on October 14, 2009
During a two day stay in Pitlochry while returning from the Orkney Isles we made a short drive south to the small town of Dunkeld. Its importance in history outweighs its size for Dunkeld was once the ecclesiastical capital of Scotland. For more than a thousand years this has been a place of Christian worship.There appears to have been a Christian settlement here as early as the 6th century. The first building of mud and wattle were replaced by a stone church, which in time was replaced by a cathedral. Situated on the banks of the River Tay surrounded by the Perthshire hills and sheltered by forest trees, the Cathedral of St Columba is considered to be one of the most picturesque cathedrals in Europe.Columba was an Irish nobleman, priest and missionary. He founded a monastery on the island of Iona and travelled widely in Scotland, Ireland and Northumbria. Dunkeld became the centre of the church in Scotland when relics of St Columbia were brought here for safe keeping during the Viking raids of the 9th century.Church organisation then was based on monasteries and abbots in contrast to the dioceses and bishops of the Roman church. The abbot was appointed by the king and was usually a member of the royal family or a senior noble. Abbots were allowed to marry and the office was often hereditary. Abbot Crinan of Dunkeld was the father of King Duncan in Shakespeare's Macbeth.Dunkeld lost its status as the ecclesiastical capital when the relics of St Columbia were moved to the town of St Andrews in the 10th century. The monastic church became a cathedral in 1127 when King David I of Scotland established a system of church government based on bishops and dioceses in line with the Church of Rome.The cathedral was in two distinct parts: the nave for the laity and the choir for the clergy. The clergy held seven services and at least two masses every day.In the late middle ages the cathedral was richly decorated. There were several altars adorned with fine plate and vestments. In the 16th century reformers swept away ornament and elaborate ritual, and sought to return to a simple preaching of the bible. In 1560 the Privy Council of Scotland ordered: ‘Take down and burn all images, alters and monuments of idolatry in Dunkeld Cathedral but protect the woodwork, windows, glass and ironwork’. These instructions were ignored and instead there was an orgy of destruction. Worse followed for in 1689, following the Jacobite victory at Killiecrankie, the cathedral and much of Dunkeld was devastated by fire.This once magnificent medieval cathedral is now partly in ruins, but restorations have been undertaken over the years, most notably of the Choir in 1908 and 1975. The cathedral remains an active church, within the community of the Church of Scotland. Its 13th century choir is now the parish church and is open daily. There is also a small museum in the 15th century sacristy, which can be entered through the choir. The ruined 15th century nave and tower of the cathedral are in the care of Historic Scotland.Built predominantly of grey sandstone, the cathedral proper was begun in 1260 and completed in 1501. Because of the long construction period, the cathedral shows mixed architecture. Gothic and Norman elements are intermingled throughout the structure.The Cathedral is open daily.
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