From Cawdor, Mr. Tweed and I decided to drive out to Elgin to see Elgin Cathedral, a ruined cathedral dating from the 13th century. Once again, we enjoyed a drive in the Scottish countryside, driving through a few small towns (including one we would visit again under less happy circumstances – foreshadowing!). Elgin reminded me a little bit of Rome in a way, because it was sometimes hard to tell where monuments ended and the businesses and homes began. A community of garden-style houses would be punctuated with dramatically crumbling bit of the original city gates. We found Elgin Cathedral situated at a place where a few of the larger roads met, surrounded by a high iron fence.
As we bought our tickets for the site, the guides told us about a deal they had where for 1,20 GBP more each, we could get a dual ticket that was also good at their sister site, Spynie Palace. It was still fairly early in the day and I’m a sucker for a ruined palace, so we agreed. You see, Elgin Cathedral was the seat of the diocese of the bishops of Moray, and for centuries, Spynie Palace was the bishop’s home, just three miles away. So it does seem fitting to see both at one go. I will say, the guides at the Cathedral and Palace were among my favorite people we encountered in Scotland. At the Cathedral, the guides seemed to be enjoying their job very much as they pointed out all the various places we should make sure to visit at the Cathedral site.
The Cathedral itself is almost surreal. Not only is it in the midst of a well-traveled section of the city, but it it so similar to other Gothic-style cathedrals I’ve visited, just not entirely there. The main towers were open, and we did take the opportunity to walk up. As you make your way up, they have exhibits of various examples of art and stonework from the cathedral, in various stages of restoration. They even have pieces of the supports for the massive rose window. I will say, the guide made a point to tell us that the staircases are not nearly as steep and narrow as those at Urquhart Castle, and he was absolutely right. We made it to the top of the tower with the observation deck, and took in the view, which is stunning.
From there, we explored the rest of the cathedral and the churchyard. There are many gravestones from all periods of time, including the tallest gravestone in Scotland, and a gravestone with the profound poem: “The world is a city full of streets and death is the market that all men meets. If life were a thing that money could buy, the poor could not life and the rich would not die.” Despite the noise of the street around us, the churchyard still felt rather peaceful, in the way that churchyards always feel peaceful.
We pressed onward to Spynie Palace. As we made our way out of town, and up the drive of the site, the first thing we noticed was that there was not a single other car there. We parked and walked up an eerily quiet dirt path to the welcome cottage, where we saw the caretaker walking in from the ruins. He greeted us and checked out tickets and then asked if we’d like a little history of the site. We said of course. I think he might have been a bit bored, because we were treated to a 20-minute discussion of the history of the palace (really a castle, but the bishops wanted to make it sound grander), its place in the unfortunate history of Queen Mary of Scotland, and the Scottish Reformation. Apparently, Mary’s third husband, the Earl of Bothwell fled to the palace after being charged with the murder of her second husband, and tried to overtake the castle. But things did not end well for him.
The palace itself began to fall into decay by the end of the 17th century and not much of it remains today. But the main gate still stands, and it is through that gate that we entered the site. It was an interesting exercise to walk around and enter the palace where visitors would have entered. From there, we explored David’s Tower, taking in the view, and even ventured into the basement. The grounds were almost preternaturally quiet, as we were the only tourists there for most of the time. We were joined maybe fifteen minutes into our explorations by another two guys and a dog, but for the most part, it felt almost like a private showing. The peacefulness was lovely, but the site is so striking, that I almost wish it would become more crowded. Perhaps they do a brisker business on other days.
From there, we ventured back to Elgin for tea and cake, and onward home after a long day of history and castles in all states of repair!