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Issue 75 - 10 Best Cathedrals

Scotland Magazine Issue 75
June 2014


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10 Best Cathedrals

The eclesiastical wonders of Scotland

1 Glasgow Cathedral

There may be no other place in Glasgow with such a proliferation of historic buildings and landmarks than Cathedral Square and dominating its surroundings is the spectacular Glasgow Cathedral. It dates from 1124 when John Achaius, Glasgow’s first bishop, began its construction on the site of St Kentigern’s church (also known as St Mungo and Glasgow’s patron saint). King David consecrated the building in 1136 although fire destroyed it in 1192. The present cathedral was built between the 13th and 15th centuries and is one of Glasgow’s finest buildings. It was the only cathedral on the Scottish mainland to survive the Reformation intact and one of only two buildings in Glasgow (the other being the Trades Hall) still used for its original purpose. Externally Glasgow Cathedral is a superb example of Gothic architecture while inside the great stone buttresses, columns and arches and the 16th century ceiling are real highlights. The Cathedral has one of the finest post-war collections of stained glass windows to be found in Great Britain.

2 St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh 

The glorious St Giles Cathedral, which is also known as the High Kirk of Edinburgh, overlooks Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. It is named after St Giles, a 7th century hermit who lived in France and is the Patron Saint of Edinburgh. A small church dedicated to him (probably because of Scotland’s ancient ties with France) was built in the 1120’s. Many chapels were subsequently added, particularly during the 14th and 15th centuries, and by the 16th century there were over 50 alters within the church. John Knox was minister of St Giles during the Reformation and it is thought that Mary, Queen of Scots attended Parliament here. St Giles’ breathtaking Gothic façade is matched by its outstanding interior, with four massive central pillars supporting the tower and the crown steeple. These date from around 1120 making them the oldest part of the cathedral. There are also several exceptional stained glass windows, all popular attractions for the 400,000 who visit St Giles annually, including the exceptional Burn’s Window. It was installed in 1985 and is dedicated to Robert Burns.

3 St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh 

Edinburgh’s wonderful New Town is the home of St Mary’s Cathedral and is the seat of the Bishop of Edinburgh. The Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry laid the foundation stone in 1874, with the initial stage of the building completed in 1879 at a cost of £110,000. Cost implications meant that two of the three spires that dominate the New Town’s skyline were only added in 1890 and 1917. The architect of St Mary’s Cathedral was the celebrated Sir George Gilbert Scott (his other work also included a number of workhouses, churches and Salisbury Cathedral) and it is generally regarded as one of the world’s great neo-gothic buildings. Other associated buildings include the Chapter House, the Old Coates House (which dates from the early 17th century) and the Song School where daily choir rehearsals have taken place from 1880 until the present day. There are several fascinating features inside the cathedral including The Paolozzi Window, The Rood Cross and the stunning High Altar. The Cathedral is the church where the Bishop’s throne (cathedra in Greek) resides.

4 Cathedral of the Isles, Cumbrae

Standing on the edge of Millport, on the Firth of Clyde island of Cumbrae in Ayrshire, is the Cathedral of the Isles. Its steeple rises to 123 feet in height, making it the tallest building on the island, but it is also the smallest cathedral in Britain, with only enough room for around 100 people. This beautiful building was hailed as the new Iona when built in 1851, on the grounds owned by George Frederick Boyle (who would later become the 6th Earl of Glasgow). He commissioned the celebrated architect William Butterfield to design a theological college in 1849 – Butterfield in turn would go on to design Balliol College in Oxford. It was consecrated in 1876 and a visit today, having taken the short ferry journey from the bustling coastal town of Largs, is well worth the time. The Cathedral of the Isles still maintains its original function of a college and study centre. It is very easy to reach from Largs. Take the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry from Largs Pier to Cumbrae Slip, then board the connecting bus to Millport. For the Cathedral, ask to be set down at College Street.

5 St Andrews Cathedral 

Although St Andrews Cathedral lies in ruin today, enough remains to give a good idea of what an imposing and striking building it would have been in its heyday. Certainly St Andrews Cathedral, which stands on the outskirts of the ever-popular Fife town, was one of the most important buildings in Scotland’s history, particularly from the 12th to the 16th century. Work began on its construction in 1160 by Bishop Arnold and continued for another 150 years on a site that had been used for worship since the 8th century AD when the relics of Scotland’s patron saint, St Andrew, are said to have been brought there. It was dedicated in 1318 and the cathedral went on to become the country’s largest medieval church and the seat of Scotland’s leading bishops and archbishops. But, like many of Scotland’s religious buildings, it fell into disrepair after the Reformation of 1560. Today St Andrews Cathedral remains an incredibly popular attraction and a climb to the top of the 33 metre high St Rule’s Tower grants a marvelous view of the grounds.

