St Giles High Kirk

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The High Kirk of Edinburgh, also known as St Giles' Cathedral, has been one of Edinburgh's religious focal points for approximately 900 years. Its distinctive crown steeple is a prominent feature of the city skyline, at about a third of the way down the Royal Mile which runs from the Castle to Holyrood Palace. The present church dates from the late 14th century, though it was extensively restored in the 19th century, and is protected as a category A listed building. The congregation's website says it is sometimes regarded as the "Mother Church of World Presbyterianism". The cathedral is dedicated to Saint Giles, who is the patron saint of Edinburgh, as well as of cripples and lepers, and was a very popular saint in the Middle Ages. It is the Church of Scotland parish church for part of Edinburgh's Old Town.

St Giles' was only a cathedral in its formal sense (i.e. the seat of a bishop) for two periods during the 17th century (1635–1638 and 1661–1689), when episcopalianism, backed by the Crown, briefly gained ascendancy within the Kirk (The Bishops' Wars). In the mediaeval period, prior to the Reformation, Edinburgh had no cathedral as it was under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of St Andrews, whose episcopal seat was St Andrews Cathedral. For most of its post-Reformation history the Church of Scotland has not had bishops, dioceses, or cathedrals. As such, the use of the term cathedral today carries no practical meaning. The "High Kirk" title is older, being attested well before the building's brief period as a cathedral.


In 1911 the Thistle Chapel became home to the Knights of the Thistle, an order of chivalry associated with Scotland which dates back to 1687. The chapel was designed in the neo-gothic arts and crafts style by the architect Robert Lorimer, and is renowned for its intricate wood carvings of angles, animals and flowers. The Order consists of sixteen members, a new member only being invested when another has died. The patron saint of the Order is St Andrew, and members meet annually around St Andrew’s Day.  Currently (2019), David Douglas-Home, 15th Earl of Home and Richard Walter John Montagu Douglas Scott, 10th Duke of Buccleuch and 12th Duke of Queensberry are Knights of the Thistle.


The Chapel at the north-west corner of the Nave, known as the Albany Aisle, was founded about 1398, in the reign of Robert III. The groining of the roof of this Chapel is much admired, supported as it is by a graceful fluted pillar, on the capital of which are the Arms of Robert, Duke of Albany, and Archibald, fourth Earl of Douglas. (Evidence that the column was erected cy 1401 - 1410)

Memorials in St Giles include one to Bishop Gavin Douglas.  In 1466, St Giles’ became a Collegiate church. The early Scots makar and translator Gavin Douglas became provost of St Giles’ in 1508. His translation of Virgil’s Aeneid into Scots was the first translation of a major classical poem into any modern Germanic language. He completed the Aeneid in 1513, just days before the disastrous Battle of Flodden. All of his literary work was composed during his time at St Giles’ and he is still regarded as a pivotal figure in the development of early Scottish literature.

There is also a memorial plaque for David William Shafto Douglas who was killed during the Battle of jutland.

Other notable monuments include those to James Graham, Marquis of Montrose (1612–50), his arch-enemy Archibald Campbell, Marquis of Argyll (1607–61) and the 19th-century author Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–94). A framed copy of the National Covenant of 1638 is also on view. The Protestant Reformer, John Knox, was buried in the old kirkyard, now a car park for the High Court of Scotland. The approximate position of his grave is marked by an engraved stone set in the tarmac. William Forbes, the first Bishop of Edinburgh, was also buried here.

Of the several military memorials many are to the Royal Scots with individual memorials to each battalion. That of the 1st is by Sir Robert Lorimer.

A Jacobean style memorial to John Inglis, Lord Glencorse stands on the wall over the stairs to the lower level.

Notable performances of the music in St Giles includes one by Professor James Douglas (born 1932), a Scottish classical composer.

Robert Douglas, Minister of Pencaitland was in 1639 appointed to the Second Charge of St Giles.

HM Queen Elizabeth lay at rest in St Giles Cathedral following her death in Balmoral, in September 2022.  Amongst those involved in the ceremonies, were:
• Richard Walter John Montagu Douglas Scott, 10th Duke of Buccleuch, 12th Duke of Queensberry (b. 1954), and
• Alexander Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, 16th Duke of Hamilton, 13th Duke of Brandon (born 1978)

See also:
•  List of all Douglas Knights of the Thistle

4th Earls arms Armorial of 7th Duke of Buccleuch in the Thistle Chapel Armorial of 8th Duke of Buccleuch in the Thistle Chapel Armorial of 11th Duke of Buccleuch, in the Thistle Chapel
Armorial of the 4th Earl
of Douglas, c1410
Armorial for Buccleuch,
Armorial for Buccleuch,
Armorial for Buccleuch,
Armorial of 13th Earl of Home in the Thistle Chapel Armorial of 15th Earl of Home, in the Thistle Chapel Armorial of 10th Earl of Selkirk, in the Thistle Chapel Douglas angel in the Thistle Chapel
Armorial for Home,
Armorial for Home,
Armorial for Selkirk,
The Douglas angel



Sources for this article include:
  • Historic Environment Scotland

  • Photography by Roderick Douglas

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    Last modified: Monday, 25 March 2024