St Giles Cathedral is an iconic and beautiful edifice that holds pride of place on the Royal Mile between the Palace of Holyroodhouse and Edinburgh Castle. Its distinctive crown steeple is one of the most famous profiles of the Edinburgh skyline, and although the present church dates to the 14th century, the spot has been the focus of religious worship for in excess of 900 years.
St Giles Cathedral — Photo courtesy of Colin Smith
Although it is situated right in the heart of the city of Edinburgh, the church is an oasis of calm and serenity and home to some of the most magnificent stained glass windows in Scotland. Regular services continue to be held in this sacred place, as well as regular concerts and choral recitals.
It began life as a medieval burgh kirk (although little evidence of this early building remains) but was transformed into a late Gothic cathedral complete with majestic flying buttresses and an imperious and beautiful crown spire soaring to the heavens. The doorways are deeply set and rich with intricate carvings, and the windows are similarly ornate.
The interior is at once awe-inspiring in its complexity and beautiful in its simplicity. Three vast arcades lead the eye towards the massive stained glass window in the east wall. At the heart of the structure is the sanctuary with the holy table and pulpit, surrounded by four enormous central pillars that may date back as far as the twelfth century.
Since the 14th century a number of chapels (or aisles) have been added, contributing to its charmingly idiosyncratic layout. Each aisle is associated with a noble family or person of interest in Scottish history, and they all have a tale to tell.
Worthy of special mention is the Thistle Chapel, dedicated to Scotland’s foremost Order of Chivalry, the most ancient and most noble order of the Thistle. This wonderful example of high Gothic architecture features sixteen bays – one for each of the Knights of the Thistle (and three additional stalls for the sovereign and two other members of the royal family).
Each stall is topped by intricately carved canopies featuring the helm and crest of each knight. When a knight dies, their crest is placed on the back of the stall (so that they form a permanent record of the order) and the crest of their replacement is added to the canopy.
St Giles is sometimes referred to as the 'Mother Church of Presbyterianism.' During the Scottish Reformation, the firebrand preacher John Knox was the minister of St Giles and his remains were buried in the churchyard (now a parking lot!). He is depicted in a stained glass window on the south wall and an exquisite bronze statue of the revolutionary speaker stands in the west end of the kirk.
The church also contains memorials to Robert Louis Stevenson, Robert Burns and two hundred other distinguished Scots, along with altars to the 14 trade guilds of the city.
Entry is free, although there is a suggested donation of £3 per visitor. You’ll find volunteer guides on hand to answer questions, and there’s a shop for anyone wanting to pick up a souvenir.