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Gaelic: Eilginn
Elgin cathedral 2.jpg
Elgin cathedral
Grid reference: NJ220626
Location: 57°38’50"N, 3°18’22"W
Population: 25,678  (2001)
Post town: Elgin
Postcode: IV30
Dialling code: 01343
Local Government
Council: Moray

Elgin is a former city and royal burgh on the River Lossie in Morayshire, a county also known as Elginshire. Elgin is first documented in the Cartulary of Moray in 1190. It was created a royal burgh in the 12th century by King David I and by that time had a castle on top of the present day Lady Hill to the west of the city.

The historic town centre is on the south bank of the Lossie. The town now straddles both sides of the River with its suburbs, Bishopmill to the north and New Elgin to the south.


The Elgin – ForresLossiemouth triangle is heavily dependent on the Royal Air Force stations for its employment of civilians. In 2005, RAF Lossiemouth along with its neighbour RAF Kinloss contributed £156.5 million (including civilian expenditure) to the Moray economy, of which £76.6 million was retained and spent locally. The bases are responsible for providing, directly or indirectly, 21 per cent of all employment in the area. Other areas offering significant employment are local authority, construction and real estate, food and drink, tourism, transport, business services and wholesale/retail.[1]

In a recent study, Elgin was shown to be one of the most expensive towns in which to buy property in Scotland.[2]


St Giles church in Elgin's town centre

The following denominations have places of worship in Elgin:

  • Church of Scotland:
    • St Giles', High Street
    • St Columba's South, Moss Street
    • Elgin High, North Guildry Street
  • Free Church of Scotland:
    • Free Church, South Street

'* Baptist:


In August 1040, King MacBeth's army defeated and killed King Duncan at Bothganowan (Pitgaveny), near Elgin (not quite the demise familiar from Shakespeare).

The Middle Ages

Elgin is first recorded in a charter by King David in 1151 when he granted an annuity to the Priory of Urquhart.[3] It had been made a royal burgh around 1130 by King David I following his defeat of Óengus of Moray. It was during David's reign that the castle was established at the top of what is now Lady Hill. The town received a royal charter from Alexander II in 1224 when he granted the land for a new cathedral to Andrew, Bishop of Moray. This finally settled the episcopal see which had been at various times at Kinneddar, Birnie and Spynie.

Elgin was a popular residence to the early Scottish kings; David I, William I, Alexander II and Alexander III all held their courts there and enjoyed the hunting in the royal forests.

Of all these kings, it was Alexander II who was Elgin's greatest benefactor and who would return time and again to his royal castle. It was he who was responsible for the establishment of the two religious houses of the town; the Dominicans or Blackfriars in the west side and the Franciscans or Greyfriars in the east. Still further to the east stood the Hospital of Maison Dieu, or House of God, which again was founded during the reign of Alexander II and was for the reception of poor men and women.[4]

Elgin cathedral

On 19 July 1224, the foundation stone of the new Elgin Cathedral was ceremoniously laid with completion sometime after 1242. However, the building was completely destroyed by fire in 1270 but the reasons for this are unrecorded. The buildings which now remain as ruins date from the reconstruction following that fire. The Chartulary of Moray described the completed cathedral as "Mirror of the country and the glory of the kingdom".

Edward I of England travelled twice to Elgin. It was during his first visit in 1296 that he was impressed by what he saw. Preserved in the Cotton library now held in the British Library was the journal of his stay, describing the castle and the town of Elgin as "bon chastell et bonne ville" — good castle and good town. His second visit in September 1303 was rather different as the castle's wooden interior had been burned while being held by the English governor, Henry de Rye. As a result, Edward stayed elsewhere, marking the end of any English association. Edward I only stayed in Elgin for two days and then camped at Kinloss Abbey from 13 September until 4 October. King Edward was furious when David de Moravia, Bishop of Moray, joined Scotland's cause with Bruce, and Edward appealed to the Pope who ex-communicated the bishop, thus removing papal protection, causing him to flee to Orkney, then to Norway only to return after Robert Bruce's victories against the English. Edward died in July 1307, and in 1308 Robert the Bruce and during the reign of England's Edward II retook Scotland, slighting castles to keep them out of English hands. David de Moravia, the Bishop of Moray at the head of his army, joined with Bruce and they slighted the castles of Inverness, Nairn and Forres before seizing and slighting Kinneddar Castle, which also housed English soldiers. He attacked Elgin castle to be twice repulsed before finally succeeding.

