Elgin Cathedral

National Grid Reference (NGR): NJ 22180 63050, map




Elgin Cathedral, the so-called 'Lantern of the North', was founded in the 13th century on flat, fertile land on the west bank of the River Lossie. It was consecrated in 1224 by the Bishop of Caithness and grew into a very large religious establishment, with an associated settlement or Chanonry, which was enclosed by a large wall, and much farm land. The Chanonry was home to many of the associated people of the cathedral, including deans, precentors, canons, vicars and chaplains. There were many houses or manses to house the most important of these figures, and three still exist nearby, including The Bishop's Palace. 

The cathedral had much money and effort spent on its main cruciform-plan structure and the many associated buildings, suggesting it was intended to be a long-term establishment with deep roots and a very large sphere of influence. It certainly had an eventful history. It had numerous fires, one in 1270 and a more damaging one in 1390, when Alexander Stewart, son of Robert II, destroyed most of the structure in a revenge attack for being excommunicated. Part of the large central tower collapsed in the early 16th century and the cathedral began its slow descent to ruin after the Reformation of 1560. It was semi-roofless when the rebuilt central tower collapsed spectacularly in 1711, destroying completely the nave and most of the choir. The cathedral ruins came under the care of the government in the early 19th century. 

The graveyard surrounding the cathedral has many interesting and important monuments, including the largest gravestone in Britain, which leans against the cathedral. There is also a Pictish cross-slab which was found in 1823 and brought here.

Description (exterior)

The cathedral was a cruciform building, similar in layout to most other cathedrals across Scotland and Britain. It was built with good quality sandstone blocks and fine carved surrounds, mouldings and tracery. The roofs of the cathedral were leaded, which was stripped off in the 1560s. Today only the west front, the choir, chapter house and parts of the nave and transepts survive.  The mason who built the earliest phase of the cathedral was Master Gregory. Bishop John Innes was responsible for the construction of the large central tower (which had to be partially rebuilt after the 1506 collapse)  The Chapter House was built in 1482 and rebuilt in the 20th century.  In 1807 the first keeper of the ruins, John Shanks, was appointed and he reversed hundreds of years of neglect. He dug out the ruins, revealing much of the carved stonework one can now see within the grounds. 


The west front of Elgin Cathedral is arguably the most spectacular part still standing. The central, processional doorway is deeply splayed and features many layers of mouldings. It is flanked by two enormous square towers and there is a large pointed-arch window above the doorway, a later replacement after the 1390 fire. The impressive west doorway is more or less complete and has the finest surviving carved stonework in the cathedral. The margins of the wide, pointed-arch doorway are deeply-splayed and have eight stages of mouldings, each with attached columns and capitals. There are twin door openings with a wide stone column inbetween. An oval panel above would originally have housed a carving of the Holy Trinity. Flanking the doorway, in the gable, are pointed-arch niches, which would have held statues but are empty today. Above are the remains of three decorative gabled panels with carvings and a shallow recess for a statue. Above these panels is the massive west window, braced between the twin towers. It is a later replacement and appears almost too large for the space it occupies. Only the moulded pointed-arch frame survives with a few fragments of stone tracery. The parts which survive suggest the tracery comprised a large rose window with tall lancets below. The gable was topped by a crowstep course and a small gabled section to the middle, in which was a small window. 


The very large, sturdy twin towers of the west frontage have survived well, likely due to their strength and thick buttresses. They are square on plan and have stout corner buttresses which extend beyond the walls by around 1.5m. They have four stagesand would likely have been topped by a parapet course and corner pinnacles (or possibly stone spires) but these have not survived. The lowest stage features individual, small, narrow lancet windows, while the stage above has larger pointed-arch windows. They had twin lancets within, with simple tracery. However, the north tower's windows here have been partially blocked and now feature rectangular window openings within, with leaded glass. The third stage has large round-arch windows with chamfered edges, hoodmould and stone tracery, which forms four narrow lancet openings. At the top of the towers is a simple blind arcade course. The central arch has a louvered opening, which may be an original feature albeit with more recent wooden louvers. 


The nave of the cathedral was largely destroyed when the large central tower collapsed in the early 18th century. It was unusual in that it had double side aisles, a feature shown by stone dootings and sections of surviving wall. The outer aisles had a series of small, gabled chapels, two of which survive on the southern side and have large pointed-arch windows with fine stone tracery. The nave had tall clerestory windows and a double-pitched lead-covered roof. On the south side was a large gabled porch, which was used by the ordinary townsfolk to enter the cathedral.


