Life in the Pre-Reformation Cathedrals


By A. H. Millar, F.S.A.Scot


The history of every Scottish city or burgh of importance is intimately connected with one of two possible originals. Each burgh has taken its origin either from a feudal castle or from a cathedral or abbey. This statement may seem very sweeping in its character, but a close examination will prove that it is founded on fact. Edinburgh, for instance, grew up around the ancient Castle—Eadwin’s burh—while the Cathedral of St. Giles and all the subordinate churches were adjuncts of the secular centre. The true ecclesiastical point of origin in Edinburgh was St. Margaret’s Chapel, and it still stands within the Castle walls. Glasgow, on the other hand, took its origin from the Cathedral. That building formed the nucleus of the original city, and the first houses in Glasgow were the Bishop’s Castle beside the Cathedral, and the dwellings and manses of the ecclesiastics in its immediate vicinity. It was as a “Bishop’s burgh,” or community under ecclesiastical control, that Glasgow first had a corporate existence. The Bishop or Archbishop nominated the civic rulers, and though an attempt was made shortly after the Reformation to abrogate priestly control, and to transfer the power of the election of the Provost to the Guildry, the Protestant Archbishops strove to retain this right up till the early years of the seventeenth century. In 1639 the Town Council for the first time elected the Provost and Bailies, but even then the consent of the Duke of Lennox—who had received the secularised property of the Archbishopric—had to be obtained; and it was not until 1690 that the citizens of Glasgow obtained the right to choose municipal governors.

These two forms of origin may be traced in all the important Scottish burghs. Stirling found its centre in the Royal Castle; Dunfermline owed its existence to the Abbey. Perth originated from the ancient Church of St. John, and was long known as “Saint John’s toun”; Inverness clustered around its baronial Castle. The Round Tower and the Cathedral of Brechin were the starting points of that burgh; and Paisley dates its history from the foundation of its Abbey. St. Andrews and Arbroath bear still unmistakable evidences of their ecclesiastical origin; while Dundee found its first nucleus in its Castle, and after the destruction of that fortress the centre was shifted to the magnificent church of St. Mary, one of the largest parish churches in Scotland in the fifteenth century. It is clear, therefore, that life in the pre-Reformation Cathedrals and ecclesiastical buildings had an important influence in forming and fashioning the history of the people. This fact is too frequently overlooked by modern historians.

Only two of the pre-Reformation Cathedrals in Scotland have survived unimpaired the iconoclastic zeal of the Reformers. St. Andrews Cathedral, the seat of the Primate of Scotland, was partially devastated by the Protestant mob, and weather and storm completed the ruin thus begun. Dunblane Cathedral has recently been restored and rescued from the wrecked condition in which it lay for centuries. The restoration of Brechin Cathedral is now (1898) in progress; and the Cathedral of St. Giles, Edinburgh, has only been brought back to some of its pristine magnificence within the last quarter of a century. The two Cathedrals which escaped the fury of the Reformers are, the fanes dedicated to St. Mungo (St. Kentigern) at Glasgow, and to St. Magnus at Kirkwall, Orkney. Both these Cathedrals had Episcopal Palaces adjoining the main structures, and from the history of these it might be possible to spell out the conditions of life during their palmy days. As Glasgow Cathedral shows in a remarkable manner the gradual development of a great commercial city from a small ecclesiastical burgh, and thus supplies a connecting link between remote times and the present day, it will be most convenient to treat it as a typical example of the far-reaching influence of early ecclesiastical modes of life.

Glasgow Cathedral occupies a very peculiar site. It is built on ground that slopes rapidly down from the level of the floor of the nave towards the bed of the Molendinar Burn. So steep is the declivity that a Lower Church—wrongly called the Crypt, but really an Ecclesia Inferior—is built under the floor of the Choir, only a few steps being necessary in passing from the Nave to the Choir, so as to give the requisite height to the roof of the “Laigh Kirk.” Such a site would not have been chosen by a modern architect for a building of the same magnitude, because of the structural difficulties it presented; yet it has been asserted by Mr John Honeyman, an experienced architect who has made a special study of Glasgow Cathedral, that the whole design of this magnificent structure “was carefully thought out and settled before a stone was laid. It is a skilful and homogeneous design, which could only be produced by a man of exceptional ability and of great experience. Nothing has been left to chance or the sweet will of the co-operating craftsmen, but the one master-mind has dictated every moulding and every combination, and has left the impress of his genius upon it all.” (“Book of Glasgow Cathedral,” p. 274.) It is a remarkable fact that the name of this gifted architect is quite unknown, though a theory has been advanced that seeks to identify him with a certain John Morvo or Moray, a man of Scottish descent, born and trained in Paris, who was also architect of Melrose Abbey. But nothing absolutely certain is known as to the architect who planned Glasgow Cathedral; and this is no unusual circumstance in the history of other ecclesiastical buildings. Referring to this fact Mr Gladstone once wrote thus:—“It has been observed as a circumstance full of meaning, that no man knows the names of the architects of our Cathedrals. They left no record of themselves upon the fabrics, as if they would have nothing there that could suggest any other idea than the glory of God, to whom the edifices were devoted for perpetual and solemn worship; nothing to mingle a meaner association with the profound sense of His presence; or as if in the joy of having built Him a house there was no want left unfulfilled, no room for the question whether it is good for a man to live in posthumous renown.”

