St Giles’, High Kirk of Edinburgh

Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:12 am

St Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh

St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh is more properly known as the City Church, or High Kirk of Edinburgh, as well as the mother church of Presbyterianism.  As a shining example of one of those confusing curiosities that we Brits love so much, it is not technically a cathedral at all, although most people still refer to it as such.  A cathedral is the seat of a bishop and the Church of Scotland does not have bishops.  However, Church of Scotland churches that were pre-Reformation cathedrals have retained their former titles in general use.  So now you know.

St Giles’ Cathedral found itself in the international spotlight in 2022, following the death of Queen Elizabeth II at her beloved Balmoral home on 8 September.  The Queen left Balmoral for the last time on Sunday 11 September, in a small motorcade that travelled through villages and cities in a six-hour journey to Scotland’s capital and the sovereign’s official residence at Holyroodhouse.  The next day, Her Majesty’s coffin, draped in the Royal Standard of Scotland, was taken in procession up the Royal Mile to St Giles’ Cathedral.  The coffin was flanked by a bearer party from the Royal Regiment of Scotland and escorted by the King’s Bodyguard for Scotland and her children – the new King, Charles III, the Princess Royal, the Duke of York and the Earl of Wessex.  There was a service of thanksgiving for the life of the Queen inside the cathedral, after which Her Majesty lay in rest for 24 hours.  Thousands lined the street to see the procession and thousands queued – many through the night – to file into the cathedral and pay their respects.  It was a special moment in Scottish history.  The Queen left Scotland for the last time on Tuesday 13 September, flown to London ahead of lying in state at Westminster Hall for four days and, finally, her funeral at Westminster Abbey on Monday 19 September.

The Preston Aisle, St Giles' Cathedral

It is generally believed that King David I founded St Giles’ in about 1124.  Probably its most recognisable external feature is the 15th century crown spire, which is something of a landmark.  Other features include the Chapel of the Order of the Thistle – Scotland’s chivalric company of knights, appointed by the Monarch; a 6-foot tall statue of John Knox, leading Protestant reformer and probably St Giles’ most famous minister; a Copy of the National Covenant; beautiful stained glass windows; and at least 66 green men.

St Giles is the patron saint of (among other things) lepers, nursing mothers, people with disabilities – and Edinburgh.  He was a relatively popular medieval saint.  Legend has it that he was a hermit living in the south of France in the 7th century.  His one companion was a deer.  One day, the local Visigothic King Wamba was out hunting and shot at the deer, who Giles tried to protect, in the process managing to get himself wounded in the hand by the arrow.  In recompense, Wamba built a monastery for Giles, Saint-Gilles-du-Gard. It is now a World Heritage Site.  I don’t know what happened to the deer.  Anyway, King David gave the revenues of Edinburgh’s St Giles’ to the hospital of Harehope in Northumbria, at that time in the King of Scotland’s lands.  The hospital was run by the Order of St Lazarus of Jerusalem, which particularly cared for lepers.

St Giles’ has obviously been part of Scotland’s story for a very long time.  The English raided it in 1322 and again in 1385.  The church recovered, and expanded, but black marks from the flames of 1385 were still visible when restoration work was carried out in the 19th century.  In 1466, Pope Paul II granted collegiate status to St Giles’.  This was a significant elevation, facilitating significant growth in influence and endowments.  All was going quite well – but no one expected the Scottish Reformation.  The next key events help explain why St Giles’ is known as the mother church of Presbyterianism.

  • The Nave, St Giles' Cathedral
  • The Nave, St Giles' Cathedral
  • St Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh

By 1558, Protestantism was becoming established in Scotland.  A group stole a statue of St Giles from the church and threw it into the Nor’ Loch, a polluted, fetid, lake now occupied by Princes Street Gardens.  The traditional St Giles’ Day parade was also interrupted by iconoclastic Protestants.  The hard-line Calvinist minister, John Knox (c1514-72), subsequently maintained that the statue of St Giles had drowned.  Knox, who amongst other things was a monstrous misogynist (or at least a singular sexist), returned from exile to Scotland in 1559 and preached at St Giles.  He was elected as its minister the following week.  Despite having a Catholic queen, Mary, Queen of Scots, Papal authority in Scotland was abolished by the Scottish Parliament in 1560.  Catholic decorations, statues, stained-glass windows and the like were removed from the cathedral; church silver was melted down and sold.  Incidentally, Knox is said to be buried under what is now the Cathedral car park (parking space No 23).

Fast forward to 1637, by which time Scotland and England shared a monarch.  King Charles I was sympathetic to Catholicism – his wife was a Roman Catholic – and favoured a ritualistic high Anglican form of worship.  The King attempted to impose a new liturgy and prayer book in Scotland, based on those in use in England.  Believing in the Divine Right of Kings, he did not think it necessary to consult the Scottish church or parliament.  Riots broke out in Edinburgh.  When Dean James Hannay began to read from the new prayer book, the story goes that a legendary local woman, Jenny Geddes, threw the folding stool she had been sitting on at him and shouted, “Dinna say Mass in my lug!” (‘Don’t say Mass in my ear!’).  In 1638, those opposed to the King’s reforms met at Greyfriars Kirk near St Giles’ and signed the National Covenant. The Covenanters were committed to defend the independence of the Scottish church.  These events precipitated the so-called Bishops’ Wars, precursor to the so-called English Civil War, or, more accurately, the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, which culminated in Charles I’s execution and the establishment of a republic – the Commonwealth of England – between 1649 and 1660.  An original copy of the Covenant is still on display in St Giles’.