6 Dunkeld Cathedral 

The Perthshire town of Dunkeld is a beautiful and fascinating place to wander, with some exquisite views along the River Tay. The town holds some fine architecture, including the Thomas Telford designed, seven arch Dunkeld Bridge and the arresting Dunkeld Cathedral. The Picts had a fort here around 1300 years ago, hence its Gaelic translation, ‘Fort of the Caledonians’. Dunkeld became the country’s ecclesiastical centre during the 9th century with the cathedral becoming the town’s focal point when built between 1260 and 1501 on the site of an 8th century monastery. It is dedicated to St Columba and it is thought a variety of associated relics are buried underneath the chancel and within the cathedral lays the effigy of Alexander Stewart, the notorious Wolf of Badenoch. Much of Dunkeld Cathedral was destroyed during the Reformation of 1560, as was Dunkeld itself by Jacobite forces, in the aftermath of the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689. Many of Dunkeld’s buildings and streets seen today date from after this time.

7 Inverness Cathedral

It may sit a little in the shadow of Inverness Castle, which stands on the opposite bank of the River Ness, but Inverness Cathedral is still an impressive building in its own right, particularly its striking pink sandstone façade. In fact the grounds of the castle provide perhaps the finest view of the cathedral. This fine slice of Gothic architecture was erected between 1866-69 and designed by Inverness architect, Alexander Ross but funds ran out before two 30-metre tall spires could be put in place on top of the grand towers that stand at its western side. Furthermore there can’t be many finer entrances than that of Inverness Cathedral’s West Door – its intricate stonework is quite breathtaking. Once inside, it quickly becomes apparent where the money was lavished. Beautiful pink nave columns of Peterhead granite immediately catch the eye, as does the patterned flooring and the elaborate alter. Light floods in via a number of gorgeous stained glass windows, particularly that of the considerable and beautiful West Window. The Cathedral is Mother Church of the Diocese of Moray, Ross and Caithness.

8 Fortrose Cathedral

Similar to that of St Andrews Cathedral, Fortrose Cathedral today lies in ruin but is still an impressive building and, along with its attractive grounds, is a wonderful place to explore and linger. The red sandstone immediately grabs attention, as do several archways and the cathedral’s clock tower. The original Cathedral of Ross was situated nearby in Rosemarkie but Fortrose was chosen as its replacement in 1236 after Pope Gregory IX granted permission. The first stage of construction was completed by the end of the 13th century with the south aisle, chapel and tower added sometime during the 14th century. Like most cathedrals of their day, the Reformation lead to Fortrose Cathedral’s quick demise and the lead on the roof was granted to Lord Ruthven whilst much of its stone was utilised in the construction of Cromwell’s Citadel in Inverness. However there was at this time the addition of a clock turret above the stair tower. Today you still get a sense of its history when wandering through its remains with the Tomb of Countess Euphemia and Sacristy especially appealing. 9 Elgin Cathedral Elgin is the ancient capital of Moray and the seat of the Bishops of Moray. Its name possibly translates as Little Ireland, which may give a clue as from where early settlers arrived. It was granted Royal Burgh status by King David I in 1224 and was the northern boundary for Edward I and his army as they ransacked their way through Scotland in 1296. Elgin Cathedral was consecrated in 1224 and was known as the ‘Lantern of the North’. It quickly became the ecclesiastical centre of Moray and was thought to be Scotland’s second largest cathedral after St Andrews. After the Wolf of Badenoch destroyed the cathedral the Bishop of Moray described it as ‘The Ornament of the Realm, the Glory of the Kingdom’. It was extensively rebuilt during the 15th century but stood without real purpose after the Reformation of 1560, from which time it fell into neglect with the central tower collapsing in 1711. However Elgin Cathedral is still a splendid sight with the twin western towers and the 15th century octagonal Chapter House central to any visit.

10 St Magnus Cathedral, Orkney

Located in the centre of Kirkwall St Magnus Cathedral (or Cathedral Church of St Magnus the Martyr – St Magnus was a 12th century Norse Earl of Orkney) is a truly exceptional building and one of Orkney’s best-known landmarks. It has a long, captivating history, one that dates back almost 900 years and is identified as the ‘Light of the North’. Work began on the cathedral in 1137 having been founded by Earl Rognvald Kolson and in turn dedicated to his uncle, Earl Magnus Erlendson. Subsequent additions were made in the 13th and 14th centuries. In the late 15th century St Magnus Cathedral came under the control of the Bishops of St Andrews and successive bishops were of Scots, rather than Norse, origin. However its Norse history can still be seen inside the cathedral where sits a copy of the Norwegian Bible and a statue of St Olaf, who was King of Norway between 1015 to 1028. Its interior also contains the glorious 850th Anniversary Window and the tomb of Arctic explorer John Rae who was undoubtedly one of Orkney’s greatest unsung heroes.