned Archibald Elliot to produce plans for the church's restoration. Elliot's drastic plans proved controversial and, due to a lack of funds, nothing was done with them.[123][124]

George IV attended service in the High Kirk during his 1822 visit to Scotland.[125] The publicity of the King’s visit created impetus to restore the now-dilapidated building.[126] With £20,000 supplied by the city council and the government, William Burn was commissioned to lead the restoration.[127][128] Burn's initial plans were modest, but, under pressure from the authorities, Burn produced something closer to Elliot's plans.[123][129]

The High Kirk during the visit of George IV in 1822

Between 1829 and 1833, Burn significantly altered the church: he encased the exterior in ashlar, raised the church’s roofline and reduced its footprint. He also added north and west doors and moved the internal partitions to create a church in the nave, a church in the choir, and a meeting place for the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in the southern portion. Between these, the crossing and north transept formed a large vestibule. Burn also removed internal monuments; the General Assembly’s meeting place in the Preston Aisle; and the police office and fire engine house, the building’s last secular spaces.[130][131][123]

Burn’s contemporaries were split between those who congratulated him on creating a cleaner, more stable building and those who regretted what had been lost or altered.[132][133] In the Victorian era and 20th century, Burn’s work fell far from favour among commentators.[134][135] Its critics included Robert Louis Stevenson, who stated: "…zealous magistrates and a misguided architect have shorn the design of manhood and left it poor, naked, and pitifully pretentious."[136] Since the late 20th century, Burn’s work has been recognised as having secured the church from possible collapse.[137]

The High Kirk returned to the choir in 1831. The Tolbooth Kirk returned to the nave in 1832; when they left for a new church on Castlehill in 1843, the nave was occupied by the Haddo’s Hole congregation, who had returned from their temporary meeting place on Albany Street in the New Town. The General Assembly found its new meeting hall inadequate and met there only once; the Old Kirk congregation moved into the space.[138]

Victorian eraEdit

The interior after the Chambers restoration

At the Disruption of 1843, Robert Gordon and James Buchanan, ministers of the High Kirk, left their charges and the established church to join the newly-founded Free Church. A significant number of their congregation left with them; as did Charles John Brown, assistant minister of Haddo’s Hole Kirk.[139][132] The Old Kirk congregation was suppressed in 1860 and the south section remained empty until the church’s second restoration.[140]

At a public meeting in Edinburgh City Chambers on 1 November 1867, William Chambers, publisher and Lord Provost of Edinburgh, first advanced his ambition to remove the internal partitions and restore St Giles' as a "Westminster Abbey for Scotland".[141] Chambers commissioned Robert Morham to produce initial plans.[123] Lindsay Mackersy, solicitor and session clerk of the High Kirk, supported Chambers’ work and William Hay was engaged as architect; a management board to supervise the design of new windows and monuments was also created.[142][143]

The restoration was part of a movement for liturgical beautification in late 19th century Scottish Presbyterianism and many evangelicals feared the restored St Giles' would more resemble a Roman Catholic church than a Presbyterian one.[144][145] Nevertheless, the Presbytery of Edinburgh approved plans in March 1870 and the High Kirk was restored between June 1872 and March 1873: the pews and galleries were replaced with stalls and chairs and, for the first time since the Reformation, stained glass and an organ were introduced.[146][123]

The restoration of the former Old Kirk and the West Kirk began in January 1879.[147] In 1881, the West Kirk vacated St. Giles' for a new church on the Meadows. During the restoration, many human remains were unearthed; these were transported in five large boxes for reinterment in Greyfriars Kirkyard.[148] Although he had managed to view the reunified interior, William Chambers died on 20 May 1883, only three days before John Hamilton-Gordon, 7th Earl of Aberdeen, Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, ceremonially opened the restored church; Chambers' funeral was held in the church two days after its reopening.[149][123]

20th and 21st centuriesEdit

In 1911, George V opened the newly-constructed chapel of the knights of the Order of the Thistle at the south east corner of the church.[150] Though the church had hosted a special service for the Church League for Women’s Suffrage, Wallace Williamson’s refusal to pray for imprisoned suffragettes led to their supporters disrupting services during late 1913 and early 1914.[151]

