By Craig Neil
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Table of Contents
- Tourist information
- Tourist map of Scotland
- Things to do nearby
- Frequently asked questions
Named the ‘Lantern of the North’, Elgin Cathedral has dominated the Morayshire town of Elgin for nearly 800 years and is one of the city’s top attractions.
Discover this fascinating cathedral in this guide which includes an overview and helpful visiting advice.
|Opening Hours:||1 Apr to 30 Sept:
Daily, 9.30 am to 5.30 pm, last entry 4.30 pm
1 Oct to 31 Mar:
Daily, 10 am to 4 pm, last entry 3 pm
|Admission Price:||Adult (16-64yrs) £9.50
Concession (65yrs+ and unemployed) £7.50
Child (5-15yrs) £5.50
Family (1 adult, 2 children) £19.00
Family (2 adults, 2 children) £27.50
Family (2 adults, 3 children) £32.50
|Parking:||No on-site car park. Paid car parks in Elgin.|
|Contact:||01343 547 171|
|Facilities:||Toilets, partial disabled access, gift shop, guided tours, picnic area, water refill|
1: The cathedral is full of interesting stone carvings, many of which are amongst the best-preserved in Scotland.
2: The views from the top of the cathedral tower are fantastic. Take your camera.
3: Elgin Cathedral is close to Elgin town centre so a visit to both can be combined in one day. Other attractions in the area include Glen Moray Distillery, Duffus Castle, and Pluscarden Abbey.
1: Combine your visit with a trip to Spynie Palace. You can get a ticket which allows entry to both sites for an additional fee.
2: The coast is a short drive north. My recommendation is to visit Lossiemouth East Beach after you’ve seen the cathedral.
3: This part of Scotland is renowned for its whisky. Read my Speyside Whisky Guide for details of local distilleries.
Perhaps the highlight of any visit to Elgin is a visit to the glorious cathedral that has been the focal point of the town since building works began on it in 1224 AD.
Although much of the stonework is now in ruin, a walk around the building will no doubt impress visitors with its size and it’s no surprise to learn that the cathedral has been dubbed the ‘Lantern of the North’.
The awe-inspiring 13th-century west front is probably the most photographed section of the site and it’s acknowledged as being one of the grandest architectural achievements in Scotland.
Unfortunately, the care that went into creating this 800-year-old cathedral didn’t last beyond a few hundred years and by the end of the 16th century it had been left to fall into ruin.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything worthwhile to see at this historic attraction. Far from it.
In addition to the dramatic architecture there are lots of oddities to discover during your tour – like the stone bishop in the nave that looks like a giant chess piece and the enormous five-metre-high stone slab that’s actually Scotland’s tallest gravestone.
And on top of that you can also see the Elgin Stones display which features over one hundred medieval carvings that date back to the 1200s.
Many of these carvings are remarkably well preserved and you’ll see examples of ghoulish faces, plants, animals and flowers in the exhibition. But what’s most interesting is that some of these carvings have writing that still hasn’t been deciphered by historians – and perhaps never will be.
Starting in the courtyard you can admire the statues inset into the cathedral’s walls, with the carved faces of people and animals in the octagonal chapter house being particularly interesting.
Then heading into the cathedral towers you can see some of the older stonework in the display cases in the exhibition rooms before making your way up the winding staircase to the viewing platform at the top.
The views from the top of the tower are amazing and you can see all the way across Elgin and out to the countryside beyond, so be sure to bring your camera with you.
I have to say I enjoyed my time at Elgin Cathedral not just because it’s an interesting place to visit but also because it’s so easy to combine it with lots of other attractions that are close by.
First and foremost I recommend you pay a little extra money and upgrade your ticket to include a visit to nearby Spynie Palace which is the old home of the abbots and priests and which contains one of the biggest tower houses in Scotland.
And second, you won’t go far wrong with exploring the glorious coastline that this part of Scotland is famous for.