Bishop Alexander Bur began payments to Stewart, Wolf of Badenoch, King Robert III's brother, in August 1370 for the protection of his lands and men. In February 1390, the bishop turned to Thomas Dunbar, son of the Earl of Moray, to provide the protection. This action infuriated Stewart and in May he descended from his castle on an island in Lochindorb and burned the town of Forres as revenge. He followed this up in June by burning a large part of Elgin including two monasteries, St Giles Church, the Hospital of Maison Dieu and the cathedral. In Andrew of Wyntoun's Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland (a 15th-century history of Scotland) described this action by "wyld, wykked Heland-men". The rebuilding of the cathedral took many years; however much of the areas that have since crumbled away was due to the inferior workmanship of the 15th and 16th century masons while the 13th century construction still remains. In 1506, the great central tower collapsed and although rebuilding work began the next year it was not completed till 1538.

The Modern period

The Reformation was well received in Elgin. In 1568 the lead was stripped from the roof of the cathedral, following orders by the Privy Council. The lead was to be sold and the proceeds to go to the maintenance of Regent Moray's soldiers but the ship taking the lead cargo to Holland sank almost immediately on leaving Aberdeen harbour. Without this protection the building began to deteriorate.

In 1637, the rafters over the choir were blown down and in 1640 the minister of St Giles along with the Laird of Innes and Alexander Brodie of Brodie, all ardent Covenanters, removed and destroyed the ornately carved screen and woodwork that had remained intact. The tracery of the West window was destroyed at some time between 1650 and 1660 by Cromwell's soldiers. On Easter Sunday, 1711, the central tower collapsed for the second time in its history but caused much more damage. The rubble was quarried for various projects in the vicinity until 1807 when through the efforts of Joseph King of Newmill, a wall was built around the cathedral and a keeper's house erected.

When Daniel Defoe made his tour through Scotland in 1717, he visited Elgin and said this about it:

In this rich country is the city, or town rather, of Elgin; I say city, because in antient time the monks claim'd it for a city; and the cathedral shews, by its ruins, that it was a place of great magnificence. Nor must it be wonder'd at, if in so pleasant, so rich, and so agreeable a part of the country, all the rest being so differing from it, the clergy should seat themselves in a proportion'd number, seeing we must do them the justice to say, that if there is any place richer and more fruitful, and pleasant than another, they seldom fail to find it out. As the country is rich and pleasant, so here are a great many rich inhabitants, and in the town of Elgin in particular; for the gentlemen, as if this was the Edinburgh, or the court, for this part of the island, leave their Highland habitations in the winter and come and live here for the diversion of the place and plenty of provisions; and there is, on this account, a great variety of gentlemen for society, and that of all parties and of all opinions. This makes Elgin a very agreeable place to live in, notwithstanding its distance, being above 450 measur'd miles from London, and more, if we must go by Edinburgh.

Unquestionably, the cathedral was, and still is, a magnificent building, worthy of its description as the Lantern of the North. When Bishop Bur wrote to King Robert III, complaining of the wanton destruction done to the building by the King's brother, the Wolf of Badenoch, he describes the cathedral as "the ornament of this district, the glory of the kingdom and the admiration of foreigners." Chambers, in his Picture of Scotland, says:

It is an allowed fact, which the ruins seem still to attest, that this was by far the most splendid specimen of ecclesiastical architecture in Scotland, the abbey church of Melrose not excepted. It must be acknowledged that the edifice last mentioned is a wonderful instance of symmetry and elaborate decoration; yet in extent, in loftiness, in impressive magnificence, and even in minute decoration, Elgin has been manifestly superior. Enough still remains to impress the solitary traveller with a sense of admiration mixed with astonishment.

Lachlan Shaw in his History of the Province of Moray was equally impressed when he wrote:

the church when entire was a building of Gothic architecture inferior to few in Europe.