Though the name of not one of the great architects who designed the Scottish Cathedrals has been preserved—unless we accept the doubtful theory as to John Morvo already mentioned—it is evident that the ecclesiastical designer must have been an important personage in every religious community from the beginning of the twelfth century until the Reformation. In those remote days it was not given to any architect to witness the completion of his design. That unique experience was reserved for Sir Christopher Wren, who superintended the building of St. Paul’s Cathedral from its foundation till the last stone was laid. Many circumstances prevented the early architects from witnessing the end of their labours. The poverty of the country, the perpetual warfare which ravaged Scotland, the impossibility of employing the wandering Lodges of Masons from the Continent so continuously as to ensure the rapid execution of the work, and the frequent changes in the Bishop or Archbishop who had the control of the building, necessarily spread the labour over centuries. Glasgow Cathedral was begun by Bishop John Achaius during his episcopate, which extended from 1115 to 1147. It was not completed till the time of Archbishop Blacader, who died in 1508. During these four centuries the original designs by the nameless first architect must have been carefully preserved, and handed down through a succession of equally unknown architects, until the whole work was finished. Yet all these men, whose brilliant ideas and excellent workmanship are at once the admiration and the despair of modern architects, will ever remain anonymous. The Kings and Princes who contributed towards the cost of the structure, the Bishops who added various portions to the building at long intervals, and the Archbishops who consecrated these additions are all carefully recorded; but the architects from whose fertile brains the ideas sprang, and the workmen who laboriously realised their dreams, are alike unknown.

The Cathedral of Glasgow took its origin from a cella erected on the bank of the Molendinar Burn, by the pious St. Kentigern. This early Christian Apostle was the natural son of Eugenius or Ewen III., King of Reged. His mother was Thanew, daughter of Loth, King of Lothian. Her name survives in a corrupted form as “St. Enoch,” there being now several Scottish churches so designated, though she is distinctly denominated “St. Thanew” in pre-Reformation documents. The life of Kentigern is very fully detailed in the biography written by Jocelyn, a monk of Furness, at the request of Herbert, Bishop of Glasgow (died 1164), and is included in the “Lives of the Scottish Saints.” The careful examination of this biography by Skene gives the probable date of Kentigern’s birth as 518, his consecration as Bishop of Glasgow at 543; his foundation of Llanelwy (now St. Asaphs) in Wales at 553; his return to Glasgow at 581; and his death at 603. Kentigern was visited by St. Columba at Glasgow before 597, and his popular name of St. Mungo (mon gah == my friend) was then conferred upon him by Columba. From the time of Kentigern’s death until the twelfth century nothing definite is known regarding the history of Glasgow. Within the present Cathedral the site of “St. Mungo’s tomb” is pointed out; and it is not improbable that the magnificent pile was erected on this spot to commemorate the founder of Glasgow. During the bishopric of Kentigern it is not likely that there was any building on the present site of the Cathedral save the little cella or chapel of the Bishop, and possibly a few of the houses inhabited by the Culdee priests. It should be remembered that the Culdees were not celibates, but lived with their families in these rude dwellings, which thus formed the nucleus of modern Glasgow. When the ground beside the Cathedral was turned into a grave-yard every trace of these houses must have been removed. It is possible that St. Kentigern was buried within his chapel; and if so, the tomb of St. Mungo, in the crypt of the Cathedral, will mark the place where that primitive structure stood.


The Duke's Lodging, Drygait. Bishop Cameron's Tower Episcopal Palace of Glasgow. Town Residence of the Rector of Renfrew.


