New tree ring dating survey reveals previously unknown details about the construction of St Giles Cathedral

01 June 2020
New research into the original timber used to build the bell tower of St Giles’ has uncovered previously unknown details about the construction of Edinburgh’s iconic kirk (also known as the High Kirk of Edinburgh) as it approaches its 900th anniversary.

Historic Environment Scotland (HES) provided funding for the South East Scotland Oak Dendrochronology project (SESOD), led by Dr Coralie Mills, to investigate the five-storey timber frame within the bell tower of St Giles’ High Kirk on the Royal Mile, which is part of the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh World Heritage site.

Recovering valuable data

The aim of the research was to recover valuable tree-ring data and determine the date of its construction. While founded in 1124, the church has undergone many additions and alterations over time, particularly in the 19th century.

Dendrochronology – the scientific method of dating tree rings to the exact year they were formed – was conducted on samples taken from a selection of oak timbers in the bell-frame, which has refined the probable date for completion of the St Giles’ bell tower to between 1460 and 1467, when the church achieved collegiate status from Pope Paul II.

The testing was able to establish two felling dates for timber in the frame - in the winters of 1453-54 and 1459-60. The research 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.

Taking samples at St Giles, © Hamish Darrah
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A career highlight

Dr Coralie Mills, the dendrochronologist who carried out the work, said: “Discovering the date and provenance of the timbers in the tower at St Giles’, and allowing a new insight into the medieval history of our native woods, has been a highlight of my career as a dendrochronologist in Scotland.

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“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. 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.”

Providing key clues

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.  

“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. “

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