Castle To Cathedral To Cashmere

Visitor Tour 1


Visitor Tour 1 follows the Castle to Cathedral to Cashmere Heritage Experience trail. The tour brings over 1000 years of history to life through various media.

The Castle to Cathedral to Cashmere Heritage Experience is the result of the collective working of more than 17 organisations and their volunteers, with a wide range of experience and knowledge of Elgin.

The Castle to Cathedral to Cashmere tour will take you from the site of the former castle at Elgin to the Cathedral, via the medieval High Street, and on to the mill at Johnstons of Elgin.


The administrative and commercial capital of Moray and a town steeped in history. Elgin forms the focus of the Castle to Cathedral to Cashmere tour.

Elgin was founded in early medieval times, its small, steep, green hill providing a natural fortress.

For much of recorded history Elgin was isolated from the rest of Scotland by the Cairngorms to the south and protected by two rivers, the Spey and the Findhorn.

By the 17th century Elgin boasted many fine buildings and reflecting the prosperity of its merchants and craftsmen. During the 19th century Elgin reinvented itself as a grand neo-classical city backed by a number of new industries, and especially the distilling of whisky.

Experience Elgin both past and present with the Castle to Cathedral to Cashmere tour.

Castle | Castle to cathedral to cashmere

The original site of the Elgin castle is the start point for the Castle to Cathedral to Cashmere tour.

In 1040, MacBeth mortally wounded King Duncan I, near Elgin, at Pitgaveny. Ladyhill is believed to have been the site of a defensive structure used by Duncan I as a garrison before the battle and, ultimately, where he returned to die of his wounds.

A castle was built on Ladyhill during the reign of David I and a symbol of the Royal Burgh status that David I had granted Elgin. It was from the Chapel of Our Lady, attached to the castle, that Ladyhill takes its name.

David I built royal castles to exert control and rule over medieval Scotland. The wild terrain of medieval Moray was a particular challenge and Elgin Castle with its commanding outlook made an ideal fortress. The stone castle which replaced earlier timber and earth buildings was a place of prestige and power.

Elgin’s increasing prestige with Scottish monarchs is captured in the Charter of Malcolm IV, in 1160. The Charter makes specific reference to a Royal castle on Ladyhill.

As part of his tour of suppression in 1296, Edward I of England, the “Hammer of the Scots”, reported that he was impressed by the castle.

The journal of his stay is held in the British Library. He records that Elgin is a good castle and good town – “bon chastell et bonne ville”.

Robert the Bruce retook Scotland in 1308 after Edward’s death in 1307. In his determination to eliminate any opportunity for the English to maintain a foothold in Scotland, he slighted Scottish castles. He finally succeeded at Elgin on his third attempt.

The opportunity to hunt for stags, goats and wild boar in the nearby forests, in the centuries that followed, remained attractive to the kings and queens of Scotland. In the absence of a Royal castle at Elgin, the royal parties stayed at Thunderton House, Duffus castle or Gordon castle.

The castle, having outlived its usefulness, fell into decay and was demolished in the 16th century. The stone would have been recycled for local town development.

Erected in 1839, and believed to be the spot where George, the last Duke of Gordon, proposed to his wife to be, Elizabeth Brodie, the central feature now on Ladyhill is the 80ft high Duke of Gordon monument.

Ladyhill is a prominent viewpoint. It provides an excellent opportunity to view the well preserved medieval street plan of Elgin.

It is the medieval street plan of Elgin that provides the next stage of the Castle to Cathedral to Cashmere tour.

Medieval High Street | castle to cathedral to cashmere

The citizens or burgesses of Elgin were granted special rights by the king (Royal Burgh). They enjoyed many trading privileges in the area.

The town distinguished itself from the villages and countryside by the demarcation of its limits.

A toll would have been paid to enter medieval Elgin through one of four ‘ports’ or town gates. All items brought into the town, for sale, were taxed.

