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St Giles' Cathedral
High Kirk of Edinburgh
Cathair-eaglais Naomh Giles
St Giles Cathedral - 01.jpg
The west façade of the building
55°56′58″N 03°11′27″W / 55.94944°N 3.19083°W / 55.94944; -3.19083
Location Royal Mile, Edinburgh
Country Scotland
Denomination Church of Scotland
Previous denomination Roman Catholic
Status Parish church
Founded 12th century
Dedication Saint Giles
Consecrated 6 October 1243
Past bishop(s) Bishop of Edinburgh
Functional status Active
Heritage designation Category A listed building
Designated 14 December 1970
Style Gothic
Length 196 feet (60 metres)
Width 125 feet (38 metres)
Height 52 feet (16 metres)
Spire height 145 feet (44 metres)
Bells 3
Presbytery Edinburgh

St Giles' Cathedral (Scottish Gaelic: Cathair-eaglais Naomh Giles), or the High Kirk of Edinburgh, is a parish church of the Church of Scotland in the Old Town of Edinburgh. The current building was begun in the 14th century and extended until the early 16th century; significant alterations were undertaken in the 19th and 20th centuries, including the addition of the Thistle Chapel. St Giles' is closely associated with many events and figures in Scottish history, including John Knox, who served as the church's minister after the Scottish Reformation.

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, such as a prison and as a meeting place for the Parliament of Scotland. In 1633, Charles I made St Giles' the cathedral of the newly created Diocese of Edinburgh. Charles' attempt to impose a Scottish Prayer Book in St Giles' on 23 July 1637 caused a riot, which precipitated the formation of the Covenanters and the beginnings of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. The church's role in the Scottish Reformation and the Covenanters' Rebellion has led to its being called "the Mother Church of World Presbyterianism".

St Giles' is one of Scotland's most important medieval parish church buildings. The first church of St Giles' was a small, Romanesque building of which only fragments remain. In the 14th century, this was replaced by the current building, which was enlarged between the late 14th and early 16th centuries. The church was altered between 1829 and 1833 by William Burn and restored between 1872 and 1883 by William Hay with the support of William Chambers. Chambers hoped to make St Giles' a "Westminster Abbey for Scotland" by enriching the church and adding memorials to notable Scots. Between 1909 and 1911, the Thistle Chapel, designed by Robert Lorimer, was added to the church.

Since the medieval period, St Giles' has been the site of nationally important events and services; the services of the Order of the Thistle take place here. Alongside housing an active congregation, the church is one of Scotland's most popular visitor sites: it attracted over a million visitors in 2018.


The crown spire on St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh
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. 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 .


John Knox preaching
Knox preaching in the High Kirk

At the height of the Scottish Reformation the Protestant leader and firebrand John Knox was chosen minister at St Giles by Edinburgh Town Council and installed on 7 July 1559. 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". 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, 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. 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 Cathedral interior
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.

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.

Religious conflict

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,

Riot against Anglican prayer book 1637
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.

18th century

Shops at St. Giles, seen from Parliament Close
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 played to the tune Why should I be so sad on my wedding day?

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).

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.". Henry Cockburn described small shops extending round St Giles into Parliament Close, 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.

19th century

St Giles 1877
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. 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 church

Thistle Chapel

St Giles Cathedral - 05
Ceiling of the Thistle Chapel.
Angel playing bagpipes, Thistle Chapel, St. Giles
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 built in 1911 to designs by Sir Robert Lorimer, 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.

Stained glass

Scottish Saints Window, St. Giles High Kirk Edinburgh
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 Campbell, 1st Marquis of Argyll, St. Giles High Kirk Edinburgh
Memorial to Archibald, Marquis of Argyll
Tomb of James Graham, 1st Marquis of Montrose, St. Giles High Kirk Edinburgh
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.

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'. 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.

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