Spiritual heart of Moray | An awe-inspiring building | Figures in stone
Spiritual heart of Moray
Elgin Cathedral is one of Scotland’s most beautiful Gothic cathedrals. It is the product of three main building phases, and even in its ruined state, plenty of detail survives as evidence of its development and embellishment.
The cathedral was once richly carved and adorned with stained glass and painted decoration. A wealth of documentary evidence sheds light on the religious life at Elgin, and a fine collection of architectural fragments hints at the building’s lost beauty.
The cathedral was the ecclesiastical centre and spiritual heart of the diocese of Moray. However, the bishop’s cathedra, or seat, was not always at Elgin. Before the time of Bishop Brice of Douglas (1203–22), it moved between Kinneddar, Birnie and Spynie as was appropriate. Bishop Brice chose Spynie (2 miles north) as a permanent location for his cathedral, but it was transferred to Elgin around 1224. It remained here until the Protestant Reformation of 1560, after which it was occasionally used for Catholic worship.
An awe-inspiring building
Elgin Cathedral is known as the ‘Lantern of the North’. From the time of its construction in the first half of the 1200s, through to the time of its demise at the Reformation in 1560, this monumentally impressive building dominated the flat and fertile Laich of Moray.
One of its former bishops, Alexander Bur (1362–97) boasted that his cathedral was ‘the ornament of the realm, the glory of the kingdom’– and it is easy to see why.
Much of the nave is reduced to foundations, but the rest stills stands remarkably complete. Most awe-inspiring of all is the spectacular west front. It is flanked by two tall towers, which were part of the original building. At its centre is the processional entrance, dating from after 1270.
The two doorway arches, with their beguiling oval recess above, were added in the early 1400s. They once housed a representation of the Holy Trinity, and are still flanked by adoring angels.
The east end of the building was greatly extended after the fire of 1270 to provide a more magnificent setting for worship. The choir and presbytery, dating from around 1270, combine references to the architecture of the great churches of the north-east of Elgin with a style which was uniquely Elgin’s.
The fine octagonal chapter house dates from the late 1200s, and preserves a reading lectern and a riot of carved beasts and faces.
Figures in stone
Elgin has more medieval memorials than any other Scottish cathedral. Undoubtedly the finest is that of Bishop John Winchester (1435–60), shown in his mass vestments. Close beside him in the south choir chapel is the stone effigy of Alexander Gordon, 1st Earl of Huntly, who died at Huntly Castle in 1470.