Visiting St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh Scotland

St Giles Cathedral is an important landmark that you shouldn’t miss if you intend to visit Edinburgh in Scotland.

We have put together this guide to help you prepare and plan a visit to St Giles.

Visiting St Giles' Cathedral in Edinburgh Scotland pin picture

Sarah and Christoph, SIL and BIL, visited St Gils as part of a trip to Edinburgh and Glencoe most recently.

πŸ“ Location

St Giles’ Cathedral is located in Edinburgh, Scotland at the West Parliament Square off The Royal Mile.

This is the heart of Edinburgh’s old town, a city known for its magical allure and dazzling past.

Other notable landmarks nearby are the royal Edinburgh castle, the Scott monument memorial and the famous colorful Cockburn street

The Edinburgh castle is just a 4-minute walk, the Scott monument is 6 minutes away and the Cockburn street is just around the corner.

πŸ“• What is the St Giles Cathedral?

The Giles cathedral, dedicated to the patron of the lepers, Saint Giles, is a parish church from the 14th century. It is actually the high kirk of Edinburgh and Scotland.

A kirk in Scotland is a building that used to be a catholic religious house before the Scottish reformation and the high kirk status of St Giles makes it the main church of Scotland.

The term cathedral is outdated to describe St Giles because of a lack of a bishop in this Christian belief, but the name β€œcathedral” somehow stuck and is still used today.

Initially, the cathedral was founded in the 12th century (1124 exactly) by either king Alexander I or his brother King David I as a parish church. Much of it was destroyed when king Richard II attacked and burned down Edinburgh.

The restoration began in the 14th century, yet four central pillars at the core of the cathedral have been dated back to the year 1120. The construction mainly completed in the 16th century.

The rich history and changing periods of influence and style are very visible in St Giles. You can see gothic, Romanesque and Victorian characteristics and the various architectural periods in this religious building.

Statue of Walter Francis Montagu Douglas Scott with St Giles Cathedral
Statue of Walter Francis Montagu Douglas Scott with St Giles Cathedral
View to the Altar from the nave St giles Edinburgh
View to the altar from the nave

β›ͺ️ What is it famous for?

As soon as you enter St. Giles, you will notice the bright interior, stained-glass windows and fantastic vaulted ceiling.

After the fire of 1385, the church was rebuilt with altars and chapels and a particular chapel dedicated to St Giles, which was said to hold his remains. At its roman catholic peak, before the Reformation, the church had about 50 separate shrines.

For 400 years, the church practiced the roman catholic faith, but by 1560 the reformation took place, thanks to John Knox.

John Knox was a trained roman catholic priest who had joined a growing reformation movement. He found himself on the wrong side of church governance at the time and was imprisoned and enslaved on a French galley.

Eventually released, he went into exile in Geneva, Switzerland, which was known as the reformation stronghold in Europe at the time. Empowered he came back to Edinburgh and with a mob of followers he took over St Giles in 1560. He went on to become the minister of St Giles.

Stained-glass windows and statues were destroyed, leaving the interiors deprived of anything that would remind one of a previous catholic faith. Ironically, the Scots later on immortalized John Knox in one of the stained-glass windows.

By the way, the stained windows are considered some of the best examples of Victorian stained-glass art. Vibrant, rich lights make this holy house a special visit.

Victorian stained-glass windows in St Giles Cathedral
Victorian stained-glass windows in St Giles Cathedral
Interiors of St Giles Cathedral in June with a moderate number of visitors
Interiors of St Giles Cathedral in June with a moderate number of visitors

St Giles was at the center of political decisions across the centuries, making it one of the most important landmarks in Scotland.

1603 was the year when king James I of Scotland, son of Queen Mary Stewart, took the English throne. The union brought up many issues, including the fact that the English church was Anglican, while the Scottish were Presbyterian.

King Charles I, son of James I, tried to force the Anglican church system and liturgical practice on the Scots in 1637 and the result was wide-spread discontent. The Scots signed the national covenant agreement opposing the English king’s views.

A replica stool can be seen in the cathedral, which commemorates this period of the history of St Giles. A commoner known as Jenny Geddes was said to have thrown a stool at a minister when he tried to read a sermon as per the English rule.