99 members of the congregation - including the assistant minister, Matthew Marshall - were killed in World War I.[151] In 1917, St Giles' hosted the lying-in-state and funeral of Elsie Inglis, medical pioneer and member of the congregation.[152][153] Ahead of the 1929 reunion of the United Free Church of Scotland and the Church of Scotland, the Church of Scotland (Property and Endowments) Act 1925 transferred ownership of St Giles' from the City of Edinburgh Council to the Church of Scotland.[154][155]

The church escaped World War II undamaged. The week after VE Day, the royal family attended a thanksgiving service in St Giles'. The Albany Aisle at the north west of the church was subsequently adapted to serve as a memorial chapel to the 39 members of the congregation killed in the conflict.[156] To mark her first visit to Scotland since her coronation, Elizabeth II received the Honours of Scotland at a special service in St Giles' on 24 June 1953.[157] From 1973 to 2013, Gilleasbuig Macmillan served as minister of St Giles'.[158] During Macmillan’s incumbency, the church was restored and the interior reoriented around a central communion table, the interior floor was levelled and undercroft space was created by Bernard Feilden.[123][159]

St Giles' remains an active parish church as well as hosting concerts, special services, and events.[160] In 2018, St Giles' was the fourth most popular visitor site in Scotland with over 1.3 million visitors that year.[161]



The western exterior of St Giles', showing William Burn's imitation of the medieval porch on the right

The exterior of the church, with the exception of the tower, dates almost entirely from William Burn’s restoration of 1829-33 and afterwards.[123][162] Following the early 19th century demolition of the Luckenbooths, Tolbooth, and shops built against St Giles', the walls of the church were exposed to be leaning outward by as much as one and a half feet in places. Burn encased the exterior of the building in polished ashlar of gray sandstone from Cullalo in Fife. This layer is tied to the existing walls by iron cramps and varies in width from eight inches at the base of the walls to five inches at the top.[162] Burn co-operated with Robert Reid, the architect of new buildings in Parliament Square, to ensure the exteriors of their buildings would complement each other.[163]

Burn significantly altered the profile of the church: he expanded the transepts, created a clerestory in the nave, added new doorways in the west front and north transept, and replicated the cusped cresting from the east end of the church throughout the parapet. Burn also altered the windows, retaining the tracery of the great east window and inserting new tracery based on late medieval Scottish examples in the others.[164][165]

In order to improve access to Parliament Square, Burn demolished the westernmost two bays of the outer south nave aisle, including the south porch and door. Burn also removed the western bay from the Holy Blood Aisle at the south of the church and, from the north side of the nave, removed the north porch along with an adjoining bay.[166][167] The lost porches likely dated from the late-15th century and were matched only by those at St John’s Kirk, Perth and St Michael’s Kirk, Linlithgow as the grandest two-storey porches on Scottish medieval churches. Like the porch at Linlithgow, on which they were likely based, the porches at St Giles' possessed an entry arch below an oriel window.[168] Burn replicated this arrangement in a new doorway at the west of the Moray Aisle.[164]

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 and by moving the west window of the inner south nave aisle to repeat this arrangement in the southern half.[164] The west door 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 Saint Giles in the tympanum. The metalwork of the west door is by Skidmore.[169] In 2006, new steps and an access ramp were added to the west door by Morris and Steedman Associates.[170]

Alongside the Thistle Chapel, extensions since the Burn restoration include William Hay's additions of 1883: rooms south of the Moray Aisle, east of the south transept, and west of the north transept; in 1891, MacGibbon and Ross added a ladies’ vestry – now the shop – at the east of the north transept.[171][172] A 17th century plaque commemorating the Napiers of Merchiston is located on the north wall of the nave.[173]

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.[citation needed] 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".[citation needed]


Memorial to Archibald, Marquis of Argyll

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.[174]

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

Thistle ChapelEdit

The Thistle Chapel, located at the south east corner of the church, is the chapel of the Order of the Thistle, the second most senior order of chivalry in the United Kingdom.