On passing through the town gate, the visitor would have been presented with a single street settlement. The timber houses would have been built gable to gable along the High Street.

At the side of each house was an archway or ‘pend’ which led through to the burbage plots or ‘tofts’. The pend could be closed at night with a vett, a heavy gate to keep out intruders.

The burgage plots, or tofts, were the portions of land which the burgesses were allocated alongside their dwellings. Here they sank their wells, dug their midden pits, reared animals, grew vegetables, and housed their workshops. Dykes (dry stone wall) at the end of each plot formed a boundary to the burgh.

The dwellings and tofts would have formed the classic herringbone pattern of medieval burgage plots running back from the main street frontage.

As the population of Elgin grew, people began to build down the west side of each toft. The dwellings would have formed closes at right angles to the High Street. There could be 8 –10 houses down each close, each accommodating several families.

Each close had a privy (toilet), a midden and sometimes a pigsty at the bottom end. Along with an open drain flowing to the High Street.

A Day In The Life

Whilst we can’t fully experience life in medieval Elgin, as part of the Castle to Cathedral to Cashmere tour, we can get a sense of what it was like.

The day officially began with the town drummer at 4 am or 5 am.

The town drummer would make his way up and down the closes in the morning to get people up to go and work in the factories – the tanneries and woollen mills. It was also a signal that the night watchman’s duty was at an end and that first mass of the day would be observed.

Most shops opened at 6 am, providing plenty of early morning shopping before the first meal of the day at 9 or 10 am.

Sanitation was an ongoing concern. Open drain channels ran down the centre of streets or along the sides. Many stables opened out onto the streets and dung heaps encroached on the main passage. People often threw dirty water out of windows in the general direction of the drains.

Each individual householder was charged with keeping the space in front of their house relatively clean. In practice the only real incentive to do so was an outbreak of the plague or a visit of the King.

Pigs were another nuisance in the streets.

Whilst pigs were cheap, and a good source of food, most houses were small and gardens even smaller. So pigs were often let out into the streets to forage.

Stray pigs were such a nuisance that they were liable to be killed. The owner would be charged for the return of the dead animal.

Elgin was said to be a town which ‘in filthiness exceeded all the towns of the north east’.

The north side of the High Street alone had 54 dung heaps and 12 pigsties. To avoid the mess, pedestrians used stepping stones ­­­­– a row of huge blocks, known as the ‘croon’ or crown which ran down the centre of the High Street.

In 1820 in a big clean-up operation, these stones were removed and the open sewers and drains covered over.

Provost Innes boasted that he had ‘paved the streets with 1,000 guineas’ – the cost of the improvements.

If a “hue and cry” was raised to chase a criminal, all citizens had to join in or risk being fined.

For the criminal, the penalty was much higher. A thief found in possession of stolen goods was hanged.

Due to closely packed wooden houses and inadequate water supply, fire was the constant fear. Fires were difficult to control and could produce widespread damage.

Due to fire risk, each householder was required to keep a full vessel of water outside his door in summer. At the point that a fire was discovered, it was every citizen’s duty to come running with whatever equipment they had. Often firehooks were used to haul burning thatch off a roof, and to pull down adjacent buildings to provide a firebreak.

Morning was the active time for markets. Things quieted down after noon, and most shops closed at 3 o’clock. Some kept open until light faded. Others, such as the barbers and blacksmiths, were open until the town drummer signalled curfew.

Foreign merchants were heavily regulated. They had to wait two or more hours before they could enter the market, giving the locals the best of the business.

To keep the peace, curfews were imposed in the town. The church bells would be rung at 8 or 9 pm to indicate that it was time for brewers, smiths and taverners to cease their working day.

The town drummer would again make his way up and down the closes to reinforce the message that the curfew was in place.

The town gates would be closed and a watch would patrol the streets looking for thieves. It became the custom that anyone out after curfew had to have a good excuse and carry a light. The carrying of weapons was carefully regulated, especially where foreigners were concerned.

