Edinburgh - St Giles Cathedral

Standing in Parliament Square and part of the Royal mile is St Giles Cathedral. It is especially bound to John Knox, who was its minister from 1559 to 1572 and preached an uncompromising Calvinist message launching the Scottish Reformation. Referred to as the High Kirk of Edinburgh, St Giles has been watching over Edinburgh spiritually for over 900 years. It was the political and religious centre of Edinburgh for most of the Middle Ages.



The building dates back to at least to the early part of the 12th century as the four massive central pillars prove. It was burnt down in 1385, but was quickly rebuilt. As with many cathedrals and changing architectural times, new chapels were added over the next 150 years or so. Rumours are that one is set aside for the remains of St. Giles himself. These chapels and altars would quickly number around 50 by the end of the 16th century.

A picture from the outside in Parliament Square

Its most famous minister, John Knox, was born in 1506 and arrived in Edinburgh in 1559 as one of the Marian exiles who had fled to the European continent as religious refugees due to the religious persecution initiated by Mary of Guise, who was the pro-French and Catholic regent of Scotland. He helped reform the worship and administration of faith moving Scotland towards Presbyterianism. He died in 1572 having achieved his goal of establishing a unique Scottish religion.


Picture of the top of the cathedral


Some of the changes he made at St. Giles include dividing the interior into many rooms and allowing the building to be used as a fire station and a school, for instance, over the next 300 years, such. Interestingly, the Scottish guillotine known as the Maiden was housed here as well as a prison for 'harlots.'

Conflicts arose out of the Scottish Reformation delaying debates about church government, but Charles I finally appointed a bishop in 1633 making St. Giles a cathedral. But, in 1638, the National Covenant was signed which signalled opposition to the king's plans to church reform. When civil war broke out in England, they supported Cromwell and even gave up Charles I to Cromwell after he had surrendered to them. More politicking ensued after they persuaded Charles II to sign the covenant in 1650 and decided to defy Cromwell who soon defeated Charles II and forced the Scots to unite with England. The Act of Union in 1707 preserved the independence of the Church of Scotland.

Many Highland Scots chose to support the House of Stuart instead of the House of Hanover when Queen Anne died in 1714. The revolt was crushed. They rose again in support of Bonnie Prince Charlie but failed again at the battle of Culloden Moor in 1746. Severe repression followed to stem future rebellions and this only abated in 1782.
A view of the inside and stained glass windows
The organ

Unfortunately, the troubles of the 18th century pushed the cathedral into a state of disrepair. Some repairs were made in 1829 but they were quite minor. William Chambers, a Scottish publisher, who served as lord provost of Edinburgh from 1865 to 1869, was keenly interested in preserving the architectural history of Edinburgh and used his own money to fund restoration work on St. Giles's Cathedral as part of a plan to restore the old city. In 1879, he sketched the cathedral's history.

The restoration included cleaning the building and removing old galleries. New stained glass windows were added, such as the Victorian windows, an example of which is the Life of Christ cycle, and the Burne-Jones window showing the crossing of the Jordan.

These renovations were very successful as the cathedral regained its lost reputation, so much so that a new chapel, Thistle, was added in 1911. Robert Lorimer designed it in a very particular Scottish style with angels playing bagpipes. This chapel is related to the Order of the Thistle, which is Scotland's highest order of chivalry instituted by James II in 1687. A new addition is the Burns window in 1985 showing themes from the poetry of Robert Burns.


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