The history of the See of Glasgow for five centuries after the death of St. Kentigern is almost a total blank; save for some dubious references to certain ecclesiastics supposed to have been the successors of the Saint, there is nothing to show the progress of the church in those days. The reforming zeal of Malcolm Canmore and Queen Margaret led to a revival of religion, as remarkable in its own way as the Protestant Reformation. The Culdees were supplanted by the Romanists, and the foundations were laid of a hierarchy that attained to vast power in Scotland. The reforms of the Queen were principally confined to the east coast—Dunfermline and St. Andrews—and it was not until her sixth and youngest son, David, Prince of Cumberland (afterwards David I.), ordered an “Inquisitio” as to the property belonging to the See of Glasgow in 1120, that any documentary evidence was made available on this point. Prince David had already procured the appointment of his chancellor and tutor John Eochey or Achaius to the bishopric of Glasgow, and with the installation of that prelate a new era began in the history of the city. The Inquisitio or Notitia showed that the lands possessed by the Bishop of Glasgow were co-extensive with the kingdom of Strathclyde, and were in the upper ward of Lanarkshire, and the counties of Peebles, Roxburgh, and Dumfries. Bishop John Achaius was consecrated in 1115; Prince David came to the throne in 1124; and shortly after this accession the Bishop began the building of the Cathedral, which was dedicated to St. Kentigern on the nones of July, 1136. Bishop John Achaius died in 1147, and the Cathedral which he built did not long survive him. It is probable that it was a wooden structure, for it was destroyed by fire in 1176, and in that year Bishop Jocelin (1175-1199) began to rebuild it with stone. The next “building Bishop” was William de Bondington (1233-1258), who completed the Lower Church (or Crypt) and the Choir. Bishop William Lauder (1408-1425) began the erection of the present tower, and partly built the Chapter-house. These portions were completed by his successor Bishop John Cameron (1426-1446). Robert Blacader (1484-1508), the first Archbishop of Glasgow, erected the crypt at the south transept known as “Blacader’s Aisle,” built the splendid rood-screen and the stairs leading from the Nave to the Choir and Lower Church, and put the finishing touches to the Cathedral, which had thus taken nearly four hundred years to reach completion.

The gradual development of the Cathedral necessarily led to the increase of the ecclesiastics connected with it. The elaborate ceremonial of the Romish Church required a staff of officials far out-numbering that of the simple Culdee cella of St. Kentigern’s time. No definite information is available as to the method adopted for supplying these officials in the early years of the Cathedral’s existence. It is reasonable to suppose, however, that the Rectors and Parsons who had charges in the widely-scattered parishes under the control of the Bishop, would have stated periods when they would take their turns of officiating. These clergymen would likely reside temporarily in the Bishop’s Palace, to which reference will be made presently. At a later date, as the grandeur of the Cathedral increased and its ceremonial became more ornate, houses were provided for them near the building, and thus a return was made to the social system of the Culdees, though with a celibate clergy. Even so recently as the middle of the present century, about twenty of the manses belonging to different prebends connected with the Cathedral could be identified in its immediate vicinity. It has been credibly conjectured that the remains of a building outside the north wall of the Cathedral mark the site of the Hall of the Vicars Choral, and a narrow lane between the Cathedral and the Bishop’s Castle was known as the Vicar’s Alley, probably because it gave access to the building. A consideration of some of these clerical homes will give an idea of the social life in a pre-Reformation Cathedral.

