ONE of my favourite Scottish trivia quiz questions is this: which name of a Scottish professional football club contains a falsitude?

You might immediately think of Dundee United, because clearly there’s another club along the road at Dens Park so Dundee cannot be “United”, or you may say what about those clubs that claim to be “Athletic” when the evidence is their players are anything but.

When I say “falsitude”, I mean more of a wee fib than a downright lie, so the answer is Elgin City – because as anyone who kens anything about Scotland knows, this country of ours has eight official cities recognised by monarch and law and Elgin is not one of them.

But way back in the day, this town now numbering less than 30,000 people was acclaimed as a city because it had a cathedral – a magnificent one, as we shall see – and jealously protected that status for centuries.

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When I set out to write this series about the history of the ancient towns of Scotland I gave you a list of the likely contenders for a column. I have already written about Falkirk, Arbroath, Ayr, Paisley, Dumbarton, Dumfries and Lanark and still to come are Stornoway, Hamilton, Kilmarnock, St Andrews, Arbroath, Brechin, Montrose, Forfar, Kilwinning, Irvine and Renfrew.

I have had a special plea to include Greenock in the series and I will certainly consider it but, as far as I can see, though mighty important, doesn’t meet my criteria. To be included, towns have to have played a part in the history of Scotland and have been established as a town, usually a burgh, before the Reformation in 1560.

If there’s evidence otherwise about Greenock please email me at The same goes for anyone who wants to promote their town for a column – but I make the rules and I can break them!

Elgin, the northernmost of my towns on the mainland, truly is an ancient town. Unlike others, there is no major evidence of a prehistoric settlement at the location of Elgin itself. However, excavations within the last few years at nearby Lochinver Quarry suggest the area around Elgin was occupied by native tribes during the Bronze and Iron Ages, from 2000 BC to 100 AD.

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Quite incredibly, in 2022 it was claimed that the quarry site might even be an indicator to the long-lost site of the famous Battle of Mons Graupius between the Roman invaders under Agricola and the Caledonian tribes under Calgacus, the first Scot ever to be named in written history – by Agricola’s biographer Tacitus – and the supposed originator of the much-quoted line: “The Romans make a wasteland and call it peace.”

The Lochinver findings by a team led by Archaeological Research Services Ltd show the Elgin area was settled by people who built iron furnaces, storage pits, timber enclosures and cremation burials. That has been an exciting enough development but finding the site of the most famous battle in Scotland’s ancient history would be astounding – and great news for local tourism.

As with so many places in the first millennium in Scotland, there is no written record of any development at Elgin but, as with other ancient towns, it sprang into written history early in the second millennium, due to its strategic location, religious importance and links to royalty.

Before that period, there is little doubt Elgin was a centre of both the Picts and Christianity. That is confirmed by the existence of the Elgin Pillar, which stands in the ground of the cathedral.

Discovered in 1823 during the preparatory works for the construction of St Giles Church in the High Street, the pillar is a granite Pictish stone some 6ft 8ins (2.08m) in height that dates from the ninth century. Beautifully decorated with carved Pictish and Christian symbols, the pillar alone shows that Elgin was central to the development of the area that became Moray.

Though the exact location is not known, Bothnagowan (Pitgaveney) near Elgin is most often cited as the location where Macbeth killed Duncan and seized the throne of Alba in 1040 after Duncan invaded Moray, of which Macbeth was Mormaer or Earl. Details about the battle itself are also vague.

Around 1130, in the reign of David I of Scotland, there was a revolt by Oengus of Moray which was savagely put down by David’s lieutenants, who may have settled around Elgin which was already a centre of religion.

The National: King David carved on the wall of the Royston Cave

King David had a castle built on what is now Lady Hill, and there seems little doubt he fortified the location and the settlement grew around it with churches already built at Birnie and Spynie. The construction of a castle and kirks may have been the reason David made Elgin a burgh before 1151, when the town is first mentioned as Elgin in the royal records.

