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Glasgow Cathedral

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Glasgow Cathedral

Glasgow CathedralGlasgow Cathedral of St Kentigern is the Church of Scotland High Kirk of Glasgow and is a fundamental part of the city intrinsically intertwined with the city's history. St Kentigern (also known affectionately as St Mungo) is the patron saint of Glasgow and is the founder of this wonderful city.

The History of Glasgow Cathedral

Before Scotland had been born as a nation it consisted of smaller kingdoms run by petty kings of various tribes. St Ninian is thought to be the first bishop and from the Venerable Bede we learn that he converted the southern Picts (of whom we know too little). This would have been in the region just north of the Forth. A cathedral in those days, during the 5th century, was often just a small church containing the throne of the bishop and from where he administered his diocese. It is believed that St Ninian built his cathedral in Whithorn.

Another belief is that St Ninian dedicated a graveyard in Cathures , the area that is now Glasgow . St Kentigern built a small church and religious community there in the 6th century after arriving there with the remains of Fergus (a respected Holy Man). St Mungo's diocese would have covered the area which roughly became the kingdom of Strathclyde. Unfortunately there is little hard evidence supporting this legend but it is plausible.

St Kentigern/St Mungo died in 612 (his tomb can be seen in the cathedral) and little is know of the site until the middle of the 11th century when we become aware of named bishops for the diocese of Glasgow. Of course knowledge that there were bishops of Glasgow at that time infers that there were earlier Glasgow bishops. However, at that time the bishop of York claimed authority over the whole Scottish church and the diocese was, almost certainly, being run from York Minster. It was during the 12th & 13th centuries that Scotland saw the development of many of it's cathedrals. At that time there were few masons in Scotland and most came from England so designs were somewhat influenced by their previous works. However Glasgow Cathedral has many unique elements developed during this period. The Scottish Church was keen to pull away from York and the development of Scotland's cathedrals was, in some way, an effort to show dominance.

Glasgow CathedralKing David I, who became king in 1124, had gained much knowledge of church organization during his time in the English Court of King Henry I of England. Even before he was king he was active in the church and it was he who, between 1114 and 1118, introduced his earlier tutor and friend John (1117-1147) ) as the Bishop of Glasgow. It was Bishop John who really set about redesigning the cathedral and it was sufficiently rebuilt to be consecrated in 1136.

Unfortunately much of Bishop John's work was destroyed by fire and it was left to Bishop Jocelyn (1174-99) to rebuild it. The much larger building was consecrated in 1197 (1) and a few fragments from this time are still in place. It was around this time that the cult of St Kentigern became prominent and Jocelyn was an active promoter of the cult. He built a large extension to house the saint's tomb. It was during this time that Pope Alexander III removed the diocese of Glasgow from the province of York and placed it under the "pope's special care" (the rest of the Scottish Church followed some time later).

Bishop Jocelyn had started work on rebuilding the nave to an aisle-less plan (2) but the work ceased and for some time there was no bishop at Glasgow. It was not until the time of Bishop Walter (1207-1232) that work recommenced on the nave and Jocelyn's transeptal projection was cut off by a wall of the new aisle. This change of design is still visible today. Bishop Walter's designs were never completed as there was a change in direction in 1242 when Bishop William de Bondinton (1233-1258) raised funds to carry out extensive remodelling which involved the creation of spacious presbytery around the High Altar, a shrine chapel for St Kentigern and to house the canon's choir.

Work continued on the nave and the competion date is actually uncertain but it is thought that it was still being carried out during the early 14th century (3). Alterations to the cathedral continued throughout the 14th and 15th centuries. In 1400 there was a fire which necessitated the building of a new central tower, spire and chapter house.

Glasgow Cathedral During The Scottish Reformation

Glasgow Cathedral prior to the demolition of the two western towersDuring the Scottish Reformation Glasgow Cathedral, like many others in Scotland, was badly damaged in 1560. It is Archbishop James Beaton whom we should thank for the survival of Glasgow Cathedral. Beaton had an arragement with the Earl of Arran and he tried to halt the approaching mob of zealous citizens. Unsurprisingly Arran switched sides and supported the Reformers and occupied the archbishops castle. Beaton was forced to flee to Paris in July 1560 but he was restored to office in 1598. For a short time the cathedral was divided to house three congregations, this reduced to two in 1798 and then back to a single congregation in 1835.