The Bishop’s Castle was for centuries a central point around which the burghal and national life crystallised. The date of its erection is not known. The earliest reference to it is found in a charter of 1258, in which the Bishop alludes to palacium suum quod est extra castrum Glasguense. This phrase proves that in the middle of the thirteenth century there was not only a Castle in existence, but also a palacium or minor dwelling—not a “Palace” as the word has been absurdly translated, but a “place,” equivalent to the old Scots word “ludging”—which stood outside the wall of the Castle. It is reasonable to suppose that Bishop Jocelin, who rebuilt the Cathedral with stone towards the close of the twelfth century, had caused the erection of the Castle to be begun, and that Bishop William de Bondington, who completed a large part of the Cathedral, also finished the Castle and the palacium referred to in his charter. The Castle would be constructed for defence in those lawless times as well as for residence, and would probably be a square keep surrounded by a moat. There was a Bishop’s Garden in 1268, and the Bishop’s Castle is mentioned in a document dated 1290. At the latter date Robert Wishart (1272-1316) was Bishop, and as he built rural mansions at Castellstarris (Carstairs) and Ancrum, it is probable that he extended the Castle at Glasgow beside the Cathedral. During the War of Independence this Castle became a stronghold coveted by both belligerents. In 1297 it was captured for Edward I., by Anthony Bek, the famous “fighting Bishop of Durham,” and re-taken by Sir William Wallace. After Bishop Wishart’s time references to additions made to the Castle are more distinct. Before the middle of the fifteenth century the moat had been partially replaced by a high wall. In 1438 Bishop John Cameron built “a great tower,” at the south-western corner of this wall, and his arms with episcopal insignia were visible on this tower in 1752. Archbishop James Beaton (1508-1522) enlarged the tower and completed a wall 15 feet high, which enclosed the grounds of the Castle. In the time of Archbishop Gavin Dunbar (1524-1547) a gate-house or port was erected on the line of the wall to form the main entrance to the Castle. From the fact that a sculptured stone, still in existence, which was taken from this port bears the arms of James Houston, Sub-Dean of Glasgow, it has been conjectured that the gate-way was erected at his expense; and as he had workmen building the Church of the B. V. M. and St Anne (now the Tron Church) which he founded in 1530, he probably employed them upon this other piece of work at that date. After the Reformation the Bishop’s Castle fell into disrepair. It was partly occupied by several of the Protestant Archbishops, but they had not incomes sufficient for its up-keep, and after the abolition of episcopacy by the Revolution of 1688 the Castle degenerated into a prison for rebels and petty offenders. Public executions took place in the Castle-yard so late as 1784—a curious survival of the power of the early Bishops over the lives of their vassals, for it is said that the gallows of modern times was erected on the site of the old “heading-stone” of former days. In 1755 the Magistrates gave permission to Robert Tennant to use the stones of the ruined Castle for the erection of the Saracen’s Head Inn, a building which still exists though now divided into tenements.

During the stormy period of the sixteenth century, when Scotland was constantly in turmoil, through foes within and without the realm, the Bishop’s Castle was frequently besieged. The legal proceedings that followed one of these incidents affords a glimpse of life within the Castle at that time. John Mure of Caldwell, acting under the orders of the Earl of Lennox, laid siege to the Castle on 20th February 1515, and captured it. He was soon compelled, by the Duke of Albany, to evacuate this stronghold, but before he retired his followers had sacked and pillaged the Castle. Two years afterwards Archbishop James Beaton claimed damages for the goods destroyed, and obtained a decree in his favour from the Lords of Council. The following articles were specially detailed in this decree, and are of interest as showing the furnishing and contents of an episcopal dwelling of that period:—“xiii feddir bedds furnist, price of ilka bedd v marks; xviii verdour bedds, price of the pere xls.; xii buird claiths, xii tyn quarts, xii tyn pynts, v dusane of peuder veschellis, tua kists, xv swyne, iv dakyr of salt hyds, vi dusane of salmond, ane last of salt herring, xii tunnes of wyne, ane hingand chandlar, ane goun of scarlett lynit with mertricks, vi barrels of gunpulder, ix gunnis, xiv halberks, xiv steill bonnets, vi halberts, iv crossbowis, vi rufs and courtings of say, and iv of lynning, with mony uther insight guds, claithing, jewells, silkes, precius stanes, veschell, harness, vittales, and uther guds.” From this list it will be seen that the luxuries of peace in which the prelates indulged had to be defended by the weapons of war.

While the Bishop’s Castle was the centre of ecclesiastical influence, the first extension of Glasgow was due to the erection of manses for the minor officials of the Cathedral. To any one acquainted with the topography of Glasgow, the city may be thus “skeletonised” to show the manner of its evolution. The Cathedral stands on an eminence rising gradually from the north bank of the Clyde, and is distant about a mile from the river. The main route from the Cathedral to the Clyde is by an almost straight succession of streets—High Street and Saltmarket—which, unquestionably, follow the line of an ancient footpath. The origin of secular Glasgow was a small collection of huts inhabited by salmon-fishers on the bank of the river. A pathway was formed in course of time between this primitive village and the Cathedral, but for centuries there were no continuous buildings between these two points. In the time of Bishop Jocelin (1175-1199) the village had extended so far along the river-side and up the line of the present Saltmarket that the Bishop deemed it advisable to obtain from William the Lion the grant of a weekly market and an annual fair. About this time also, arrangements were made for the erection of manses for the ecclesiastics near the Cathedral. These houses were built on a road running at right angles with the footpath to the river, the part going westward being called the Rottenrow (Ratoun Raw), while the eastward route was called the Drygait. There was thus a sacerdotal burgh in process of formation on the summit of the hill beside the Cathedral, while a secular burgh was gradually developing on the bank of the river. In the course of centuries these two burghs were conjoined, and thus the “backbone” of Glasgow was formed. The ecclesiastical houses were, of course, more elaborate than those used by the fishermen and tradesmen who were soon attracted to the place by the wealth of the Cathedral; and thus it has happened that the greatest commercial city in Scotland—the second in the United Kingdom—took its rise from the houses of the ecclesiastics by whom the burgh was ruled for a very long period.

