A little white chapel built by 550 Italian prisoners of war in the Orkney Islands during World War II was just one of the historical tidbits I stumbled upon as I spent a couple weeks circling around Scotland. Here on these windswept, often barren islands, I had found yet another example of this nation’s long tradition of religion and its very powerful impact on Scotland’s history. Along with its striking castles, Scotland’s churches made a lasting impression on me, teeming with fascinating stories and remarkable architecture. These are my favorites.
#1 St. Giles’ Cathedral (Edinburgh)
After centuries of construction, destruction, and reconstruction that began in 854, the present structure of St. Giles’ Cathedral dates from 1485. Named for the patron saint of the city, who was wounded by a hunter and, following his death in the eighth century, had hospitals and safe houses for beggars, cripples, and lepers dedicated to him, the cathedral, or the High Kirk of Edinburgh, faces an open cobblestone square along the city’s famed Royal Mile. Standing smack in its middle, I had an unobstructed view of the cathedral’s wide façade, complete with Gothic windows with fine tracery, lots of finials, and the cathedral’s most distinctive feature—the unusual ventilated crown spire, formed by eight flying buttresses. In 1707, the musical bells housed within this spire struck a morose note, when, following the Act of Union Between Scotland and England, they chimed to the tune “Why Should I Be So Sad on My Wedding Day?”—perfectly reflecting the unpopularity of the act throughout Scotland. At the main entrance, statues of bishops and theologians stand in niches surrounding the arch. I stepped inside this tremendous cathedral, which can seat a congregation of 3,000. The oldest parts, the four massive central pillars, date back to the 12th century. Newer spaces include the impressive Thistle Chapel, with its intricately carved ceiling and knights’ stalls, which feature each knight’s coat of arms and a canopy with his heraldic helm and crest. Amid the dozens of Gothic arches and stone columns, the rib vaulted ceiling (painted a glorious blue), and the elaborately carved pulpit, about 200 memorials honor distinguished Scots and remember Scottish soldiers. The stained glass was added in the late 1800s, replacing plain and clear glass. Although this smacked of Catholicism, the Presbyterian church allowed it—as long as the images illustrated Bible stories that would aid the congregation in learning about their religion, such as the windows filled with Moses’ story, the Last Supper, and Judas’ fatal kiss. Over time, attitudes changes, and later windows depicting such saints as Andrew, Columba, Cuthbert, and Giles himself serve only a decorative purpose.
#2 Rosslyn Chapel (Roslin)
I boarded a bus for a 45-minute trip from Edinburgh to Roslin Glen. There’s a park there that contains the ruins of Roslin Castle from the 1500s, but the main draw is Rosslyn Chapel. Founded as a Catholic collegiate church in 1446 and completed by 1486, it’s famed for its sculptures. Prominently featured in The Da Vinci Code, and long associated with legends of the Crusaders, the lost Scrolls of Solomon’s Temple, the true Stone of Scoon, and the Holy Grail, it’s now attracting more tourists than ever. A guide provided a captivating 30-minute presentation about how, after the Scottish Reformation (1560), Roman Catholic worship in the chapel was brought to an end; the altars were destroyed in 1592, and the chapel was abandoned, gradually falling into decay. From that time the chapel was closed to public worship. In 1842, however, Queen Victoria visited the chapel, now in a ruined and overgrown state, and expressed a desire that it should be preserved. During its ruinous state, the soft, absorbent sandstone used in the construction, which was terrific for sculpting, proved to be a poor material for longevity. The exterior sculptures fell apart, and the interior, damp and unkempt, suffered from moisture damage, to the point where the walls were becoming a mossy green. Restoration work was carried out, and the chapel was re-dedicated in 1862.
I was now enjoying the fruits of that labor. I particularly enjoyed the built-in outdoor benches, but the legend of the Master Pillar and the Apprentice Pillar truly fascinated me: The master mason in charge of the stonework in the chapel did not believe his young apprentice could perform the complicated task of carving the column without seeing the original that formed the inspiration for the design. The mason traveled to see the original himself, but upon his return he was enraged to find that the upstart apprentice had completed the column—more beautiful than his own that he had already completed—by himself. In a fit of jealous anger, the mason took his mallet and struck the apprentice on the head, killing him. As punishment for his crime, the mason’s face was carved into the opposite corner to forever gaze jealously upon his apprentice’s pillar. The carvings throughout the chapel are spectacular, including those of the founder, Sir William St. Clair; the Latin for “Wine is strong. The King is stronger. Women are stronger still, but truth conquers all.”; more than 110 “Green Men”—carvings of human faces with greenery all around them, often growing out of their mouths; plants, including depictions of wheat, strawberries, aloe vera, and lilies; the fallen angel, an upside-down angel entwined by a snake; the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Virtues; and what may be maize—an unsolved mystery, as the place was built centuries before the New World and corn were discovered. A very special place, indeed.
