It was unusually warm for a Scottish summer. Stepping inside the cavernous interior of St Giles Cathedral was a welcome respite from the heat. Located on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, St Giles is a mostly 14th century Gothic cathedral, but its location is on a site covered by a church since at least the 9th century.
Today the main entrance overlooks a paved parking area. If you were standing on this exact spot in the 16th century, you would have seen the Old Tolbooth off to your right. It would have been situated essentially in the middle of the already narrow Lawnmarket, today part of the Royal Mile. During the Middle Ages, there would have been all sorts of shops up and down the streets, much like today. But the smell…the smell back then would have been distinctively different. The street was essentially an open sewer, with animal offal of all sorts, along with human waste. In the middle of this, merchants would be selling their wares, shouting out to the shoppers walking through the streets. As you walked the streets you would have to listen for the sounds of Garde loo! – the only warning you would get before the contents of a chamber pot came raining down from an open window above.
Around the corner to the back of the church would have been a kirkyard or cemetery. Back in the 16th century, you would have smelled it too. It was bursting to the gills with the putrefied remains of the dead. So much so that at some point, it was closed in favor of a new kirkyard at nearby Greyfriars. The land was then re-purposed for the building of Parliament House, but it doesn’t appear that any graves were actually moved. Today the mortal remains of countless souls lie under a car park.
The only evidence of the kirkyard’s existence is a stone and marker embedded in the pavement of parking space 23. This is the final resting place of John Knox, who once spewed the gospels from the pulpit inside St Giles. It is said that at his funeral, Regent Morton remarked: “There lies one who neither feared or flattered any flesh.” Imagine it. Back in Knox’s day, the odors from the kirkyard that drifted into St Giles would merge with the smell of a congregation who probably didn’t bathe but once a month. All of them were packed inside St Giles to hear Knox preach.
“Live in Christ and the flesh need not fear death.” – John Knox
They would have to be true believers to withstand such an experience. As they exited the church, they would have seen the decapitated heads of traitors on the Old Tolbooth – some having been on display for months or years. Such was life in medieval Edinburgh. It is little wonder that it garnered the nickname of “Auld Reekie.” It is said you could smell Edinburgh thirty miles before you entered the gates of the city.
Today, as you enter the main nave of St Giles, notice four central pillars. These perhaps date to 1124, harkening back to St Giles’ founding. It is not known if Alexander I or his brother King David I actually founded the church. Both descend from King Malcolm Canmore and his queen, Margaret – now known as St Margaret, a woman who introduced piety into a barbarian world. The cathedral was actually Catholic up until the 16th century and the Protestant Reformation. St Giles the man, was a hermit who, through his actions, was canonized the patron saint of cripples and lepers. Today, he is also the patron saint of the city of Edinburgh.
Leprosy was a feared condition as it spread by contact. As a result, people who had it were hidden away and banished from society. The disease itself left its victims looking like the walking dead as the skin rotted from their bodies while they still lived. The friars of the Order of St Lazarus of Jerusalem, or Leper Knights as they were known, ran a hospital named Harehope. The revenues from St Giles were sent to support it as early as the 12th century.
The church building built in the 12th century was burned in 1322 by an invading English army. It was rebuilt as the Gothic masterpiece seen today. In addition to being the High Kirk of Edinburgh, it is also the home of the Order of the Thistle – Scotland’s chivalric order of knights chosen by the Queen. Membership in the order is one of Scotland’s highest honors. Inside St Giles, the Chapel of the Order of the Thistle has stalls for sixteen knights. It is a beautiful part of the cathedral. Be sure to look for the angels playing bagpipes.
Another wonderful detail of St Giles are the beautiful stained glass windows. The oldest of the current windows only dates back to the 19th century, but there were stained glass windows present during the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, only fragments survive as part of the windows in the Lower Aisle. During the Reformation, all Catholic references in the windows were removed and replaced by clear, diamond-panned glass. The colorful glass was returned during a major renovation in the 19th century.
Walking through St Giles, it is amazing to think that Mary, Queen of Scots opened Parliament here on various occasions. She did not attend services as she was a Catholic and the church was Protestant. John Knox preached against her monarchy as he didn’t believe women should rule, in particular a Catholic woman. Despite Mary’s attempts at a compromise with Knox, he did not budge. His opinion of women monarchs could have been fostered due to an encounter that Knox had with Mary’s mother, Marie de Guise, when he was a young man.
Knox was imprisoned by Marie de Guise, then the Dowager Queen of Scotland, for his role in a siege at St Andrews Castle. In response to the beheading of George Wishart, Cardinal Beaton, the man responsible for the killing, was hunted down and murdered by Wishart’s supporters. The murderers, Knox among them by this time, captured St Andrews Castle and held it until Marie de Guise’s forces broke the siege to reclaimed it. Knox was imprisoned as a slave on the Queen’s galleys until his release. After travels to England and Geneva, he was invited back to Scotland by Scottish lords who wanted a Protestant Scotland. This happened around the time that Mary, Queen of Scots was returning from France to claim her throne. They were set on a collision course from the start. The rest, as they say, is history.
As you exit the cathedral and step back out into the blinding sunlight, you see the modern streets of Edinburgh. The only smells are delicious aromas drifting from nearby restaurants. Instead of a town crier, nearby Mercat Cross is surrounded by tour groups. Modern tourists have replaced the medieval shoppers of the imagination. But as you begin to walk away, the old bells of St Giles ring through the air. Your mind drifts back to images evoked from imagination and you touch the past…
…if only for a moment.
All photos by the author.