Faith & The British: Pt 2 – St Machar’s, Aberdeen

The first leg of our journey through the splendid architecture that faith has been responsible for across the United Kingdom takes us first to the beautiful St Machar’s, in the legendary Granite City…

St Machar’s:

Location: Aberdeen, Aberdeen City (historically Aberdeenshire), Scotland

Status: Cathedral (Technically High Kirk)

Faith: Church of Scotland

Constructed: 14th Century (Present building shell)

Architect: Various

Aberdeen 9

The first Church on this site is thought to be a Celtic one back in 580 AD, founded by St Machar (6th Century Irish Saint), who was supposedly told by God to build a Church where “a river bends into the shape of a bishop’s crosier before flowing into the sea” which the River Don does beneath the Cathedral. A crosier is the staff a Bishop is often seen holding, with the handle at the top in the shape of a spiral. By 1131 a new Cathedral was built by the Normans, although most of this building has long since been destroyed.

In 1305 the left quarter of William Wallace was delivered to the Cathedral. Wallace (1270 – 1305) was a landowner who was a major player during the Scottish Wars of Independence during the 13th and 14th centuries. He was eventually captured by King Edward I (1239 – 1307) and executed, with parts of his body being sent all over Scotland as a message to other rebels around the country.

At the start of this post I pointed out that the Cathedral could technically be classed as a High Kirk rather than a Cathedral, as there has been no Bishop here since 1690.

Machar 1

Walking through the main entrance into the centre of the building, we were immediately struck by the scale of it, with the beautiful wooden roof rising high above us.

Featured across the ceiling are 48 heraldic shields, arranged in 3 straight rows of 16. These are the coats of arms or symbols for various important people associated with the Church and the Faith, with one of the most notable being Pope Leo X (1475 – 1521). The crest representing Leo is a yellow shield with silver and gold keys on either side, and a crown at the top. You can find a full gallery of pictures of each shield and who they represent by following this link.

The other shields are of Scottish Archbishops and Bishops, and another represents King’s College, an old University close by, which includes a stunning Chapel with a Crown Tower. Various monarchs, from James V (1512 – 1542) and Francis I (1494 – 1547, King of France) to Charles V (1661 – 1700, King of Spain). Most prominent across the shields are of course the Scottish Kings and Queens, ranging from Malcolm II (Died 1034) to Queen Mary (1542 – 1587). Each shield has stunning detail on it, and my favourite is number 36 on the list on the link I have given above, that of Henry VIII (1491 – 1547), who is represented by the 3 English Lions on a red shield.

Machar 4

The enormous organ at the East end dates back to 1891 and is the latest in a long line of organs that have inhabited the Cathedral. This one was installed at the same time as those of Hereford and Exeter Cathedrals, and since it’s working life began it has been overhauled and repaired a number of times, in 1928, 1956 and 1974. The most recent check was in 1991, and was carried out by A. F. Edmonstone from the City of Perth.

Looking back through history, the first Organ was in use by at least 1519, as Bishop Gavin Dunbar recounted that when he arrived he heard “the sweet harmony of voice and organ”. The Scottish Reformation occurred in 1560, when Scotland broke away from the Papacy in Rome, and eventually the Church was re-established with reforms. Because of this, the Organ wasn’t used again until 1863, when the Organ was allowed into the new Scottish Church.

Ideas were talked about not long after about getting a brand new Organ for the building, and a firm called Henry Willis & Sons in London was approached. They still trade today, and were originally founded in 1845 by Henry Willis (1821 – 1901). The Organ arrived in late 1891, after many discussions about where exactly in the Cathedral the device would fit. It still stands tall today, and the picture above is taken from the left hand side, and round the corner to the right are the front tubes and the keyboards.

Machar 5

This is the East Window and is one of a number of windows around the building that contains some beautiful Stained Glass work. It dates back to 1953, and was created by William Wilson, to tell the story of the Nativity, through to the Last Supper, the Crucifixion and finally Christ in Glory. Various Scottish Saints surround the scenes, and directly in front of the window is the Communion Table, with a candelabra at either end.

You can see the front of the Organ just off to the left at the front of the picture. This area of the building, was extended in the 13th century by Bishop Henry Cheyne, and include some red sandstone pillars which still survive today.

Machar 6

At the opposite end of the building is the West Window, which faces the East Window. The Window is made up of 7 individual windows, and the twin towers on the exterior of the building are located above this section. Inside the walls are spiral staircases leading up the towers, which once led up to the upper floors, Battlements and Cape Houses on top of the towers. These were later replaced with the Spires that still exist today, by Bishop Gavin Dunbar.

The Western end of the building was begun in the 14th century, after Bishop Alexander Kininmund II had the rest of the main Cathedral knocked down. The nave was completed by Bishop Henry Lichtoun, along with the West Front and the north transept. The main roof was later finished in the 15h century, by Thomas Spens, William Elphinstone and Gavin Dunbar (who also built the Heraldic Ceiling as well as the twin towers). The building once had an enormous spire in the centre, but it collapsed in 1688, landing on the Choir and the Transepts, and today only the Nave and the Aisles still survive.

Machar 7

This large Celtic Cross stands off to the side of the main aisle. It is thought to be associated with the original Church established here around 580 AD, and as it would have been a Celtic Building then the Celtic Cross makes sense. It looks like only the very top part of the cross is original, and 1/4 of the cross head itself has had to be replaced, along with the main shaft and base.

Behind the Cross, at the very back is the Reid Memorial window, with the White Memorial window visible on right. Aside from the windows I have mentioned, there a further 12 windows located around the outside of the building, all with different scenes depicted in stunning Stained Glass.

St Machar’s is a beautiful building, and the perfect way to lead in to the various other Cathedrals, Abbeys and Minsters I shall be showing you round. Of course the best way to appreciate the building is to visit it yourself. To find out more about the building you can visit the official site here, and to explore the “Granite City” of Aberdeen you can read all about it in my dedicated post here.

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