Memorial plaque of notable Scots
Memorial plaque of notable Scots

On your walk around the church you will notice various memorials of famous Scots, such as a tribute to the Marquis of Argyll, the Marquis of Montrose and the tomb of James Graham. Also, a copy of the national covenant can be seen today in St Giles.

But the most impressive area in the church is the neo-Gothic thistle chapel which belongs to the knights of the thistle. Sixteen knights receive the highest honor in the country, and they meet at least once a year in the chapel.

The chapel is filled with beautiful ornate wood carvings depicting natural elements such as flowers and other finer details. Observant visitors with good eyes will discover three hidden angels playing bagpipes. They are a symbol of Scotland.

Queen Elisabeth, queen consort to King George VI was the first lady of the thistle. Her daughter Queen Elisabeth’s coffin was taken to St Gils on the 12th September for 24 hours after her passing, so that the people of Scotland to pay their respect.

Fun Fact: A stone tablet in the inner sanctum reminds one of the royal college of Surgeons of Edinburgh, which was founded in 1505 and is one of the oldest surgical corporations in the world.

Thistle chapel intricately designed vault in the St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh
Thistle chapel intricately designed vault
Celtic cross war memorial to the Royal Scots Greys in St Giles Cathedral.
Celtic cross war memorial to the Royal Scots Greys

πŸ’‘ Tips for your Visit

  • Entry to the cathedral is free, but you are free to leave a Β£5 donation, which helps in maintaining the building.
  • The church is open daily on weekdays from 10 am to 6 pm, on Saturday from 9 am to 5 pm and on Sunday from 1 pm to 5 pm.
  • You can join a free 45-minute guided tour on weekdays, either at 10.30 am or at 2.30 pm, and on Saturdays at 10.30 am. Although it’s free, you have to book your place in advance so that the organizers are, well, better organized. The tours are held in English only.
  • A separate sensory tour or a tour for large groups can be booked with the church.
  • Another option is to do an audio tour. Download the app and come with headphones and do the tour in your time. It also lasts about 45 minutes in total and explains the history and all the details about st giles. Currently, English is the only language option, but it’s not for free. The cost for the st giles audio tour on place is Β£5.50 and can be found at the gift shop.
  • St Giles is built for accessibility. Various ramps lead from the outside into the church and accessible bathrooms are available as well. Places ask for a wheelchair if required, the church can lend you one if available.
  • Dogs are allowed in the church.
  • They don’t have a cloakroom or storage room.
  • Visitors can join the congregation in prayers during set worshiping times. Presbyterian’s services are held twice on Sunday mornings, at 9.30 am and 11 am. A short 15-minute service is held on weekdays at noon.
  • People from all over the world and all faiths are free to join a service with the locals.
  • Please don’t take pictures during a sermon, but you are free to take pictures as you please outside sermon timings.
  • A choir is singing at the 9.30 am and 11 am service on Sundays and organ practice can take place at random times during the day.
  • If you want to come during a quiet hour, contact the church, they will advise you on the best times to visit because the church can be a bit loud with visitors, organ playing etc.
  • Special concerts and music events take place in the evenings. St Giles at six happens every Sunday at 6 pm. The schedule is announced in advance and separate choir singing and classical music events are, for example, held on Monday or Friday.
  • Summer is the busiest time of the year, with tourists coming from all corners of the world. Consider visiting in other months if you want to avoid crowds.

πŸ’­ FAQs

Did Mary Queen of Scots pray in this church?

Mary Stewart returned to Scotland after the death of her husband, the French king, but the style of worship in St Giles had been already changed to the Presbyterian believe at that time. She didn’t pray in St Giles because she was an undoubting roman catholic follower waging war against the reformation and John Knox was actively denouncing her in his sermons. The Protestant believe came from England, the kingdom of her cousin, queen Elisabeth I. Historical records mention, however, that Mary Stewart Queen of Scots visited the holy house three times.

Is St Giles Cathedral Catholic or Protestant?

St Giles in Edinburgh is a Protestant church. In fact, it’s Presbyterian, which is a Protestant Christian branch.

How old is St Giles Cathedral?

St Giles is an active church that is over 900 years old.

Is it free to visit St Giles Cathedral?

Yes, but they kindly ask for a Β£5 donation.

πŸ‘οΈ More Cathedrals to visit in Europe

Visiting St Giles' Cathedral in Edinburgh Scotland pin image

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