Nobility, as was usual, were not required to observe the regulations.


Todays Castle to Cathedral to Cashmere tour progresses along an Elgin High Street that is now pedestrianised. However, it still provides a glimpse into a time when it was the main thoroughfare for commercial and medieval traffic.

Narrow wynds or closes run off the High Street. It’s these closes that linked the three parallel lines of streets that ran from the castle to the cathedral.

There were around 200 closes packed into a small area, and perhaps 30 families living in each one. The better houses were nearer the street, and all windows faced east to allow some sort of privacy.

Each close had its own social life, tradition and character. Some were named after the families who lived there, while others took their names from the occupations carried out along them, such as the Glovers’ Close.

Batchen Lane (190 High Street)

Explore this modern lane running between the High Street and South Street and discover its historic past.

Batchen Lane was named after auctioneer John Batchen. He demolished much of Thunderton House to make way for the lane in 1800.

Thunderton House dates back to the 16th century and was once one of the finest historic buildings in Elgin.

With its own gardens, bowling green and orchards, it was a grand residence. After the Royal Castle on Ladyhill was slighted and demolished, it became the official Royal Residence and Palace of the early Scottish kings.

Prince Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) spent 11 days at the house in March 1746 before returning to Inverness to await the arrival of the king’s army at Culloden.

Although greatly altered, Thunderton House remains the oldest house in the High Street.

High Street/North Street

The corner where the High Street meets North Street looked very different in the 19th century. Modern buildings have replaced the grand Assembly Rooms which stood on this spot from 1822 and included a magnificent ballroom.

The North of Scotland Bank was built next door in 1857, replacing the earlier Drummuir House. During the 19th century banking became increasingly important to Elgin’s economy, and the building on the opposite corner was also originally a bank.

Along North Street you’ll find Holy Trinity Episcopal Church. It was built in 1824 to a design by William Robertson. He was also the architect of the Elgin Court House.

Newmarket Close (130 High Street)

The graveyard of St Giles church was, through the early centuries, the central location for Elgin’s weekly market.

A more spacious market area for traders was created when the Plainstones were laid out in 1787. However, it wasn’t until 1851 that, with the building of the New Market, traders had the benefit of a covered market.

The market buildings stretched all the way to South Street and included a theatre which attracted touring and local companies.

The arches between the pillars in this close are bricked up, but they once housed the stalls of the New Market.

The Heart of the High Street

At the heart of Elgin High Street are the Plainstones and St Giles church.

There has been a church dedicated to St Giles on the site for more than 800 years. The graceful new St Giles Church which you can see today opened in 1827. A symbol of Elgin’s new prosperity and self-confidence and now regarded as one of the finest neoclassical buildings in Scotland.

Even before the first church stood on the Plainstones a Pictish stone dominated the site, marking it out as a special place.

The elegant fountain in front of the church has been erected on the site of the old tolbooth. The Great War memorial, nearby, was unveiled in 1921.

Every town had its mercat cross, erected at the heart of the market place. It served as a meeting place, a place for public announcements or to celebrate important events.

Elgin’s cross is first mentioned in 1365, and may have originally stood in St Giles kirkyard where the markets were held.

In 1792 the Muckle Cross was dismantled. The lion from the top – thought to date from around 1630 – was preserved. The cross that is in place today was erected in 1888, and said to be a replica of the medieval cross. The original lion was placed on the top.

The Dandy Lion sculpture by Vik Quickly is a 7ft colourful sculpture of a lovable character. The sculpture is a play on words, representing different elements of Elgin’s past and is a ‘must see’ for all.

Still on the plainstones, just behind the Muckle Cross, is the sculpture of the town drummer.

There is also a mounting block, or a ‘loupin’-on stane’, used to make it easier to mount horses. It was also the milestone from which all local distances were measured.