You can read my guide to one of the best walks at Lossiemouth East Beach as a starting point but I recommend you get yourself an Ordnance Survey map of the area to really make the most of what’s on offer, which you can easily get from their online shop.
Two of the most damaging events that occurred at the cathedral were the inferno that engulfed the building when the Earl of Buchan – Alexander Stewart – attacked it with his troops in 1390, and the subsequent incendiary attack in 1402 by the followers of the Lords of the Isles (the western island rulers who had their lands seized by King James IV of Scotland).
Eventually, the services of Elgin Cathedral were transferred to the parish church of St. Giles which meant the building slowly began to fall into disrepair.
In 1567 the waterproofing lead that lined the roof was removed which signalled the beginning of the end for the cathedral, and before long it was in a ruined condition.
Fortunately, the public found a new love for this important piece of Scottish history and from the early 1800s it has been a popular visitor attraction.
Historic Environment Scotland has renovated the stonework and expanded the site as an educational attraction with exhibitions showcasing the intricate carvings, some of which are well over 800 years old.
Tourist map of Scotland
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Explore this area with a detailed paper map from Ordnance Survey:
Elgin, Forres & Lossiemouth – 423 Explorer.
Elgin & Dufftown – 28 Landranger.
OS Explorer Maps: Best for walking, mountain biking, and finding footpaths. 1:25,000 scale (4cm = 1km in real world). Buy OS Explorer maps direct from Ordnance Survey.
OS Landranger Maps: Best for road cycling, touring by car, and finding attractions. 1:50 000 scale (2 cm = 1 km in real world). Buy OS Landranger maps direct from Ordnance Survey.
Things to do nearby
Spynie Palace. Elgin IV30 5QG. 8-minute drive. A partially-ruined 14th-century bishop’s palace that served Elgin Cathedral for hundreds of years. The 72-foot tower house is one of the tallest in Scotland.
Duffus Castle. Elgin IV30 5RH. 10-minute drive. Medieval ruins that are situated on raised earthworks dating from the 12th century. The castle was inhabited for nearly 500 years before falling into ruin. It is now managed by Historic Environment Scotland.
Lossiemouth East Beach. Lossiemouth IV30 8NQ. 11-minute drive. An exceptionally long golden sand beach that faces the North Sea.
Due to its windswept location it’s a popular place for water sports. It is also a prime marine wildlife-spotting site thanks to the dolphins and seals that are frequently seen offshore.
Elgin Museum. 1 High St, Elgin IV30 1EQ. 6-minute walk. Elgin Museum serves to educate and inform visitors about the history of Elgin as well as the surrounding area. On display are a variety of exhibits of natural history, geology and archaeology.
Moray Motor Museum. Bridge St, Elgin IV30 4DE. 9-minute walk. This museum is housed in a converted grain mill in the centre of Elgin. There is a varied collection of vehicles inside including vintage cars, motorbikes and model cars.
Frequently asked questions
Why is Elgin no longer a city?
Elgin is a town and former cathedral city and royal burgh located in Moray, Scotland. The town has never been officially decreed a city. There are 7 official cities in Scotland which are; Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Perth and Stirling.
What is Elgin famous for?
Elgin is famous for its cathedral (nicknamed ‘the lantern of the north’) as well as its whisky distilling and wool milling industries. The town is also famous for being home to the prestigious Gordonstoun School.
Why is Elgin Cathedral in ruins?
Elgin Cathedral was abandoned and left to fall into ruin after the Scottish Reformation of 1560.
The Scottish Parliament decreed that no cathedral in Scotland could continue as a place of worship unless they were used as parish churches.
In 1567 the lead lining was removed from the cathedral’s rafters and the building subsequently suffered irreparable weather damage.
Who burnt down Elgin Cathedral?
Elgin Cathedral was severely damaged by fire following an attack by Alexander Stewart, Earl of Buchan, in 1390.