The transepts of the cathedral were tall, gabled structures, but only part of the outer walls have survived. The north and south gables of the transepts had three courses of windows, which would make them and the crossing area very light. Arched doorways provided additional entry into the building. The south transept survives up to the upper second stage. The lower stage has pointed-arch windows, while the stage above has round-arched windows with moulded surrounds and hoodmoulds. Slender buttresses divide the windows into bays. Slightly less of the north transept survives but it had a similar arrangement of windows. There is very little left of the crossing tower today, with the loose masonry re-used and cleared after the collapse. It was a square tower, probably a similar height as the west gable's towers and with round-arched windows on each face and a battlemented parapet. 


The choir and presbytery have survived rather better than the nave and transepts, presumably due to the direction in which the tower collapsed. The east gable of the choir is, or would have been, as impressive as the west front. The gable is flanked by tall, narrow outer towers, which are octagonal and originally had stone spires, which have not survived. The towers have two stages of blind arcading in the lower stage, which feature fine moulded surrounds and hoodmoulds. Above, small slit windows light inner stairs. At the top of each tower is another arcade course, slightly more ornate and with crocketed gablets above each arch. The gable between the towers has many windows, showing the skill of the masons to construct such a tall structure with so many openings. There are two courses of tall, narrow lancet windows, each with carved margins and hoodmoulds. Stringcourses divide each row of windows. High up, towards the gablehead, is a single, very large round rose window. It would have had impressive radiating stone tracery, but only fragments now survive. This window is surrounded by three fairly small pointed-arch recesses, which may have held statues. The sides of the choir and presbytery had quite large side aisles and a tall clerestory. The aisles had a sloping, lean-to roof, a section of which has survived or been restored on the south side. Each bay has impressive pointed-arch windows with intersecting stone tracery. Narrow buttresses divide the windows. The aisles did not reach as far as the east gable, stoping two bays short. The two bays of the choir without the aisle have similar, although slightly narrower, pointed-arch windows. The clerestory course above has tall lancet windows, arranged in either threes or pairs. 


The large, octagonal chapter house is the most complete feature of the cathedral, due to the fact that it was re-used after the Reformation by the Incorporated Trades. The current leaded roof is from an unknown date but is likely very similar to the original. Each face of the chapter house has a single, large pointed-arch window. Some of their margins and the hoodmoulds survive but the vast majority of the window tracery is recent, replaced in the later 20th century, based on the likely original design. Leaded glass was inserted at the same time. Between each face, at the angles, are narrow, stepped buttresses and there is a subtle corbelled coursse at the wallhead.  Inside is impressive rib-vaulting, supported by a fine central column. This vaulting was inserted between 1482 and 1501. 

Description (interior)

There are little surviving internal features of Elgin Cathedral, except the stairs in the towers and some of the carved stonework. Many fragments of carved stone was uncovered when the site was cleared of debris from the early 19th century. 

People / Organisations:

Bishop of CaithnessConsecrated the site1224
Alexander Stewart, Wolf of BadenochDestroyed much of the cathedral1390


  • Cathedral Founded (1224)
  • Cathedral attacked and burned (1390)
  • Central tower partially collapsed (1506)
  • Cathedral abandoned after Reformation (1560)
  • Lead stripped from roofs (1567)
  • Central tower collapsed, destroying much of c (1711)
  • Ruins came under the care of the government (1807)
  • Cathedral damaged by fire (c1245)

Archive References:

Scottish Church Heritage Research Archive - Offline databaseReference: 321
Canmore - Online database View Canmore Report Online: RCAHMS NJ26SW 1
Canmore - Online database View Canmore Report Online: 16584
Historic Scotland Listed Building Reports - Online databaseView HS Listing Online: 30853A-listed. Also a Scheduled Ancient Monument

Bibliographic References:

The ecclesiastical architecture of Scotland from the earliest Christian times to the seventeenth centuryD MacGibbon and T Ross1896-7Vol. II, p121-45
Historic Elgin and its CathedralR G Cant1974p20-32
Elgin past and present: a historical guideH B Mackintosh1914p38-111
The Architecture of Scottish Post Reformation Churches 1560-1843R Fawcett2002p54-56
Elgin CathedralR Fawcett2001
The District of Moray: An Illustrated Architectural GuideC McLean1987p10-14
Exploring Scotland's Heritage: GrampianIan Shepherd1986p108-9