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Edinburgh's most important church
St Giles Cathedral (Edinburgh)
Member Name: Praskipark
St Giles Cathedral (Edinburgh)
Date: 14/01/13, updated on 15/01/13 (61 review reads)
Advantages: Super church filled with history, outstanding examples of stained glass windows, Thistle Chapel
Disadvantages: Not mad on the Holy Table and the cafe a bit institutionalised
St Giles Church/Cathedral is located on the Royal Mile, a cobbled street, one of the most famous streets in UK and sometimes called the High Street, Lawnmarket or Castlehill. This is the main route from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace.
***Reason for my visit***
Last June we visited Edinburgh for a short time before moving on to Sunderland. The morning we arrived in the city I was in an exploring mood but my husband wasn't feeling to well so he decided to take his time meandering through Princes Street Gardens while I went and had a look at the church. My husband isn't as crazy about churches as I am, they spook him out so I didn't feel bad leaving him on his own in one of Edinburgh's finest parks with the statues of David Livingstone, Adam Black and Alan Ramsay to keep him company.
St Giles Church in Edinburgh was named after the patron saint of the city, a hermit who later became an abbot devoting his time to the poor of the city in the early 8th century. Giles died with an arrow in his chest which came from a huntsman trying to kill a female red deer that he was protecting. After his death many hospitals and dwellings that housed the poor and infirm were named after him opening their doors not only to sick people but to beggars and lost souls in the vicinity of Edinburgh and also throughout Scotland.
The church is referred to as St Giles Cathedral but historically it was only classed as a cathedral for short periods of time. In 1633 the building was called a cathedral and kept the grand title for five years and again in 1661 until 1689. The building also had another name, the High Kirk of Edinburgh. It is Edinburgh's most important church and was influential in the formation of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.
Way back in the 12th century a small chapel stood on the same spot and then towards the end of the 16th century a building was constructed that had stone walls dividing the area into three separate churches. The walls were dismantled in 1633 and then erected again in 1639. Throughout the following years the walls were rearranged so many times until they were eventually abandoned in 1882. The Old Tolbooth and luckenbooths (small shops) used to stand in front of the church hiding the exterior of the building which was in very bad condition. In 1817 they were taken down and William Burn started work on transforming the building into the church as we know it now. The ornate chapel called the Thistle Chapel situated in the south east of the building was added in 1911.
***Important Information before viewing the Church***
The admission to the church is free although it isn't really as you are expected to place a donation of at least £3 in the boxes provided. It seems a funny way of going about it. Why don't the organisers just ask for a donation instead of suggesting one and then they will definitely get the cash off people as they come through the door and the funds can go to the restoration of the building.
As you enter the main entrance of the church you will notice helpers standing around. These are a group of volunteers who are very knowledgeable about the church and its history, the city of Edinburgh and the services and congregation. Most of them are young and enthusiastic and will take you on a guided tour if you wish to join a group. There are also other volunteers available at the information desk situated in the Thistle Chapel.
Cameras and web cams are allowed but you have to have a permit which costs £2 and this can be purchased from the information desk.
I bought a guide book of the church, A4 in size and cost £6. If you are not going with a tour and don't know anything about the church it is a useful purchase.
I didn't want to join a tour group, it isn't me. I like to take my time and wander around to find things out. I didn't actually look at the guide book that much until I was in Sunderland and staying at the at the B&B.
The main structure of St Giles is Gothic and it is colossal with its vaulted roof, enormous central pillars and the Crown Spire on the tower. I thought the grey exterior made the building look stark and very Presbyterian. Inside, the building has a different outlook, is transformed by bright primary colours, highlighted from daylight shining behind the stained glass windows. I love stained glass and often think a church without stained windows is rather drab. These windows were added in the late 19th century as Presbyterians preferred plain glass and were not too keen on furnishings and fittings that were frivolous.
Seven windows in the eastern part of the church had to portray a narrative in pictures depicting the Life of Christ; this was the only way such beauty could be accepted as part of the interior of the church. They were created by a local firm called Ballantine and are very spectacular, some of the best stained glass creations I have seen. They are all very lovely but one window that really stands out and one I love very much is the window located in the west and dedicated to Burns. It is called The Burns Window. It is a mixture of abstract designs but you can easily figure out the themes. The window is split into three sections; the dark green is Burn's natural world, something he wrote about often with passion, the centre piece is filled with people, a mixture of colour and all faiths; the top section has an image of a burning sunset intermingled with bright yellow, orange and red. This represents how love can flourish. The designer of this window is Leifur Breidfjördis, a chap from Iceland.