Most cathedrals in Scotland were destroyed or severely damaged during the Scottish Reformation of 1560. Out of a total of 13 cathedrals only 5 remain in almost entirity (Glasgow, Brechin, Dornoch, Dunblane and Kirkwall) though only Glasgow remained almost complete and the other four were extensively rebuilt. Of the other 8 only three remain in partial use (Aberdeen, Dunkeld and Lismore) while Elgin, Fortrose, St Andrews, Snizort and Whithorn are in various states of ruin.

It is extremely surprising that Glasgow Cathedral survived at all as it was one of the most powerful symbols of Catholicism in Scotland. In 1451 Pope Nicholas V (founder of the Vatican Library) paid Glasgow Cathedral the ultimate compliment by declaring that if a christian made a pilgrimage to the cathedral it would be considered in the same standing as a pilgrimage to Rome. It is maybe for this reason that the people of Glasgow held the cathedral in such high regard that they could not bring themselves to inflict mortal damage upon it. In fact the damaged caused by the mob (mainly damage to the roof) was repaired in 1574 financed by the voluntary subscriptions made by the citizens of Glasgow.

Points Of Interest In Glasgow Cathedral

Glasgow Cathedral is the only surviving complete example of a medieval Scottish cathedral. Sadly, in the mid 19th century, two western towers were demolished (4), if these had remained Glasgow Cathedral would have looked similar to the drawing shown above right. During the 20th century work was carried out to improve the surrounding area, a visitors centre was built and St. Mungo's Museum of Religious Art and Life was opened making it a superb tourist attraction and a great place to spend the day.

Glasgow Cathedral features some unique elements of medieval masonry and design and the finest examples are found in the 13th century crypt which was built to house the tomb of St Kentigern. The ‘pulpitum’ features some exquisite masonry in the screen separating the choir from the nave. Some later carvings can be seen in the ceiling of the Blackadder Aisle (so called because it was built around 1500 by Archbishop Blackadder).

When walking around watch out for the clever way in which the building has evolved, this is especially apparent on the south-west compartment of the crypt where bishop Jocelyn's shaft of the twelfth century merges with the later building. Another point of interest is the wonderful stained glass, which is one of the finest collection in Britain.

Visiting Glasgow Cathedral

Glasgow CathedralMost of what we see today dates from the 13th century (see plan of Glasgow Cathedral at crypt level at the bottom of this page by the notes). Since the cathedral has not been the sear of a bishop since 1690 the title is now purely honorific and historic. The building is now owned by the crown (from 1857) but cared for by Historic Scotland but it is still in use as a place of worship and can be visited during the hours shown below.

For more details visit the official site at

Getting There

It is not too difficult to get to the cathedral on foot, setting off from George Square walk along North Hanover Street and turn right into Cathedral Street at the traffic lights. Glasgow Cathedral is at the end of Cathedral Street at the junction of Castle Street.

Glasgow bus routes are extremely confusing but numbers 11, 12, 36, 36A, 38, 38A, 42, 42A, 51, 56, 56A and 213 pass by the cathedral and can be caught from the centre of the city. We strongly advise that you double check with the bus driver that it stops nearby and, usually, he will tell you where to get off.

Opening Times

Opening and closing times are different during the winter months, there are no guides and the bookstall is closed (but leaflets are still available from a display stand). The Historic Scotland bookshop is often open during opening hours throughout the year.

Admission: Free

Summer (April-Sept)

Opens: Mon-Sat 9.30am Sun 1pm
Closes: 5.30pm

Winter (Oct-Mar)

Opens: Mon-Sat 9.30am Sun 1pm
Closes: 4pm

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Plan Of Glasgow Cathedral At Crypt Level

Glasgow Cathedral prior to the demolition of the two western towers

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1. The chronicle at the abbey of Melrose says that Jocelyn was rebuilding Glasgow Catheral in 1181 but that there was a fire. It is from this document that we learn of the consecration in 1197.
2. In 1992-3 excavations pointed towards the rebuilding of the nave by Bishop Jocelyn.
3. In 1306 Bishop Wishart was accused of using timber meant for the Cathedral for making seige engines for use in the Wars of Independence against the English King Edward I.
4. When the towers were demolished in the 1840s an unglazed window was revealed suggesting that the tower was added as an afterthought once the nave was nearing completion. Unfortunately the plan had been to rebuild the towers but after they had been destroyed it was discovered that there was not enough funds left to finance the rebuild.

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