The history of Elgin goes back a thousand years and plays an important part in the story of Scotland from the earliest times. Its principal town, Elgin, was founded on a well-drained ridge with a natural defensive mound and protected on three sides by the River Lossie which was also a source of power and a means of communication. There was probably a castle here as early as the eleventh century and the land hereabouts was a favourite hunting ground of the early monarchs. David I raised Elgin to the status of a Royal Burgh and in 1224 the town received the additional accolade of being chosen as the seat of the Bishop Of Moray.
Despite the unwelcome attentions of various armies and bands of brigands, Elgin grew steadily throughout the medieval period until by the seventeenth century it boasted many fine buildings reflecting the prosperity of its merchants and craftsmen. At the beginning of the nineteenth century though, the town had a population of less than 4,000 and was still largely confined to three parallel lines of streets running between the Castle and the precincts of the Cathedral. Then fortunes made abroad financed some of Elgin’s finest buildings and stimulated a sense of civic pride, which, aided by the coming of the railway and the general economic growth of Victorian Britain saw the laying out of new streets and the construction of new buildings on a scale previously unparalleled. The most recent development has been into the previously separate villages of Bishopmill and New Elgin and latterly into marshy area south of the railway line so that the population of Elgin is now around 25,000.
The Bishopric of Moray was founded in 1107, but it was not until 1224 that the Cathedral was transferred to ‘the Church of the Holy Trinity beside Elgin’. In its original form Elgin Cathedral was a simple cruciform building, but after it was damaged by fire in 1270 the choir was doubled in length with aisles added on each side and a Chapter House built opening off the north aisle. In 1390 Alexander Stewart, more familiarly known as the “Wolf of Badenoch’, plundered and burned both Forres and Elgin including the Cathedral, which sustained such damage that it was necessary to rebuild the western gable, the arcades of the nave, the central tower and the Chapter House.
Although in the years immediately following the Reformation the Cathedral seems to have remained untouched, it was much too rich a target to resist for long. In 1567 the lead was stripped from the roofs and in 1637 the choir roof collapsed. The rood-screen with its painting of the crucifixion was taken down and destroyed in 1640 and on Easter Sunday, 1711, the great central tower fell destroying the north transept and the main arcades of thre nave.
Thereafter the ruins were used as a quarry and rubbish dump until in 1807 an enclosure wall was built and the process of decline arrested. About 1824 John Shanks (who came to be known as The Drouthy Cobbler) was appointed keeper and set about clearing the rubbish which had accumulated over the years, removing, it is said, some “3,000 barrowfuls and laying bare the foundations of the pillars of the nave, the elevations of the altar and the stairs at the western gate”.
From this time onward the conservation of the building became the great concern of successive government departments so that the ruins seen today remain one of the finest examples of medieval architecture in Scotland.
Edward I, the “Hammer of the Scots” visited Elgin in 1296 and described it as “a good town”.
The layout of the medieval town can still be seen from the top of Ladyhill which is now dominated by the column erected to the 5th Duke of Gordon in 1839.
Elgin’s importance as a commercial town, in an area which was “fertile, well watered and with genial climate”; remained and by the early eighteenth century it was a prosperous burgh with many fine buildings. Daniel Defoe described Elgin as “a very agreeable place to live in”, a quality which has remained.
Several restored eighteenth century buildings are to be found in the High Street as are the Little Cross of 1733 and the Muckle Cross near the centre of the now pedestrianised High Street.
Between 1820 and 1840 Elgin was transformed, with many fine new buildings identifying it as a city well worth visiting. Dr Grays Hospital, Anderson’s Institute, the neo classical St Giles’ Church built between 1825 and 1828, and the Elgin Museum of 1842 reflect Elgin’s growing status. At the same time the old restrictive gateways or ports to the town were removed with only the Pans Port near Elgin Cathedral now remaining.
It was the coming of the railway in the mid 19th century that had a significant effect on Elgin. The size of the burgh doubled and effective communication links were opened up, thereby further strengthening its commercial and administrative importance.
Elgin today is a is a historical city steeped in history, ruined castle on a hill, classical town centre, award winning museum, restored 18th century town houses and wynds, beautiful cathedral with the nearby Bishops House, and the Cooper Park gifted to the town by George Cooper in 1903.