The interior of the Thistle Chapel showing the ceiling and knights' stalls

The Chapel was constructed thanks to a bequest of £24,000 by Ronald Leslie-Melville, 11th Earl of Leven. Upon his death in 1906, the Earl bequeathed £44,000 to rebuild the ruins of Holyrood Abbey and return it to use as a Chapel for the Order of the Thistle. Financial and architectural considerations prevented the fulfilment of the Earl’s wish: his sons therefore offered money for the construction of a new chapel at St. Giles’.[175] As far back as 1882, Lindsay Mackersy, session clerk of the High Kirk, had revived a proposal by William Chambers to convert the south transept of St Giles' into a chapel for the Order. This was not acted on at the time.[176]

On 12 March 1909, the Cathedral authorities gratefully accepted the offer to build a new chapel for the Order of the Thistle at St Giles' and Edward VII appointed William Montagu Douglas Scott, 6th Duke of Buccleuch; Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery; John David Melville, 12th Earl of Leven; and Schomberg Kerr McDonnell as trustees with Thomas Ross as architectural consultant. The trustees appointed Robert Lorimer as architect and the first building contract was signed on 24 August 1909.[150][177] The Chapel was completed £80 under budget and was opened amidst much ceremony on 19 July 1911 by George V. At the opening, police hid in the boiler room beneath the Chapel to guard against the threat of vandalism by suffragettes.[178]

The Knights of the Thistle usually meet for worship in the Thistle Chapel every second year at the investiture of new knights by the monarch. They also meet for worship in the Cathedral annually on the Sunday nearest Saint Andrew’s Day. Services of the Order are led by the Dean of the Thistle.[179][180][181]

Between 1987 and 2019, a cafe occupied the former boiler room below the Chapel.[182] The Thistle Chapel was temporarily closed to visitors from February 2015 after a number of valuable items were stolen. The Chapel re-opened to visitors the following year.[183]


Angel playing bagpipes, Thistle Chapel

Lorimer’s design draws inspiration from 15th century models and displays the influence of Lorimer’s master, George Frederick Bodley.[164][184] John Fraser Matthew assisted Lorimer in the design of the Chapel.[185][186] To create the ante-chapel, Lorimer replaced the former royal entry, reincorporating a 15th century doorway.[173] The walls of the ante-chapel are inscribed with the names of the monarchs and knights from the foundation of the order in 1687 to the construction of the Chapel in 1909.[187] The wrought-iron gates of the ante-chapel were forged by Thomas Hadden.[188] The Chapel is constructed of sandstone from Cullalo in Fife. The stone carving was done by Joseph Hayes and his assistants to designs by Louis Deuchars.[185][186] The ceiling is 42 feet (13 meters) high and constructed from approximately 200 tons of stone; the larger bosses weigh as much as a ton each.[189]

All the woodwork in the Chapel was carved in oak by brothers William and Alexander Clow.[185][186] The Chapel is furnished with nineteen stalls: one for each of the sixteen knights alongside the monarch’s stall at the centre of the western end, flanked by two stalls for extra knights. Each stall is surmounted by a canopy upon which rests a decorative sword and a helm topped by a sculpted representation of each knight’s crest.[190] The arms of each knight are represented by plaque fixed to the back panel of the knight’s stall. The earliest of these plaques use translucent enamel and are the work of Phoebe Anna Traquair.[185][186] The Chapel is not sufficiently large to accommodate the knights’ banners, which hang in the Preston Aisle.[191] The heraldic stained glass windows are by Louis Davis and show the arms of the knights at the time of the construction of the Chapel. The east window is a depiction of Saint Andrew as a fisherman by Douglas Strachan.[185][186]

"The Holy Table and Ornaments thereof", located at the east end of the Chapel, were designed by John Fraser Matthew as a memorial to George V and unveiled by his son, George VI, in 1943. George VI is commemorated by a floor tablet designed by Esme Gordon and unveiled by Elizabeth II in 1962.[192][193] During the 1980s, stained glass designed by Christian Shaw depicting the seven days of creation replaced ventilation grilles in the former boiler room below the Chapel.[194]


