Discover St Giles
Cathedral in Edinburgh

Interior of the Thistle Chapel in St Giles

St Giles Cathedral is the most famous cathedral in Edinburgh. It's an impressive building, and without doubt of those, you must see and visit while in Edinburgh. It's actually quite curious that St Giles is the most famous cathedral in the Scottish capital, because, actually, it's not a Cathedral! Wait, what?! Don't worry, we will explain everything now.

History of St Giles Cathedral

Front view of St Giles Cathedral
Frontal view of St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh

St Giles' Origin

The exact origin of St Giles Cathedral is unknown. We have evidence that around the 12th century, near the year 1120, a chapel was erected in the same place the cathedral is today. That very ancient chapel would have been a small building, probably rectangular-shaped and made of stone. We believe that there is nothing left from that time, except perhaps the pillars.

After Robert The Bruce achieved Scottish Independence in 1322, it's believed that the chapel was burnt in a fire caused by a failed English invasion that didn't manage to conquer Scotland. In that same 14th century, another fire happened a few decades after the one mentioned earlier, and the cathedral had to be rebuilt. Luckily, we still have some parts of the interior of that reconstruction.

The Reform and Presbyterianism in St Giles

Hall of St Giles Cathedral
Spectacular interior of St Giles

The Cathedral will undergo many changes through time. During the Protestant Reform, some elements of the building were removed. The Presbyterian church advocated very strongly in favour of austerity, and costly pieces didn't match well with this ideal.

It wasn't until the 17th century that the church of St Giles will gain the title of "cathedral". The English imposed their religion and made it a bishopric. However, the incredible and bizarre "Stool War" that Jenny Gueddess started soon ended with this, as we explain in the Free Edinburgh Tour.

Since there are no bishops in the Presbyterian Church, there can't be any cathedral. However, it seems that the name "cathedral" sticks too well with the people in Edinburgh, so that's why they still call it St Giles Cathedral, although, in reality, it's a High Kirk.

Visit St Giles Cathedral

The blue and gold ceiling of St Giles is one of the best reasons to visit the cathedral
Beautiful blue ceiling of the Cathedral

The entry to St Giles Cathedral is free (although donations are welcome), and it's one of the best attractions to see in Edinburgh. A lot of people wonder what it's inside the cathedral. Here we will leave a guide with some of the details that you shouldn't miss when visiting St Giles Cathedral.

What to see outside St Giles Cathedral

St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh
Unique "crown" bell tower

Gothic architecture

The architect William Burn supervised a major restoration that the cathedral underwent in the 19th century. One can easily see the obsession of the Victorians in the neo gothic style. In the 20th century, there was also another restoration, but the latter didn't bring significant change.

The Bell Tower

Without a doubt, the tower in St Giles Cathedral is one of the things that calls our attention. In England and Scotland, there were a few bell towers built that tried to emulate a crown. The one in Edinburgh's cathedral is one of the oldest, and its origin dates as back as the late 15th century, although it has undergone some restorations.

What to see inside St Giles Cathedral

Thistle Chapel in St Giles cathedral in Edinbrugh

The origin of the Order of the Thistle goes back to the Medieval Age. According to legend, it dates back to the times of Charlemagne, and it stills is in the reach of very few to join the order today. Its members are traditionally Scottish or people with Scottish heritage with merits acknowledged by the royals.

Knowing this, you can expect that the Thistle Chapel must be up to this institution. And you are right. Concluded in 1911, the Thistle Chapel is the most excellent part of the cathedral. As an anecdote, it hides one of Edinburgh's secrets: the sculptures of three little angles playing the bagpipe.

Note: Sometimes the Thistle Chapel is not open to the public.

John Know statue

You can't miss seeing the statue of the father of the Presbyterian church and former minister of St Giles Cathedral. However, this sculpture carried more polemic than you can imagine. John Knox was so much against the images of saints and other catholic cults that some people thought that a statue would have offended him.

Stained glass

The stained glass in St Giles was destroyed in the Protestant Reform. By the end of the 1800s, the fury of the Presbyterian religion against the stained glass was almost gone. That's why Edinburgh's mayor, lord Chambers, took advantage of the situation and order a restoration.

Today we can see a truly beautiful stained glass narrating from chapters of the Old Testament to honouring the poet Robert Burns.

Tour, views and other activities

Since the Covid pandemic we are afraid that tours and activities are with limited availability. Please, ask members of the stuff when visiting the cahtedral.

How to get to St Giles Cathedral and Opening Times

St Giles cathedral is located on the famous Royal Mile

Getting to St Giles Cathedral is very easy. The building is located in the Royal Mile, next to where the Edinburgh Free Tour starts.

Opening times Summer (May - September) Opening times Winter (October - April)
Monday - Friday: 9am to 7pm Monday - Friday 9am to 5pm
Saturday: 9am to 5pm Saturday: 9am to 5pm
Sunday: 1pm to 5pm plus service Sunday: 1pm to 5pm plus service