St Giles Shopping Centre (117 High Street)

The entrance to St Giles’ Shopping Centre was once the site of the manse for the minister of St Giles Church. The elegant stonework, on this stretch of Edwardian shop fronts, has remained largely intact at higher levels.

Palace Buildings (108 High Street)

This stretch of the High Street once offered rest and refreshment for travellers in a range of inns and hotels. The Plough Inn stood on this site for many years and had stables on South Back Gait (now South Street).

The Palace Hotel was built in its place in the 1880s, incorporating some beams from the old Plough Inn. It didn’t last long as a hotel, but the building remains and is now known as Palace Buildings.

Tower Hotel (101 High Street)

Tower Hotel was possibly a 17th century stone defensible town lodging. Founded by Andrew Leslie of Glen of Rothes, it may have been a house of the Knights of St John.,

In the mid 19th century, Dr Mackay remodelled the house. All that remains is a three storey rubble built circular tower of 1634..

Red Lion Inn and Close (42-46 High Street)

The building at 42-46 High Street was the Red Lion Inn in the 18th century. The Inn that Dr Johnson reported having received his only poor meal in Scotland.

Red Lion close led to the stables.

Masonic Building and Close (15-17 High Street)

Behind the Masonic Building, 15-17 High Street, is Masonic Close. A great example of the blending of the new with the old by the former Elgin Town Council.

Bracos House and Close (7 High Street)

The carefully preserved merchants house at Number 7, High Street was built in 1694. It was the banking House of William Duff of Dipple and Braco from 1702 to 1722.  The building shows influence from abroad with its arcades, or piazzas, of open arches.

Braco’s close has retained its historic buildings and cobbled street surface.

Sheriff Court

A B-listed building, built in 1864 – 1866, in the elegant neoclassicism style. The inside is remarkably unaltered and the parapet was originally decorated with 10 urns.

Elgin Museum

Elgin Museum | Best Of Moray

The institutional buildings tended to gather at the east end of the High Street. Elgin Museum was founded in the 19th century and the A-listed building is still going strong today.

The museum is the oldest continuously independent museum in Scotland. It was opened in 1843, initially to provide a home for the numerous remarkable fossils discovered in the local sandstone quarries.

The Little Cross

The first Little Cross was erected as part of a penance by Alexander Macdonald of the Isles in 1402.

It marked the limits of the Sanctuary of the Cathedral and was also a place of punishment where ’jougs’ and ’stocks’ were situated.

The Little Cross of 1733 and the Muckle Cross are symbols of a medieval High Street that widens to a cobbled market place. The present Muckle Cross dates to 1888, however, there was a cross as early as 1365.

“A very agreeable place to live in” is the quote attributed to Daniel Defoe when he referenced his visit to Elgin.

If Defoe were to visit Elgin today, he would likely note that the well preserved medieval street plan and fine buildings, that characterise Elgin High Street, have endured and that his observation remains true today.

If Defoe was completing the same Castle to Cathedral to Cashmere tour, he would also likely note the contrast between the medieval streets and the comparatively green and spacious Cathedral precinct and grounds.

Cathedral | castle to cathedral to cashmere

In 1224, the foundation stone of the new Elgin Cathedral was ceremoniously laid. Now standing as one of the most glorious ruins in Scotland, “the lantern of the North”, remains a must see attraction in Moray. A significant attraction on the Castle to Cathedral to Cashmere tour.

Elgin Cathedral was a simple cruciform building. After it was damaged by fire in 1270 the choir doubled in length and a Chapter House was built.

In 1390, the “Wolf Of Badenoch”, son of King Robert II, burned the Cathedral and the towns of Elgin and Forres after being excommunicated by the Bishop of Moray. The resultant repairs included the rebuilding of the central tower and the Chapter House.

After the Reformation in 1560, the Cathedral was effectively redundant.

The lead was stripped from the roofs in 1567 and the choir roof collapsed in 1637. In 1711, the central tower collapsed, destroying the North transept.

