|THE DESTRUCTION OF THE CATHEDRAL.|
The renowned destruction of Forres and Elgin (including the Cathedral) in 1390 by "the Wolf of Badenoch", Alexander Stewart, Earl of Buchan and son of King Robert II, is known by all in Morayshire, but the damage to the Cathedral itself was not so profound as that to the Church of St Giles and the township of Elgin. The building was, in fact, soon back to its former glory.
No, the trail of damage and wanton destruction starts some years before the infamous Reformation that sank Scotland into the frigid blackness of Presbyterianism! In 1535 Patrick Hepburn, son of the first Earl of Bothwell, was made bishop. Like many of the other Church dignitaries of that period he caused great dilapidation of the ecclesiastical possessions, and almost all the charters of alienation of the cathedral lands were granted by him. In 1568 the exigencies of the Regent Moray compelled the Privy Council to order the removal of the lead from the roofs of the cathedrals of Aberdeen and Elgin (just as he did in 1572 to the Cathedral of Ross), that money might be provided for the soldiers. This act was condemned by none other than Dr Samuel Johnston, who visited Elgin on his way to the Hebrides. He wrote, "a Scotch army in those times was very cheaply kept; yet the lead maust have borne so small a proportion to any military expense that it is hard not to believe the reason alleged to be merely popular, and the money intended for some private purse. The order, however, was obeyed". "I hope every reader will rejoice", he adds, "that this cargo of sacrilege was lost at sea!"
It appears that in 1594 a High Mass was sung for the last time within its walls to celebrate the defeat of the Protestant forces of the West.
However, fate has its cunning ways and the ship which was conveying the lead to Holland sank just off the north-east coast and the whole cargo was lost! The roofs were thus left unprotected, and in a great storm which occurred in 1637, the rafters were blown away.
The destruction of the interior soon followed, and was hastened by the action of the General Assembly, which, in 1640, empowered Gilbert Ross, minister of Elgin, and others (some young lairds) to break down the timber screen between the nave and the choir. Spalding states that the paintings on the rood screen - the Crucifixion on the west side, illuminated with gold stars, and the Day of Judgement on the east side - notwithstanding their exposure for "seven score years", were still in excellent preservation when the demolition took place. It is said that the minister caused much of the wood to be taken to his house for firewood but that each night the fire went out, "whereat the servants and others marvelled, and the minister left off to burn any more of that timber."
Next followed the destruction of the tracery of the great west window and other features, which is believed to have been caused by Cromwell's troops in 1650-60.
By the end of the seventeenth century the double aisles of the nave seem to have disappeared. But the chief catastrophe which overtook the building was the fall of its central tower on Easter Sunday, 1711. It fell towards the west thus overwhelming in its ruin the nave and transepts, and causing their complete destruction. The ruins thereafter became a general quarry of the district until 1807 when, by the exertions of Mr King of Elgin, a wall was built round the enclosure. In 1816 the Barons of Exchequer took possession of the ruins, and appointed as keeper John Shanks. This man is said to have wheeled out over 3000 barrows of "rubbish" to reveal something of the cathedral's glory again.
Can any building have suffered more? If Wallace suffered a prolonged and agonizing "traitor's" death - hung, drawn and quartered - surely this wonderful old building suffered the architectural equivalent. Well may we now shed tears of regret and sadness when we view the mortal remains of one of Scotland's most fabulous treasures. Perhaps, one day, someone will sound the rallying call and provide funds to return what remains to some of its former glory - stained-glass for the Chapter House and Lady Chapel perhaps?!
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