Welcome to Elgin
The historic city of Elgin is the capital and principal town of Moray, in Scotland’s north east and grew up along a low ridge guarded on three sides by the meandering River Lossie. The region of Moray developed with a great degree of independence due to its geographical isolation; protected by the mighty River Spey to the east and the Findhorn to the west, both unbridged and almost unfordable throughout the middle ages, with the mountains of the Cairngorms to the south and the Moray Firth to the North. In many ways the beautiful town of Elgin, although today easily accessible by road from Inverness (30 miles to the west), retains the stately feel of a once powerful regional capital.
Since earliest times man has forged a living from Moray’s rivers and lochs teeming with fish and fertile soil. Some of the earliest signs of settlement are the cairns and standing stones at Upper and Lower Lagmore. The early peoples, who built these stones, developed from loose tribal confederations into ever more sophisticated societies through the centuries. Moray was eventually incorporated into the Kingdom of the Picts, which at its height covered most of Scotland. At Forres, 10 miles west of Elgin, Sueno’s Stone, the tallest and perhaps most complex piece of early medieval stone in Scotland, is believed to originate from the time of the last days of the Picts. The fierce battle scene, which is so beautifully depicted on this close to 7 metre high structure, is believed to be a battle between the local warlords of Moray against the encroaching Kingdom of Scotland in the 9th century. Despite their fierce independence the lords of Moray were brought into the realm of Scotland through marriage and treaty.
The most famous of Moray’s medieval lords is the infamous Macbeth. At this time Elgin was probably little more than a number of wooden houses clustered around the foot of a castle perched on Lady Hill, where the ruins of the later castle lie. As heir to the hereditary province of Moray, Macbeth may have grown up here. Certainly Macbeth wounded, possibly in battle, the unpopular King Duncan around Pitgaveney, a stone’s throw northeast of Elgin. Duncan was brought to Elgin where he died, almost certainly in the castle. Macbeth then seized the kingship and ruled for the following 14 years before he himself was defeated at the battle of the Seven Sleepers. His final years were spent defending his power base in Moray until he was slain in 1057 by Duncan’s son, Malcolm.
In 1224 King David I raised the status of Elgin to Royal Burgh and the town became the site of the Bishop of Moray, both of which undoubtedly increased the town’s prosperity. This period also saw the development of Elgin Cathedral and Elgin Castle. The Cathedral, the 2nd largest ecclesiastical building in Scotland and considered perhaps the most beautiful in the British Isles, became known as the Lantern of the North, a title which reflects Scottish Monarchs attempts at bringing law and order to this unruly part of the country. The Bishops of Elgin lived just to the north of the town in Spynie Palace, a tower built in 1470, which also briefly accommodated Mary Queen of Scots. On the other hand Edward I, king of England and self styled ‘Hammer of the Scots’, saw fit to stay in Elgin Castle in 1296 on one of his vainglorious tours of occupied Scotland.
Elgin suffered a more serious setback than the gloating of an occupying king in the following century as a result of a villain from closer to home. Alexander Stewart, Lord of Badenoch, better known as the Wolf of Badenoch due to his brutal rule of his domain in Speyside, was one of the most appalling tyrants Scotland has ever seen. After he abandoned his wife, Lady Ross, she appealed to the Bishop of Moray who found in her favour. In fury Alexander marched on Elgin and torched the town, its cathedral and castle.
Despite a number of setbacks caused by other greedy and unruly locals who came to plunder, it would not be fair to say that the town went into decline until much later. For a town whose lifeblood for centuries had been its cathedral and ecclesiastic aristocracy the 17th century reformation, which ended centuries of worship at Elgin Cathedral, must have been a hammer blow. As a result of this shift Elgin Cathedral survives today only as a spectacular ruin.
In the late 18th century the city of Elgin would rise again. Scotland’s involvement in the British Empire brought untold wealth to these shores. Elgin reinvented itself as a town for the newly enriched lords and entrepreneurs of the era. Not only did large neoclassical mansions begin to spring up but older buildings, especially along High Street, were refurbished. Later the arrival of the railway on the line between Aberdeen and Inverness increased the prosperity of the town. Part of Elgin’s newfound success is based on the many nearby distilleries which produce the famous Speyside single malt whiskies, making Elgin an essential part of any whisky trail. The rejuvenation of Elgin in these past centuries with such style and grace has made it a popular place to both live and visit and one of Scotland’s most attractive towns.