St Giles’ continued to be at the centre of events in Edinburgh.  It was where the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland met.  It was in the church in 1745 that the arrival of Bonnie Prince Charlie at the head of the Jacobite rebellion was announced and the message commanding the surrender of Edinburgh received.  The Prince set up his court up the road at the Palace of Holyrood.

By the early 19th century, it was clear that St Giles’ Cathedral was in a serious state of disrepair.  At the centre of Edinburgh’s market (the medieval Mercat Cross stood nearby, the present one is Victorian, based around the original), it had been surrounded by shops.  When these were demolished, it was revealed that the church was in danger of collapse.  This was avoided in the 1820s by inserting two foot long iron tie bars into the stonework and encasing the entire building, apart from the tower (which was judged to be stable) in polished  sandstone.  Since the Reformation, the church had been divided into different churches serving different parts of Edinburgh.  The publisher and Lord Provost of Edinburgh, William Chambers (1800-83), envisioned a revitalised and refurbished church – a Westminster Abbey of Scotland, which would host national ceremonies.  His plans were approved in 1872, and considerable restoration work was carried out – which included returning St Giles’ Cathedral to the single space it was meant to be.

Adam Smith, the Mercat Cross and St Giles' Cathedral

In 1911, the Thistle Chapel was constructed and became home to the Knights of the Thistle.  The Order of the Thistle is the greatest order of chivalry in Scotland, recognising sixteen Knights with the highest honour in the country, Scottish men and women who have held public office or who have contributed in a particular way to national life. Appointments to the Order are a personal gift from the Monarch and the Order is second only in precedence in England to the Order of the Garter. The origins of the Order are unknown.  One story is that the legendary King Achaius founded it in 809, another theory is that the founder was King James III (1488-1513), who first used the thistle as a royal device on silver coins issued in 1470.  However, it was James II (James VII of Scotland) who established the Order with new rules in 1687.  The patron saint of the Order is St Andrew, and members meet annually around St Andrew’s Day.  There is a Thistle Service every other year, which is preceded by a procession of the knights through Edinburgh to the Chapel.

St Giles’ Cathedral is plainer than many cathedrals you may visit, though the ceiling and banners add splashes of colour. The Thistle Chapel is arguably the most fascinating space.  It contains stalls for each of the 16 knights, the Sovereign’s stall and 2 Royal stalls. It is packed with religious and heraldic detail, much of it distinctly Scottish, such as bagpipe-playing angels.  The ribbed ceiling is beautiful, with carved and coloured ceiling bosses.  The stalls are topped with knights’ crests and helmets.  It is all quite magical, reminiscent of a stylised version of the Round Table, and reminded me a little of Rosslyn Chapel.

There is much more to St Giles’, but I suppose we should finish off by mentioning those green men.  The Green Man is an ancient, pre-Christian figure, usually a round face surrounded by foliage, often with leaves spilling forth from its mouth.  It is astonishing how often versions of him crop up in churches, though some believe he is associated with rebirth – so that might make sense.  Most of those in St Giles’ Cathedral are believed to date from the 14th to early 16th centuries and are often very hard to spot.  Good luck with that!

Tap or click for the website of St Giles’ Cathedral and for the the website of the Order of the Thistle.

40 thoughts on “St Giles’, High Kirk of Edinburgh”

  1. It’s an imposing beast brought to life by your photographs and relation of its history.
    As to Knox, I imagine his repulsion to the idea of women ruling a country was not improved by Mary of Guise sending him to row in the French galleys for a couple of years.

  2. I was in Edinburgh only for about two days, but checked various events websites in advance and found out about a free organ concert in St. Giles, to commemorate the refurbished (grand) organ, and featuring renowned organists. I was so glad to have been there, especially with the incredible organ music reverberating throughout the church. Special memory for me…

  3. Despite several visits to Edinburgh I’ve never been in St Giles’ Cathedral or even to be honest, really registered its existence. But of course that changed this past week, and if I return to the city I’ll definitely pay it a visit if only for that gloriously coloured ceiling!

  4. thanks for that wonderful background on St. Giles. We had visited Edinburgh a few years ago, and I recall taking a picture of the statue of Adam Smith, but I don’t think we went into the church. Now I’m disappointed at not having done so…

  5. Hi Mike – what a great write up … your photos are beautiful … showing us so much … the ceilings and banners are particularly stunningly detailed. Thanks so much – cheers Hilary

  6. I don’t know that John Knox was a misogynist; he just didn’t like female monarchs, especially when they were Catholics. At the time he wrote about the ‘monstrous regiment of women’ both Scotland and England had Catholic queens, neither of whom was doing a great job of ruling and both of whom, obviously, were doing their best to persecute Protestants. He was just trying to demonstrate that women should not be monarchs.

    The crown thing on the spire is fun. I suspect it needs a lot of maintenance.

    1. I’m sure you’re right about Knox. I’m committing the schoolboy error of judging him through the lens of the future – my history tutors would have a fit. I still find the bloke objectionable, though!

      1. He might have been, but I really don’t find it in myself to hold it against him that he didn’t approve of either Mary. My Protestant self is very much on his side in that.

  7. Thanks as always for an interesting history of the church and the Order of the Thistle. The stain windows are lovely and I like the crown spire.

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