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  • Writer's pictureDonna Hechler Porter

A Walk Back in Time: Dunkeld Cathedral

This article was originally published on March 4, 2019 on my older and original website.

"Every man of us has all the centuries in him." John Morley

So, we all know I do a LOT of genealogy.

If it's not genealogy, then it's reading or writing about the past. I also see a lot of pictures, but every now and then one awakens something deep within me in a mysterious, almost mystical way.

Such was the day I was researching Sir John Stewart and his second wife, Lady Eleanora Sinclair Stewart. John was born about 1440 to Lady Joan Beaufort and her second husband, Sir James Stewart, also known as the Black Night of Lorn. Joan had first been married to King James I of Scotland who was subsequently assassinated in 1437. Thus, Sir John Stewart was a stepbrother of King James II of Scotland, and his mother was a woman of some means in her own right as well. Both Sir John and his wife, Lady Eleanora, were buried in Dunkeld Cathedral, and, of course, Dugal McQueen is said to possibly be a descendant of both Sir John and Lady Eleanora through his mother, Anne Mackintosh McQueen.

And thus, one day I opened up a picture of the ruined part of the structure.

the nave looking west

My first thought was - "I have been here before." And even weirder, was the feeling of walking down the center.

Yes - well - we all know I have an over active imagination. But I am aware of such, and so I generally discount these sorts of events. This one, however, was somehow different. And, suffice it to say . . . I was now on my quest to find out more about Dunkeld Cathedral.

Ancient Origins

As with so many other Scottish cathedrals, the site of Dunkeld Cathedral, on the north bank of the River Tay in Dunkeld, Perth and Kinross, Scotland, was holy ground long before construction of the cathedral proper began in the 13th century. About 730 AD, Columba, later to become St. Columba, an Irish abbot and missionary for the Catholic faith, led an expedition to the site of what is now Dunkeld but was then known as Alba. He, along with others, built simple wattle huts of red stone for living quarters.

One hundred and twenty-eights years later the original wattle huts were in bad need of repair, and Kenneth MacAlpin, the King of the Scots and of the Picts, set about rebuilding them. It was also about this time that Causantin mac Fergusa built a more substantial monastery of reddish sandstone. And then, because of increasing Viking attacks on the west coast, the relics of St. Columba were moved from there to Dunkeld and buried under the chancel steps to keep them safe. Dunkeld then became an important religious center of Scotland, and the dove motif symbolic of St. Columba can be seen in both the east window and on the specially woven chancel carpet.

The Picts being converted to Christianity by Saint Columba

by William Brassey Hole, about 1899

In the Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Growth Continues and a Cathedral is Built

In 1260 a cathedral was begun on the site in a square-stone style with largely grey sandstone. It would continue to be built in stages for the next 250 years, and as a result, the cathedral has both Gothic and Norman elements. The restored choir is the oldest part of the original church, having been completed in 1350. Some of the original red stone can be seen in the eastern gable of the cathedral.

In 1512, Sir John Stewart died and was buried in the Dunkeld Cathedral Graveyeard. Lady Eleanora followed him in death six years later in 1518, and she, too, was buried there.

Dunkeld Cathedral and Graveyard

Protestant Reformation

Of course, as we have learned with other Catholic places of worship, the Scottish Reformation sought not freedom to worship as one chose, but the total destruction of all things Catholic. Dunkeld suffered the same as other Catholic places of worship, and in 1560 it too was desecrated and damaged. About this time, St. Columba's bones were, in fact, moved and taken to Ireland, although it is believed there are still some of his bones, or relics, buried within the cathedral grounds.

Forty years later, about 1600,the chancel was repaired and re-roofed to serve as Dunkeld's parish church - this time under the headship of the Church of Scotland.

Fate was not Done

On 21 August 1689, during the first Jacobite Uprising, the Jacobites, fresh from their victory at Killecrankie to the north, attacked government forces based in Dunkeld. A long, bloody battle ensued, and much of the town, including the repaired parts of the Cathedral, were burned down.


Although partly in ruins, the cathedral is in regular use today by the Church of Scotland, but it is open to the public. The name cathedral is a misnomer, however, as it is no longer one. In the wake of the Scottish Reformation, Scotland no longer has cathedrals or bishops, but the names of such places were not changed.

the nave looking east


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