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Elgin Cathedral

Home to Scotland’s finest octagonal chapter house

Elgin Cathedral

Spiritual heart of Moray

Elgin Cathedral is one of Scotland’s most beautiful medieval buildings, and the inspiration for many an artist. The imposing yellow sandstone ruin is also one of the most important architectural legacies from that bygone age, whose intriguingly complex building history will reward the patient visitor.

The cathedral was the ecclesiastical centre, the spiritual heart, of the diocese of Moray. The bishop’s cathedra, or seat, was not always at Elgin – it had previously been at nearby Kinneddar, Birnie and Spynie – but once it was transferred to Elgin around 1224, it remained there until the Protestant Reformation of 1560 effectively left the cathedral redundant.

An awe-inspiring building

Elgin cathedral is affectionately known as the ‘Lantern of the North’. From the time of its construction in the first half of the 13th century, through to the time of its demise at the Reformation in 1560, this monumentally impressive building dominated the flat and fertile Laich of Moray. The proud boast by one of its former bishops, Alexander Bur (1362–97), that his cathedral was ‘the ornament of the realm, the glory of the kingdom’ is certainly borne out by a visit to this beautiful site.

Though much of the nave is reduced to mere foundations, the rest stills stands remarkably complete. Most awe-inspiring of all is the spectacular west front, flanked by two tall towers. In the centre is the processional entrance, dating from about 1270. Eight orders of engaged shafts step diagonally towards the doors, and carry finely-moulded orders of arches. The two doorway arches, with their beguiling oval recess above, once housing a representation of the Holy Trinity, and still flanked by adoring angels, were added in the early 15th century.

The east end of the building is the most complete part of the cathedral to survive. The choir and stunning presbytery, dating from around 1270, are undoubtedly the climax, incorporating window tracery that was ‘state of the art’ in its day. The fine stone-vaulted octagonal chapter house, dating from the 15th century, is the most complete element surviving, evoking a wonderful atmosphere of a bygone age.

Stone bishops and knights

Stone effigies of former bishops and earls grace the choir. 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. In the nave are two giant figures of a bishop and a knight that once graced the bell tower over the central crossing.

Events at Elgin Cathedral

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3 March 2015

The Nation // Live

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