Scotland's Cathedrals

This Quest is to visit Scotland's cathedrals. Most of our Quests are thrilling voyages of discovery. Alas, this is not one of them. We thought it would be good to create a Quest for Scotland's cathedrals to match those for England and Wales. We regretted it once we left Edinburgh and Glasgow. Frankly, there is more interest in Rosslyn Chapel than all Scotland's provincial cathedrals combined. Still, the Quest might appeal to those with a deeper faith.

We have to be careful with the term 'cathedral' in Scotland. There are real Anglican and Catholic cathedrals but, with one exception, they are relatively unimportant. Scotland's official and most popular faith is Presbyterianism, embodied in the Church of Scotland (the 'Kirk'). Presbyterians do not have bishops and therefore do not have cathedrals. The Scottish Presbyterian equivalent of a cathedral is more properly known as a 'high kirk'.

Whatever their official name, most people still refer to Scotland's high kirks as cathedrals. Four of them have the term 'Cathedral' in their name. It is not unreasonable. Before the Scottish Reformation they were Catholic cathedrals; the seats of Catholic bishops. They are close enough to count as cathedrals for the purposes of this Quest.

In addition to the 9 Presbyterian high kirks, Scotland has 8 Catholic cathedrals and 8 Episcopalian (Anglican communion) cathedrals. Your reward for visiting all 25 is the rare title Scottish Cathedral Master Explorer. There are intermediate ranks of Novice and Senior for visiting 5 and 15 cathedrals respectively. On the way, you will also pick up the title High Kirk Explorer for visiting the 9 high kirks.

For any non-Scots, we should explain some key differences between Scotland's Presbyterian 'cathedrals' and their English counterparts. One is that Scotland was unconquered in medieval times whereas England was a Norman colony. Norman barons wanted to build monumental trophy cathedrals to intimidate the English and to absolve their sins. They used English plunder to pay for imported materials and English forced labour to do the work. With no incentive or resources to build momumental trophies, Scots cathedrals tended to be a quarter the size of their English equivalents for similar congregations.

Cathedrals throughout Britain were vandalised and/or partially demolished during the Reformation. England's cathedrals were fully restored whereas Scotland's were just patched up. St Andrews and Elgin, previously the biggest and richest of Scotland's cathedrals, were so badly damaged that they have never been restored.

Most of England's medieval cathedrals have subsequently been extended and embellished whereas Scotland's remain small and relatively dour. In part, this is because Presbyterians tend to scorn opulence, pomposity and ostentatiousness. High kirks were not even allowed to have stained glass windows until 1866. In part, it was because England's rulers and politicians bribed church support with cathedral engrandisements whereas Scotland's church did not need to be bribed because they were also the government.

Not much fun at Scotland's Episcopal and Catholic cathedrals either. They were only permitted after the restoration of the hierarchies in 1850 and 1878 respectively. They are too young to have acquired valuable treasures or interesting histories. Only 10% of Scots that have a faith claim to be Episcopalian. St Mary's Episcopal in Edinburgh (Edinburgh Catholic Cathedral is also St Mary's) is clearly the most interesting of the non-Kirk cathedrals. It is the biggest 'cathedral' in Scotland and the most elaborate. The other Espiscopal cathedrals are just conveniently placed churches, albeit sometimes in George Gilbert Scott's faux-Gothic style. There are far more Catholic Scots than Episcopal Scots, especially in and around Glasgow, and they are more likely to be church goers. In principle, Scotland's modern Catholic cathedrals should be big and opulent, like Norwich or Arundel. But they had to be built quickly and cheaply to serve the mass immigration of Irish peasants at the beginning of the 19th century, so they are actually disappointingly small and plain.

None of this means that Scotland's cathedrals are without interest. St Magnus and St Mungo still have their medieval ceilings. St Machars has some glorious Strachen windows and some interesting mason marks. St Giles has some lovely modern windows (like the Strachan below) and the Thistle Chapel, which is apparently one of the most beautiful in Britain. It was closed after a spate of thefts when we went, so we cannot confirm this. St Mary's Episcopal has an interesting rood, some lovely carvings and Walter Scott's pew. St Mary's Catholic has some relics of St Andrew.

St Giles has the richest history of any Scottish church. John Knox was a minister there, making it the focus of the Scottish Reformation. It was also the focus of the defence when James VI/I and Charles I tried to impose bishopric rule onto the Church of Scotland. The presbyterian defenders were known as 'Covenanters'. Their bond, known as the National Convenant, is on display inside. Covenanters based at St Giles played an important role in British history when siding against Stuart kings. In effect, they initiated the two 'Bishop's Wars' which became the first part of the 'War of the Three Kingdoms'. Arguably. there might never have been an English Civil War or or Act of Union if it were not for the Covenanters.

Access to most of Scotland's cathedrals is fairly easy, apart from Mondays when some of the Kirk and Anglican cathedrals are closed. They are all active churches that may be closed during services. This is especially so for St Mary's Episcopal, which is the only church in Scotland that still has daily services. Even though entry to all Scotland's cathedrals is free - or it was when we went - some charge for permisssion to take photographs.