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.
Review of Elgin Cathedral
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.
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Things to do at Elgin Cathedral
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. Buy OS Explorer Maps direct from Ordnance Survey.
The history of Elgin Cathedral
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 Lord 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 and today it’s under the care of Historic Environment Scotland.
HES has renovated the stonework and expanded the site as an educational attraction with exhibitions showcasing some of the impressive carvings that have survived over the last 800 years, and there’s plenty to see and interact with as you make your way around the site.
- There are fascinating ruins to explore in the cathedral with lots of carvings and stonework (if you’re into that sort of thing).
- It’s close to Elgin town centre so a visit to both can be combined in one day. Elgin is your best bet for a bite to eat in the area.
- The views from the top of the cathedral tower are fantastic. Take your camera.
- Combine your visit with a trip to Spynie Palace. You can get a ticket which allows entry to both sites for a small additional fee.
- The coast is just a short drive north. My recommendation is to visit Lossiemouth East Beach after you’ve seen the cathedral.
- This part of Scotland is renowned for its whisky. Read my Speyside Whisky Guide for details of local distilleries.
Photo gallery and video
Things to do near Elgin Cathedral
- 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 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 is a popular place for water sports enthusiasts. 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.
More places to visit in Grampian
- Aberdeen Travel Information – Complete GuideAlthough the city is best known for its links to the oil and gas industry it also has a vibrant nightlife and extensive shopping areas, as well as some fascinating history in the old part of the town like Aberdeen University which dates back to 1495.
- The Speyside Malt Whisky TrailSpeyside is famous within whisky-drinking circles for having the largest number of operational distilleries out of all six whisky-producing regions, with two of the most-consumed brands in the world originating from the area.
- The Complete Guide to Free Attractions in Aberdeenshire and MorayFind a great selection of free attractions with my list of the best free attractions in Aberdeenshire and Moray
- The Banff Heritage Trail – Aberdeenshire: Complete Visitor GuideThere’s a huge amount of history in this little town including a pre-reformation market cross, a tollbooth, the gorgeous 18th-century Duff House, and of course the lovely harbour which now mainly serves leisure craft.