Tree ring study unlocks history of St Giles' Cathedral ahead of 900th anniversary

A tree ring study of the ancient timbers used to build the bell tower of St Giles’ Cathedral has unlocked new details about the kirk as it approaches its 900th anniversary.

A study of tree rings in the ancient timbers used to build the bell tower at St Giles Cathedral has shed new light on the history of the historic kirk. PIC: HES.
A study of tree rings in the ancient timbers used to build the bell tower at St Giles Cathedral has shed new light on the history of the historic kirk. PIC: HES.

The research has been able to pinpoint when the trees were felled for the ambitious construction project with it now known the oak was cut over two spells from a native forest in Moray.

As a result, it is now believed the St Giles’ bell tower was finished between 1460 and 1467 with the study being able to refine the date for the first time.

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The research has also revealed that the timber was sourced from one of the last remaining reserves of old growth oak timber in Scotland, the Royal Forest of Darnaway, in Morayshire, and that many of these trees would have been over 300 years old when felled.

John Lawson, Edinburgh’s City Archaeologist and supporter of the project. said: “This fascinating research into the original timber used to build the bell tower of St Giles’ has given us new insight into the Kirk, a building that we thought we knew so well.

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“This has been an incredible piece of work which has helped shed light on the long-asked question of exactly when and how the present tower was constructed.

“St Giles’ Kirk has changed in many ways over the last 900 years and until now various dates had been given for its construction from 14th century onwards. This research now confirms a 15th century date and highlights the importance of undertaking archaeological investigations in our historic buildings. “

While founded in 1124, the church has undergone many additions and alterations over time, particularly in the 19th century.

Dr Coralie Mills, the dendrochronologist who carried out the work for the South East Scotland Oak Dendrochronology project (SESOD), said the finds had been a highlight of her career.

She said: “The mid-15th century was a pivotal time when Scotland turned to Scandinavia for most of its timber supply, but this research shows that Darnaway still had reserves of old growth oak, by then a very scarce and valuable resource in Scotland.

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“Furthermore, the St Giles’ timbers match closely with other material from reused timber in the Chapel Royal at Stirling Castle, which is also thought to have come from Darnaway.

“These results enhance our understanding of St Giles’ construction history and provide valuable insights into the medieval timber supply in Scotland.”

The work was funded in part by Historic Environment Scotland.

Dr. Kirsty Owen, Deputy Head of Archaeology at HES said: “We’re delighted to have supported the work of the SESOD project through our archaeology grants programme, which is part of our ongoing commitment to raise the profile of archaeological science and its practical role in the conservation of our heritage.

“This discovery at St Giles’s demonstrates that dendrochronological research has the potential to significantly enhance our understanding of our historic buildings, which in turn will assist in their conservation.”

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