J. Cameron Lees was a minister of the church and wrote a book about it.[195]

In July 2014 the Reverend Calum MacLeod was elected by the congregation to be the new Minister of St Giles'.[196] 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.[197]

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.[citation needed]

See alsoEdit


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  2. ^ Marshall 2009, p. 2.
  3. ^ Marshall 2009, pp. 3-4.
  4. ^ Jean Froissart in Lees 1889, p. 5.
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  6. ^ Lees 1889, p. 43.
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  9. ^ "'Church of Scotland cathedrals?'". Retrieved 29 September 2019.
  10. ^ Lees 1889, p. 205.
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  13. ^ RCAHMS 1951, p. 25.
  14. ^ MacGibbon and Ross 1896, ii p. 419.
  15. ^ a b Coltart 1936, p. 136.
  16. ^ Catford 1975, p. 17.
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  18. ^ Catford 1975, pp. 274-275.
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  20. ^ Harris 1996, p. 605.
  21. ^ Marshall 2009, pp. 30, 110.
  22. ^ Harris 1996, p. 586.
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  25. ^ Harris 1996, p. 485.
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  27. ^ a b McIlwain 1994, p. 4.
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  44. ^ Burleigh 1960, p. 81
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  46. ^ Marshall 2009 pp. 15-16.
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  48. ^ Lees 1889, p. 48.
  49. ^ Marshall 2009, p. 32.
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  194. ^ Nicol 1998, p. 49.
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  • Burleigh, John Henderson Seaforth (1960). A Church History of Scotland. Oxford University Press
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  • Coltart, J.S. (1936). Scottish Church Architecture. The Sheldon Press
  • Farmer, David Hugh (1978). Oxford Dictionary of Saints (Fifth ed. revised). Oxford University Press
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  • Johnston, W. T. Inscriptions, St Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh. Livingston: Officina Educational Publications, 2007. Abstract: Inscriptions of almost fifty commemorative memorials and plaques, some fashioned by the best sculptors of the day, are collected together in a scholarly way for the information of visitors to the Cathedral, and is intended to explain why the subjects are so important to us.
  • Lees, James Cameron (1889). St Giles', Edinburgh: Church, College, and Cathedral: from the Earliest Times to the Present Day. W. & R. Chambers
  • MacGibbon, David and Ross, Thomas (1896). The Ecclesiastical Architecture of Scotland: From the Earliest Christian Times to the Seventeenth Century. David Douglas
  • Marshall, Rosalind K. A Guide to the Memorials in St Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh. [Edinburgh]: R.K. Marshall, 2011.
  • Marshall, Rosalind Kay. St Giles': The Dramatic Story of a Great Church and Its People. Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 2009.
  • Massie, Margot, Meriel Tilling, and Leslie A. Massie. [New Banners Donated to St. Giles Cathedral by Margot N. Massie in Memory of Her Late Husband Col. Leslie A. Massie, Advocate]. 1998. Abstract: ["Order of morning service for St. Giles' 1st Nov. 1998 with the new banners mentioned in the intimations -- 1 sheet describing the dedication and lists group of embroiderers -- 1 sheet with explanation of banners"].
  • Matthew, Stewart (1988). The Knights & Chapel of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle: A Panoramic View. Eaglebank Publications
  • Nicol, Kirsty. St. Giles' Cathedral: The Thistle Chapel. [Place of publication not identified]: Pitkin Unichrome Ltd, 1998.
  • St. Giles' Cathedral (Edinburgh, Scotland). Music at St Giles'. Edinburgh: St Giles' Cathedral, 2000.
  • St. Giles' Cathedral (Edinburgh, Scotland). St. Giles': Scotland's Crowning Glory. [Edinburgh]: [St. Giles' Cathedral Renewal Appeal], 2000.
  • St Giles' Cathedral: Stained Glass Windows. Bath: Unichrome, 1993.
  • St. Giles' Cathedral (Edinburgh, Scotland). Welcome to St. Giles' Cathedral: A Short History. [Edinburgh?]: [St. Giles' Cathedral?], 1990.
  • Stevenson, Robert Louis (1879). Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes. Seeley, Jackson, and Halliday

External linksEdit