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Cathedrals and Catholics, a Nation's Story




This is the first of a series of articles about the histories of Catholic cathedrals in Scotland. My intention here is to juxtapose the stories of the cathedrals in which we worship today with the medieval Catholic heritage of our country to encourage reflection on the presence and impact of the Church in our country’s past. Survivals of our medieval heritage in Scotland are rich and yet I feel often overlooked by Scottish Catholics. Our connection to medieval churches is certainly dulled by the fact we no longer occupy them as worshippers, but they remain a built testament to the life of the faith in our country which we should cherish. This first entry provides some introductory context.


Today Scotland has eight dioceses, and thus eight active cathedrals. Medieval Scotland had several more which we shall explore – eleven on the mainland and three on the islands which fell under Norwegian jurisdiction for much of the medieval period, such as St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall. I will work through the various buildings which have been or still are active Catholic cathedral, outlining the history and notable architectural features. St Giles ‘Cathedral’, properly referred to as the High Kirk of Edinburgh, will not be included, having only been elevated to cathedral status after the Reformation by Charles I.


The word ‘cathedral’ derives from the Latin cathedra which refers to the bishop’s throne or ‘seat’, and as such we refer to the cathedral as the seat of the diocese. Several of Scotland’s older cathedrals (besides many abbeys and monasteries) now lie in picturesque ruin, the victims of neglect and sometimes deliberate iconoclasm. Others have been pieced back together or over-zealously restored by their Protestant occupants over the last five hundred years, with much fine craftsmanship lost along the way. Where things do survive (side chapels, altars, sacrament cupboards, piscinae) they are devoid of their original use and meaning.


The manner of our belief and prayer impacts the way we build our churches. The beliefs and liturgy which shaped the original constructions of the cathedrals at St Andrews, Dunblane or Dunkeld, was in continuity with those practiced when the Scottish Catholic Hierarchy was restored in 1878. Our medieval heritage is thus linked to a persistent strain of catholic worship in Scotland which echoes down through the period of penal laws to the many new churches and cathedrals of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By contrast the reformation represented an intentional rupture with this tradition. The presbyterian deemphasis of ceremonial and focus on an auditory form of worship necessitated a change of understanding of church space which was at odds with that of the catholic medieval past.


Two aspects of protestant theology were central to this change. Firstly the rejection of the Real Presence and the sacrificial character of the Mass, which had been the driving force by which medieval architecture had been shaped, producing buildings with an aura of sanctity which pointed worshippers towards the heavenly temple and banquet of God. This was replaced by the primacy of the preached word with its need for a functional auditory building in which the preacher could be clearly seen and heard. Altars and their saintly relics were swept out and their places taken as the focal point of worship (often physically) by pulpits, commonly the only features on which any decorative ornament was permitted. The introduction of pews and timber galleries within churches solidified the new orientation of liturgical space towards the pulpit, while larger buildings were partitioned into smaller portions to improve audibility – St Giles in Edinburgh remained parcelled into three distinct congregations until the 1880s. Secondly, the rejection of the Christian tradition of figurative artwork, by which the Church had made tangible its reliance on the intercession of the saints. These two factors underpinned the much defacing and iconoclasm in the sixteenth century. Having grown up near the remains of St Andrews Cathedral, the destruction this caused to beautiful buildings was one of the first things I remember learning about architecture – or for that matter Christian history.


Rejection of the Mass and the veneration of saints together contributed to a more general denigration of the dignity of church buildings as holy places, for they were no longer the physical place of encounter with God. Without the need to enrich the setting of the Eucharist or give material respect to holy men and women, there was subsequently little desire to maintain any of the architectural, sculptural, and glass ornament which decorated medieval churches, which were either destroyed as superfluous idols and vanities or simply ignored into decay. It would be wrong to suggest that the Reformers neglected to maintain the buildings entirely, for they still required a roof over their heads, but the architecture was converted from sacramental to utilitarian. Most tellingly, by the early nineteenth century, the chancels of many surviving churches – that part of the Catholic church containing the sanctuary with its high altar and/or principal reliquary – lay roofless and ruinous, blocked off by partition walls from the old naves serving as the Protestant kirks. Once again, our beliefs are reflected in the way we build and use our churches.


However, by this time Romantic medievalism was blossoming across Europe, spearheaded in Scotland by Sir Walter Scott and encapsulated in architecture by his vast neo-gothic memorial in Edinburgh and his eclectic mansion, Abbotsford House, near Melrose. In the Romantic notions of the sublime and the picturesque was nurtured a love of ruins for the way their drama and nobility recalled a former age. The decay of these buildings was seen by some to enhance their sublime meditation on the passage of time, but as the nineteenth century progressed others became increasingly interested in studying and preserving what they revered as ‘antiquities’. We thus find a sequence of antiquarian studies beginning in the 1790s with Francis Grose’s Antiquities of Scotland, through Robert Billings’ Baronial and Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Scotland in the 1840s to the magisterial Ecclesiastical Architecture of Scotland by MacGibbon and Ross in the 1890s, which illustrated the history of Scotland’s Gothic heritage. The last two publications (and their companion volumes on domestic architecture) are invaluable to the student of Scottish architecture. It was studying such medieval antiquities in England and France which spurred the Catholic convert Augustus Pugin to instigate the Gothic Revival style of architecture in the 1840s, the style in which many of Scotland’s current Catholic cathedrals are built. While Catholics were getting underway with erecting new cathedrals in the neo-gothic style, this combination of interest in the medieval past and its architectural principles prompted efforts better to take care of the remains of historic cathedrals. Subsequently, ruined cathedrals – St Andrews, Fortrose, Elgin – were preserved from further decay, while those remaining in Protestant usage – Glasgow, Dornoch, Brechin, Aberdeen – were restored, while Dunkeld and Iona occupied an odd middle ground of part preservation, part restoration.


In this way was born the two sets of cathedrals we see today (ignoring the third tier – Episcopalian cathedrals – with which we need not concern ourselves), the ancient originating before the Reformation and latterly restored, and the modern, erected since 1878. Both offer us an interesting range of study material and a rich mixture of architectural and artistic works to explore. In the ongoing series, each month I will examine a medieval cathedral alongside its modern counterpart, not to compare them, but to place them in a line of continuity. The Mass was once celebrated in our medieval cathedrals, even if it is no longer, and I think there is something useful about remembering that. We have a particular claim to interest in them, an interest in which Protestant occupants are less conscious, for the physical vestiges of a Catholic past give us traces of the original purpose and use of the buildings – the drawing down of Christ on the altar in the Mass. Perhaps it goes too far to envision these churches as ‘lapsed Catholics’ but it seems to me we might at least apply to them the phrase ‘once a Catholic, always a Catholic’ – the Mass ties them into our Catholic heritage and links them inextricably with the buildings in which we worship today.


Rory Lamb | Edinburgh

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