No record exists as to the time when the prebendal manses were first erected, but it is certain that Bishop Cameron (1426-1446) increased the number of canons from twenty-five to thirty-two, and caused all of them to build manses within the burgh and near the Cathedral. The sites of many of these manses can be identified from descriptions in old charters, and some of them have only been removed within the past thirty years. The Dean of the Cathedral, who was Parson of Cadzow (now Hamilton), had his manse in the Rottenrow. The Archdeacon of Glasgow was Rector of Menar (now Peebles), and his house stood in the Drygait. Long after the Reformation it came into the possession of the Duke of Montrose, and was known as “the Duke’s lodging.” It was removed about 1880, to make way for an extension of the North Prison. The Rector of Morebattle, Archdeacon of Teviotdale, had a manse in the Kirkgait, now also absorbed in the grounds of the North Prison. The Sub-Dean was Rector of Monkland, and his house was on the bank of the Molendinar Burn, south-east of the Cathedral. The Chancellor, Rector of Campsie, lived in the Drygait at the place called “the Limmerfield” to which reference is made in Scott’s “Rob Roy.” The Precentor of the Cathedral, Rector of East Kilbride, had a manse near the Castle, the approach being by the Vicar’s Alley. The Treasurer, Rector of Carnwath, also had a manse, though its site has not been identified. The Sacristan of the Cathedral, Rector of Cambuslang, lived in the Drygait, near the house of the Archdeacon. The Bishop’s Vicar, Parson of Glasgow, had a manse beside the Castle. The Sub-Precentor, Prebendary of Ancrum, had a parsonage in the Vicar’s Alley, north of the Cathedral. The Parson of Eaglesham lived in the Drygait, beside the Archdeacon; and the Rector of Cardross had his manse on the south side of the same street. The manse of the “Canon of Barlanark and Lord of Provan,” in Castle Street, is the only remaining house supposed to have been occupied by him, though it seems more likely to have been erected after the Reformation. The Rector of Carstairs resided in a manse in Rottenrow, beside the houses of the Prebendary of Erskine and the Rector of Renfrew. Other officials who lived in the immediate vicinity of the Cathedral were the Rector of Govan, the Vicar of Kirkmahoe, Dumfriesshire, the Rector of Tarbolton, Ayrshire, the Rector of Killearn, Dumbartonshire, the Prebendary of Douglas, Lanarkshire, the Rector of Eddleston, Peeblesshire, the Rector of Stobo, Peeblesshire, and the Rector of Luss, Dumbartonshire. The houses of six of the Prebendaries—Durisdeer, Roxburgh, Ashkirk, Sanquhar, Cumnock, and Ayr—have not been identified, though it is extremely probable that they had to comply with Bishop Cameron’s command, and to erect manses in the burgh. The Hall of the Vicars Choral, with accommodation for eighteen officials, was built on the north side of the Cathedral, by Bishop Andrew Muirhead (1455-1473).

From this list it will be seen how great must have been the influence of this Levite village upon the development of the burgh. The comparatively luxurious style of living among the ecclesiastics would attract craftsmen, artificers of various kinds, and merchants trading with other countries to supply the rich garments, the expensive wines, and the numerous delicacies which were deemed necessaries by ecclesiastical dignitaries of high degree. With the Reformation all this grandeur was swept away, but before that epoch Glasgow had been made the favourite residence of many of the Lowland noblemen; and when the sacerdotal burgh disappeared, the secular and commercial city was ready to take its place. The domination of the Church passed, but not before it had prepared the way for its successor. In other Cathedral cities in Scotland a similar process of development may be traced, though not in so distinct a manner as exhibited in the evolution of Glasgow. Verily, that city owes much of its prosperity to the foresight and patriotism of those who ruled in its pre-Reformation Cathedral!