Whilst much of the Cathedral has crumbled away, the main 13th century construction still remains.

The massive West towers provide an imposing entrance for visitors. It invites further exploration of the tombs and effigies in the choir chapel.

The 15th century octagonal Chapter House with its large traceried windows is, with the exception of the monastic Chapter House at Incholm Abbey, unique in Scotland. It compliments the external wall of the South transept from the original build.

Bishops House

Large cathedrals such as Elgin had many chapel altars and daily services and required an ongoing supply of canons. The canons would be assisted by a number of qualified chaplains and vicars.

Bishop Bricius’s chapter (1203) of eight clerics consisted of the dean, precentor, treasurer, chancellor, archdeacon and three ordinary canons.

By 1390, the number of clerics increased to 18.

A  chanonry with a substantial wall, over 3.5 metres high, 2 metres thick and around 820 metres in length, enclosed the cathedral and manses. It separated the church community from the laity.

The surviving Panns Port illustrates the portcullis defences of the gate-houses. It was one of four gatehouses incorporated within the chanonry wall.

What is clear, is that chanonry was a fortified structure allowing the bishops, canons and guests the opportunity to practise freely within it’s walled structure.

In 1390, however, the charnory defences proved ineffective. The burning of the cathedral, by the “Wolf of Badenoch”, included 18 manses of the resident canons.

In 1489 the cathedral records show a chanonry still lacking many of its manses. The chapter ordered that 13 canons, including the precentor, should immediately “erect, construct, build, and duly repair” their manses.

The Manse of the Precentor, and now historically recorded as the “Bishop’s House”, is now partially ruined and dated 1557.

Remains of the Dean’s Manse and the Archdeacon’s Manse are now part of private buildings.

Biblical Garden

The creation of the garden, the first of its kind in Scotland, is particularly appropriate, as Moray has, for over fourteen centuries, played an important role in the development and changing fortunes of the church.

The biblical garden is a themed garden, 3 acres in size and adjacent to the cathedral in King Street. It is planned that every plant mentioned in the bible will be grown in this garden. There are plaques describing the plants and the relevant parts in the bible. The garden’s paved pathways form a Celtic cross with a sculpture, representing Jesus, the only figure depicted in white, meeting the Samaritan woman at the well at the center.

The gardens are open from May to September. As well as offering the visitor an ever changing experience as the garden transitions through the summer, it also provides a practical training facility for the students of  horticulture at Moray College.

The biblical garden is believed to be the largest biblical garden in Europe, possibly the world.

Cashmere | castle to cathedral to cashmere

The Johnstons of Elgin woollen mill was founded on the picturesque banks of the River Lossie in 1797.

The mill is the final stage of the Castle to Cathedral to Cashmere tour.

By the mid-19th century the mill was creating some of the finest cashmere, wool, and tweed products in the world.

A tour of the mill highlights the importance of both the mills position by the river’s soft water, and the emphasis placed on preserving the skills required for a cashmere process that hasn’t changed much in 200 years.

The largest employer in the area, Johnstons success is underpinned, through generations of families, by a cohort of skilled craftsmen and women that is the envy of its competitors.

In recognition of its export achievements, standards and employment, the company won the gold award at the prestigious UK Fashion and Textile awards in 2011. It has a Royal Warrant by HRH The Prince of Wales.

The mill produces vast amounts of cashmere for a variety of international luxury labels as well as its own brand of clothing, homeware and accessories, many of which can be found on the rails and shelves of the mill shop.

Johnstons of Elgin is the second oldest family business in Scotland. It has a unique mix of history and community, and is one of the most prominent mills in the world, playing an integral part in the luxury textiles industry.

Elgin today is a city steeped in history; ruined castle on a hill, classical town centre, award winning museum and mill, restored 18th century town houses and wynds and a beautiful cathedral. Elements that are perfectly captured by the Castle to Cathedral to Cashmere tour.