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The Out About Scotland complete guide to Elgin Cathedral
Category: Historic building, Religious site
Suitable for ages: 5 to 10 years, 11 to 18 years, 18+ years, 65+ years
Ideal for: Couples, Families, Groups, Solo travellers
I rate it: 7 out of 10
About Elgin Cathedral
Perhaps the highlight to any visit to the Morayshire town of Elgin is a visit to the glorious cathedral that has dominated the town ever since building works began on it in 1224 AD.
Although much of the stonework is in ruins today, a walk around the structures that remain will definitely impress visitors 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, but unfortunately the care that went into creating this 800-year-old cathedral didn’t last beyond a few hundred years as 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 fact.
In addition to the dramatic architecture there are lots of oddities to discover during your tour around this cathedral – like the stone bishop in the nave that looks just 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 are dated to around 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. Perhaps what’s most interesting is that these carvings have messages to tell that still haven’t been deciphered by historians – and perhaps never will be.
But at least you’ll be able to take a look for yourself and make up your own mind if you visit Elgin Cathedral, and while you might not make any ground-breaking discoveries I guarantee you’ll enjoy your time there just the same.
Things to do at Elgin Cathedral
Starting in the courtyard you can admire the statues and carvings 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 up close and personal in the display cases in the exhibition rooms before making your way up the winding staircase to the viewing platform at the top of the tower for the best views in Elgin.
This tower is particularly impressive and from the top you can see right across the city 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 loads of other attractions that are close by.
First and foremost I recommend you pay a little extra and boost 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 buildings 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 buildings 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 1800’s 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 the development of 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.
What I liked about this attraction
- There are fascinating ruins to explore
- It’s close to Elgin town centre so a visit to both can be combined in one day
- The views from the top of the tower are great
My top tips
- 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
Photos and video
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Address and directions map
Prices and opening times
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- Member/Explorer Pass holder: Free
- Adult: £9.00
- Child aged 5–15: £5.40
- Child under 5: Free
- Concession: £7.20
- Apr to 30 Sept: Daily, 9.30am to 5.30pm, last entry 5pm
- Late Night Opening in July: Tues and Sat, until 8pm, last entry 7.30pm
- 1 Oct to 31 Mar: Daily, 10am to 4pm, last Entry 3.30pm
- Telephone: 01343 547 171
- email: NA
- Website: Historic Environment Scotland website
Getting there: Bus stop nearby
Getting around: Easy-access paths, Pushchair access
On-site conveniences: Gift shop, Snacks, Toilets