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Publication Account

Date 1996

Event ID 1016453

Category Descriptive Accounts

Type Publication Account


'The noble and highly adored church of Moray', the most beautiful of Scotland's medieval cathedrals. Founded in 1224 as the seat of the bishopric of Moray and dedicated to the Holy Trinity, work may have begun in the great threetowered cathedral before the see transferred from Spynie. The transepts, great, boldly buttressed west towers and parts of the tall choir and nave survive from the serious fire of 1270 that occasioned much rebuilding.

The reconstruction involved extending the presbytery and adding aisles to the choir and to those already flanking the nave, thus producing an exceptionally wide nave, unique in Scotland. The south aisle had chapels, each with a separate gable; this feature, and the wide nave, were inspired by French examples. The octagonal chapter house was also built. The most notable feature that survives from this late 13th-century rebuilding is the lofty presbytery which projects eastwards from the choir, beyond the line of the choir aisles, thus emphasising the high altar. This plan, the tiers of lancets in the east window (five on five, with a rose window above) and the rich corner octagonal towers are similar to St Andrew's Cathedral and Arbroath Abbey.

This great church stood until 1390, when Alexander Stewart, earl of Buchan and illegitimate son of Robert 11, in pursuit of his vendetta against the Bishop of Moray (Bishop Bur), who had excommunicated him for deserting his wife, burnt it and the towns of Elgin and Forres (and probably also Pluscarden Priory). The sacrilege and devastation caused by' the Wolf of Badenoch required considerable rebuilding, although the 'books, charters and other valuables' that had perished could not be replaced. New windows were inserted in the choir aisles and the presbytery repaired almost immediately. Work continued throughout the 15th century and included the reconstruction (1482-1501) of the vault of the chapter house.

The treatment of the cathedral in post-Reformation times was lamentable. The lead was stripped from the roof by order of the Privy Council in 1567; the 'detestable bigot', Gilbert Ross, minister of Elgin, tore down the rood screen (with its 'starris of bricht golde') in 1640, and on Easter Sunday 1711 the great Central tower fell, ruining the nave and transepts. The ruins were used as a 'common quarry' until 1807, when a wall was built round them. In 1816 they were taken under the control of the Barons of exchequer who appointed John Shanks keeper in 1825. His tombstone in the graveyard records his labours of clearance and consolidation.

Many detached fragments of sculpture can be seen in the cathedral, notably an excellent bishop and a Pictish cross-slab (found in the centre of Elgin in 1823) with interlace-filled cross and possibly two evangelists on one face and a rectangular symbol, a double disc and Z-rod, a crescent and V-rod and a hunting scene on the other. There are also good table-tombs with heraldry in the surrounding graveyard.

Outside the cathedral, the so-called 'Bishop's House' is a substantial rectangular 16th-century ruin, more correctly the manse of one of the cathedral canons (possibly the Precentor), while the fine gate through the precinct wall, the Pans Port, still survives to the east.

Information from ‘Exploring Scotland’s Heritage: Aberdeen and North-East Scotland’, (1996).

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