Prince Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender, travelled to Elgin from Inverness in March 1746 and, falling ill with a feverish cold, stayed for 11 days before returning to await the arrival of the king's army. He stayed in Elgin with Mrs Anderson, a passionate Jacobite, at Thunderton House. She kept the sheets that the Prince slept on and was buried in them a quarter of a century later. The Duke of Cumberland passed through the town on 13 April, camping at Alves on the way to meet The Pretender in battle on Drummossie Muir. After the battle, William Boyd, 4th Earl of Kilmarnock, one of the Prince's generals was captured and taken to London and eventual execution, but he wrote to his friend from prison about his indebtedness to the shoemakers of Elgin:

Beside my personal debts mentioned in general and particular in the State, there is one for which I am liable in justice, if it is not paid, owing to poor people who gave their work for it by my orders. It was at Elgin in Murray, the Regiment I commanded wanted shoes. I commissioned something about seventy pair of shoes and brogues, which might come to 3 shillings or three shillings and sixpence each, one with the other. The magistrates divided them among the shoemakers of the town and country, and each shoemaker furnished his proportion. I drew on the town, for the price, out of the composition laid on them, but I was afterwards told at Inverness that, it was believed, the composition was otherwise applied, and the poor shoemakers not paid. As these poor people wrought by my orders, it will be a great ease to my heart to think they are not to lose by me, as too many have done in the course of that year, but had I lived I might have made some inquiry after: but now it is impossible, as their hardships in loss of horses and such things, which happened through my soldiers, are so interwoven with what was done by other people, that it would be very hard, if not impossible, to separate them. If you'll write to Mr Innes of Dalkinty at Elgin (with whom I was quartered when I lay there), he will send you an account of the shoes, and if they were paid to the shoemakers or no; and if they are not, I beg you'll get my wife, or my successors to pay them when they can......
Dr Grays Hospital
Into the 19th century and the old mediæval town of Elgin was now to be swept away and the first major addition to the town centre was the Assembly Rooms, built in 1821 by The Trinity Lodge of Freemasons, at the corner of High Street and North Street. Two years before that, in 1819, Dr Gray's Hospital was built on unused ground. The building is imposing with its columns and dome and standing at the head of fine gardens.

Dr Alexander Gray, a doctor who worked for and made his fortune with the East India Company endowed £26,000 for the provision of the hospital. In 1828 the new parish church of St Giles was built at a cost of £10,000. Lt General Andrew Anderson, born in Elgin and who died in 1824, and also of the East India Company, bequeathed £70,000 to the town so that an institution could be provided for the welfare of the elderly poor people and for the education of the town's orphaned children. The Anderson Institute was built in the east end of the town in 1832 with accommodation for 50 children and 10 elderly people. The Burgh Court-house was built in 1841, the elegant museum in 1842 and the County Buildings in 1866.

The Morayshire Railway was officially opened at ceremonies in Elgin and Lossiemouth on 10 August 1852, the steam engines having been delivered to Lossiemouth by sea. It was the first railway north of Aberdeen and initially travelled only the 5½ miles between Elgin and Lossiemouth but later extended south to Craigellachie. The Great North of Scotland Railway took over the working of the line in 1863 and bought the company in 1881 following the Morayshire Railway's return from crippling debt back to solvency. The railway and Lossiemouth harbour became very important to Elgin's economy.

The town was becoming prosperous and by 1882 it had a head Post Office with a savings bank, insurance and telegraph departments, a Bank of Scotland and the British Linen Co., Caledonian, Commercial, North of Scotland, Royal and Union Banks, a National Securities Savings Bank, offices or agencies of 48 insurance companies, 5 Hotels and a newspaper. It was not until the 20th century, however, that the separate villages of Bishopmill and New Elgin would be incorporated into the town.

Culture and leisure

  • Elgin Museum, 1 High Street
  • Elgin Library, Cooper Park
  • Elgin Golf Club, Hardhillock, Birnie Road
  • Glassgreen Golf Range, Birnie Road
  • Cooper Park: boating, pitch and putt, tennis
  • Biblical Gardens
  • Moray Leisure Centre, Borough Briggs Road, containing swimming pool, ice rink and a gymnasium
  • Town Hall with auditorium for production of shows
  • Community Centre, Trinity Road: badminton
  • The Lantern Gallery, 18 South Guildry Street
  • Red Shoes Theatre and music venue, High Street
  • Elgin Youth Café, Francis Place


  1. http://www.hie.co.uk/ Highland & Islands Enterprise
  2. http://www.hbosplc.com/economy/includes/Scotlandposttownwinners2006FINAL.doc
  3. Burgh Records of Scotland, Vol I, Preface, p.35
  4. Mackintosh, Herbert B: Elgin Past and Present, Elgin, 1914 p. 44

Outside links