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St Giles Cathedral: Where History Whispers Among the Stones

a church with a clock on the front of St Giles' Cathedral


Nestled within the heart of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, St Giles Cathedral stands as a venerable witness to the ebb and flow of Scottish history. Its story is woven into the very fabric of the city, and as you step through its ancient doors, you’re not merely entering a place of worship but a living tapestry that unfolds centuries of tales, triumphs, and tribulations.

St Giles is colloquially known as a cathedral and, indeed, it held cathedral status between 1633 and 1638 and again between 1661 and 1689 during periods of episcopacy within the Church of Scotland. Since 1689, the Church of Scotland, as a Presbyterian church, has had no bishops and, therefore, no cathedrals. In fact, St Giles is the high kirk of Scottish Presbyterianism.


A Glimpse into the Past:

The roots of St Giles Cathedral reach back to the 12th century when a humble parish church occupied the site. Over the centuries, it evolved, transformed, and weathered the storms of time, emerging as the majestic structure we see today. The cathedral’s architecture is a blend of Gothic splendour and medieval charm, a visual testament to the craftsmanship of the artisans who dedicated their lives to its creation.

In the heart of St Giles, the Thistle Chapel stands as a microcosm of Scottish history. This intimate space, added in the early 20th century, is a haven of intricately carved stalls, heraldic symbols, and the Order of the Thistle’s regalia. The chapel pays homage to Scotland’s chivalric traditions, a living embodiment of the nation’s storied past.


Defying the Winds of Change:

St Giles Cathedral weathered the storm of the Scottish Reformation in the 16th century, a tumultuous period that saw religious upheaval across the nation. The famed John Knox, a central figure in the Reformation, delivered his fiery sermons within these hallowed walls. The cathedral became a focal point for the reformist movement, standing steadfast amidst the winds of change.

A poignant reminder of this turbulent era is the heart-shaped Heart of Midlothian mosaic found just outside the cathedral’s entrance. Tradition dictates that spitting on the heart brings good luck, but its historical significance runs deeper – marking the location of the Old Tolbooth, a notorious prison demolished in 1817 where public executions once took place.


a close up of a brick wall


From Royal Ceremonies to Commoners’ Prayers:

St Giles Cathedral has played witness to numerous royal events, one of the most notable being the celebration of the wedding of King James VI to Anne of Denmark in 1590. The echoes of regal vows exchanged within these hallowed walls linger, making it a venue rich in royal heritage.

Even until 2023 when the newly crowned King Charles III travelled up from London and received the Honours of Scotland (brought down from the Castle) during the National Service of Thanksgiving.

Beyond the grandeur of royal ceremonies, the cathedral has long been a sanctuary for ordinary Scots. The crown spire, a defining feature of the cathedral, stands as a beacon for those seeking solace. Its pointed silhouette pierces the Edinburgh sky, a reminder that in times of joy or despair, the doors of St Giles are open to all.


a group of people walking in front of a church with St Giles' Cathedral in the background


An Intimate Encounter:

Venturing beyond the grandeur, exploring St Giles Cathedral becomes an intimate encounter with Scotland’s past. The Nave, with its soaring columns and intricate ceiling, is a symphony of stone that transports visitors to a bygone era. As you trace your fingers along the weathered stones, imagine the countless hands that have sought refuge within these walls over centuries.
For a truly immersive experience, climb to the Thistle Chapel’s upper levels. The views from this elevated vantage point offer not just a glimpse of the cathedral’s interior but also a panoramic perspective of Edinburgh’s skyline, connecting the past with the present in a single sweeping gaze.


A Living Legacy:

Today, St Giles Cathedral isn’t just a tourist attraction; it’s a living legacy. Regular services, events, and the ethereal melodies of the St Giles’ Choir ensure that the spiritual flame within the cathedral continues to flicker. The annual St Giles’ Day celebration, held on September 1st, brings together locals and visitors alike, fostering a sense of community that transcends time.

In conclusion, St Giles Cathedral is more than just stones and mortar; it’s a vessel carrying the essence of Scotland’s tumultuous yet triumphant history. As you tread the time-worn stones, remember that each step connects you with the countless souls who have sought refuge, solace, and celebration within these sacred walls. St Giles Cathedral is a living, breathing chapter in the story of Scotland, and its history continues to unfold with every visitor who crosses its threshold.

Our guided tours, at Edinburgh Guided Tour, give guests the chance to see the Cathedral and marvel at its beauty. It is a sight not to be missed.

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