I’m sure I’ve been inside before. I must have…surely. Yet I can’t remember when. And the vague memory flitting round my mind isn’t borne out by the interior. I’ve heard it said that visitors often know places better than local people, and it wouldn’t surprise me if this were true. So much of our surroundings we take for granted, and if we have visited once, small hand clutching the larger hand of parent or grandparent, we somehow never get round to visiting again.
So on that Saturday last summer in the Royal Mile, I stood and photographed the front of St Giles, and wondered whether I had, or hadn’t, seen its interior.
The cathedral takes its name from a prince, born in Athens in 650. He then travelled to Nimes in France where he lived as a hermit in the woods nearby. Legend has it that one day a king, Flavius, was out hunting and shot off an arrow at a deer. St Giles caught the arrow in his hand, saving the animal. In the Middle Ages many churches were dedicated to him, as he had become patron saint of lepers and cripples.
Since the reformation Scottish churches have been rather austere places, but in recent years this has begun to change, with the look becoming softer and more colourful. The oldest part of Edinburgh’s St Giles Cathedral, situated at the heart of the Old Town, dates back to the twelfth century. In the fourteenth it was rebuilt in a Gothic style with the following centuries seeing many extensions and restorations. Originally a Catholic church, the Reformation of 1560 saw St Giles become presbyterian, and any fancy trappings disappeared as we believed discomfort and austerity good for the soul.
Today St Giles has a wonderfully warm welcoming glow, possibly partly because of the sun shining through the colourful stained glass windows that date from the nineteenth century. And it’s quietly buzzing with visitors, voices hushed, exclaiming in muted tones.
We opted to pay £2 each to purchase a permit allowing us to photograph. Well worth the cost as there is so much worthy of capturing. We forked out another donation for entrance to the famous Thistle Chapel, the place where the sixteen Knights and Ladies of the Order of the Thistle worship. Dating from between 1909 and 1911, and designed by Sir Robert Lorimer, the interior is a confection of intricately carved Scottish oak, with even the arms between pew seats appropriately carved with delightful small animals.
St Giles is like a story book of Scottish history, marking its twists and turns, its conflicts and political compacts, with graves, tablets, statues, banners, sculpture and references to Scotland and Scots (some assassinated, a few executed, others bitter enemies) over many centuries, with a statue of John Knox (leader of the Reformation in Scotland and minister of St Giles between 1559 and 1572), and a large bronze commemorative plaque to the writer Robert Louis Stevenson.
A more recent addition that intrudes into the space like a giant modern sculpture, catching coloured light from the windows and reflecting it back into the interior, is the forest of pipes serving the organ, installed in 1992 and made by an Austrian company.
The cathedral houses a shop and café. What St Giles and John Knox would have thought about these no-one knows, but they are appreciated by the many visitors who flood through the doors each year.