Like in other churches in Edinburgh the seats are made from wood and there are rows and rows packed closely together. They look very uncomfortable and if I was a member of St Giles who worshipped here I would certainly take my own cushion with me. I should think sitting on one of these chairs during a very long sermon would make my bottom numb.
The Holy Table which is positioned in the centre of the building and underneath the central tower is very contemporary in style, made from white Italian marble, weighs 9.6 tons including the steps leading up to it. It looks like a giant sized ice box, has no decoration or adornments. The table was designed by Luke Hughes and was given to the church as a gift from Roger A Lindsay, Baron of Craighall. I wasn't enamoured with the design and look of the table at all, it is too stark for a church of this size and beauty. I think a traditional altar with grandiose candlesticks and statues would look much nicer.
In the Moray Aisle there is a bronze memorial honouring Robert Louis Stevenson which is well sculpted and the statue of John Knox stands in the west end of the church. I like the low relief design of the Stevenson memorial but not too keen on the statue of Knox although it is cleverly made.
***The Thistle Chapel***
I recommend a visit to this fantastic chapel, situated near to the information centre and accessed by a smaller, low ceilinged ante-chapel. Once inside the main chapel which is sort of triangular in shape and made up of three rooms, I was drawn to the roof and detail of the stone carvings which form branches leading to a central mass of stone patterns. I couldn't work out what the overlapping pattern was but at a guess I would say thistle heads. Again, there are some super stained glass windows, this time though the designs are representing chivalry and other heraldic scenes.
Running along the sides of the chapel are stalls for sixteen knights. These are lavishly decorated and have canopies carved with the all the paraphernalia that goes with being a knight, like fancy coats of arms and emblems.
The chapel was completed in 1911 and was designed by Robert Lorimer.
I did have a look inside the Church shop although I didn't buy anything. You can buy the guide book from here as well as from the information centres and you will find like I did that most of the books, CDs, Videos, ornaments etc. are to do with the life of the church, choir and activities and events that take place in the church. It is well stocked and quite packed inside, not a lot of room to walk about.
After visiting the shop I realised that my husband had been on his own quite a long time and thought he might want a bite to eat. I had already eaten a bacon sandwich on the way to the church and it was delicious. I messaged him on my mobile and asked if he wanted to come to the church for an early lunch before we made our way to The Real Mary's King Close and then on to the bus station, I had noticed the café earlier. He said he would have a cup of tea and a cake so off I went to order a coffee for myself and find a table.
The café is large and pleasant, has a modern feel to it although there is something institutional about it. There is a long list of coffees, the usual ones but not many flavours of tea and I think I noticed that hot chocolate was listed, with a dash of cream. I ordered a small Cappuccino, paid £2.30 and took it over to a table near to the door. As I was waiting, I looked at the food menu and was impressed by the number of dishes on offer. At first glance there seemed to be lots to choose from but then I realised that they were mostly light snacks, soups, salads and cakes. There was a breakfast selection consisting of eggs, bacon sandwich, porridge and a roasted vegetable sandwich or bap as it was called. Bap has to be Scottish for bread roll or is it a Yorkshire word? I don't know as I always use the term sandwich or bread roll.
Filled jacket potatoes were on offer as well as savoury cheesecake which sounded interesting and the selection of deli-filled rolls looked appetising too with ingredients like beef, vegetable and brie, chicken, bacon and redcurrant and so on.
When my husband arrived he looked pooped out. I was a bit worried about him so sat him down and went and ordered a pot of tea and a plate of apple pie and cream (his favourite). The tea cost £1.95 and the pie and cream was £3.50. The portion was large, made with shortcrust pastry and filled with real apples. The cream was single and came in a jug. He said the pie was tasty and he enjoyed two cups of tea. I think it was a good idea to invite him to the church café as he seemed to revitalise after his intake of food and drink and looked much better than when he arrived.
Shop Opening Hours:
Monday to Saturday - 9am to 5pm
Sunday - 11am to 5pm
***A bit of superstition***
To the west of the church on Parliament Square where the former tollbooth used to be sits a heart shaped stone on the pavement. It is called the Heart of Midlothian. Apparently, we were told that if we spat on the stone we would be lucky in life and be allowed to return to the city safely. I didn't spit on the stone and neither did my husband but then neither of us believe in superstitions. A rather vulgar superstition but there you go.
I really do recommend a visit to St Giles Church/Cathedral after a shopping trip on the Royal Mile. Or you can leave out the tour of the shops and go straight to the church. It's fascinating with so much history to take in and some outstanding stained glass windows. If you are interested in social history then after a visit to the church you can take a look at The Real Mary King's Close which is opposite the church beneath the city chambers.
Summary: One of the best churches in Edinburgh