#3 Glasgow Cathedral (Glasgow)
The best view of the massive Glasgow Cathedral, the oldest building in the city, can be seen from Glasgow Necropolis, a Victorian cemetery, atop a hill, founded in 1832. It served effectively as a beacon, drawing me to it, until I stood beside it, dwarfed by its tremendous size. It was consecrated in 1197, making it the oldest cathedral in mainland Scotland. The cathedral is allegedly located where the patron saint of Glasgow, St. Mungo, erected his church. Built before the Reformation and serving as the seat of the bishop and later the archbishop of Glasgow, the cathedral is a superb example of Scottish Gothic architecture, although it technically is no longer a “cathedral,” as it has not been the seat of a bishop since 1690. Crown property since 1587, the cathedral passed into the care of the state in 1857, and, because of this transfer, the assured funding for upkeep, the church survives in all its glory (well, most of it)— two towers were demolished in the 1840s. What remains is still astoundingly cohesive and vast. Badly discolored by pollution (Glasgow was one of the dirtiest cities in Europe for decades, when it was an industrial powerhouse), the exterior is a riot of pinnacles, three levels of Gothic arches, slanting verdigris-green roofs, and a central tower with a soaring spire. Through the recessed double-door portal, with jamb columns and unadorned spandrels and trumeau, I entered this spectacular place. I made my way through the first section, with its cluster columns, ribbed arches, and stone floor. Then I climbed a few stairs and passed through the stone rood screen into the more elaborate second section, with its carved pew ends, organ pipes high above me, and a gorgeous wood ceiling with painted bosses. There’s plenty of beautiful stained glass to admire, where you’ll spot Adam and Eve, saints Mungo and Stephen, and baby Moses in a basket bumping into reeds on the Nile. The fantastic Great West Window depicting “The Creation” dates from only 1958, and the even newer Millennium Window wasn’t added until 1999. Don’t forget to head downstairs to the darker lower church to see the chapel and tomb of St. Mungo.
#4 Church of St. John the Evangelist (Edinburgh)
When William Burn was 25, this wunderkind designed the gorgeous Church of St. John the Evangelist. I approached the church via its adjacent graveyard, filled with gravestone of authors, historians, doctors, engineers, the beknighted, and one lady born a slave, most of whom died in the 1800s. The interior immediately dazzled me, and I envied the young architect’s vision and talents. Designed in 1815 but not completed until the early 1900s, the church features some exceptionally vibrant stained-glass windows, a lovely organ, and a black and white checkerboard marble floor. By far the most arresting feature is the absolutely gorgeous plastered fan-vaulted ceiling, modeled after the ceiling in the Henry VII Chapel in Westminster Abbey, itself one of the top five churches in London. Each circle, with its exquisite tracery, drips down from the ceiling into a pendant the same cobalt blue as the slender columns rising up the walls. It’s the highlight of this church, easily making it one of the most beautiful in both the Scottish capital and the country.
#5 St. Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral (Inverness)
I was snacking on a banana-cinnamon muffin and a pear-blueberry juice while strolling along the idyllic riverwalk along the Ness River in the charming city of Inverness in northern Scotland. My destination was St. Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral, the first new cathedral to be completed in Great Britain after the Reformation, in 1869. Constructed of red stone, the cathedral offers a handsome presence along the river, especially in spring, when the grass around it is green and the cherry blossoms are blooming. I did a 360 around the entire church, making my way back to the front entrance. Two flat-top towers (look up to see the gargoyles), containing 10 bells, were denied their giant spires when funds ran out during construction. The main entry features a fine sculptural arrangement in the tympanum of the Gothic arch. Inside, a polychromatic tile floor with geometric designs drew me farther down the nave. Ahead of me, a large crucifix hung over the giant holy rude at the altar; behind me, the largest stained-glass window in the entire cathedral lit up the choir loft; and on either side of me, polished granite pillars separated the side aisles, supporting Gothic arches and the clerestory. Icons presented by the Russian czar are on view around the cathedral, which also houses one of the world’s best depictions of the Nativity and also of Palm Sunday, both rendered in vibrant stained glass.
- Church of the Holy Rude (Stirling, 1414)
- St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral (Edinburgh, 1917)
- St. Michael’s Church (Linlithgow, 1400s)
- St. Magnus Cathedral (Kirkwall, 1137)
- St. Mary’s Metropolitan Cathedral (Edinburgh, 1814–1970s)
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