There is considerable dispute as to where the name of Elgin comes from – I prefer the derivation from Gaelic which means “beautiful place”. By the early 13th century it was a centre of the local diocese and bishops of Moray made their home there.

Due mainly to the good hunting locally, Elgin began to receive royal patronage, and in 1224 King Alexander II gave a charter to the town that awarded land for the building of a cathedral. This would become the most important building in the town’s history.

The National:

In his authoritative book Scottish Cathedrals And Abbeys (1901), Dugald Butler attributes the establishment of Elgin Cathedral to Bishop Andrew de Moravia (the Latin name for Moray) and states: “The Cathedral of the Holy Trinity was founded in 1224 on the site of an older church with the same dedication and the work proceeded under Bishop Andrew’s supervision during the 18 remaining years of his life.”

We do not know what that original cathedral looked like, for in 1270 disaster struck when the building was destroyed by fire, the cause of which is not recorded.

During his conquest of Scotland in 1296, King Edward I of England took his troops into Moray, which was a centre of resistance to him, and stayed at Elgin, recording that it was “a good town with a good castle”.

Longshanks took an even greater interest in the town when Bishop David de Moravia joined in Robert the Bruce’s rebellion against English occupation – the petulant king wrote to the Pope and demanded that David be excommunicated, which he was, though this was later withdrawn.

Bishop David and his successors built the second Elgin Cathedral and what a magnificent building it was, unique in design amid all the cathedrals and abbeys built in Scotland in the medieval and Middle Ages with its distinctive two western towers. Not for nothing was it known as the Lantern of the North.

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In the late 14th century, Bishop Alexander Bur (or Barr) wrote to King Robert III that his cathedral was “the pride of the land, the glory of the realm, the delight of wayfarers and strangers, a praise and boast among foreign nations, lofty in its towers without, splendid in its appointments within, its countless jewels and rich vestments, and the multitude of its priests, serving God in righteousness”.

He may have been biased but no-one disagreed. He was writing after a further disaster. In 1390, the king’s brother, Alexander Stewart, the Earl of Buchan, known as the “Wolf of Badenoch”, attacked Elgin in revenge for Bishop Bur’s findings against him. The Wolf was supposedly in charge of the rule of law in the north of Scotland but used his powers to make himself rich and suppress the people. He went too far when he deserted his wife, the Countess of Ross, who appealed to Bishop Bur for justice, which he granted to her.

According to Butler, the earl “descended from the hills with a band of wild Scots (ie, Highland clansmen), and burned a considerable part of the town of Elgin – St Giles Church, the Maison Dieu, the manses of the clergy, and the cathedral itself.

“The bishop appealed for aid and reparation, and the Wolf was compelled to yield – but on condition that he should make satisfaction to the bishop and church of Moray and obtain absolution from the Pope. He was absolved by the Bishop of St Andrews in the Blackfriars Church at Perth.”

The cathedral was rebuilt but was burned again several times, and by the 1500s was showing signs of serious deterioration – the central tower had to be rebuilt in 1538. After the Reformation it fell into disuse, accelerated by the removal of lead from its roofs on the orders of Regent Moray in 1568. Cromwell’s troops were particularly destructive in the 1650s and the collapse of the central tower in 1711 completed the process.

Now all that is left are the ruins, which are evidence of how grand the cathedral was.

Butler stated: “The existing ruins testify to the former splendour of the completed structure, which was said to be a building of Gothic architecture inferior to few in Europe … the passing away of such a colossal work of beauty is grievous, and not less so when it is recalled that the cathedral expressed the devoted labour of centuries.”

Elgin’s tourism business owes much to the presence of the cathedral but there have been plenty of other historic attractions built in the town that called itself a “cathedral city” for centuries. The Bishop’s House, for example, somehow survived all the predations directed at the cathedral.

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The current Elgin Academy is the direct descendant of the grammar school that served the town in the Middle Ages, though all traces of the original building have been lost.

Always a market town, Elgin experienced considerable commercial growth in the late 18th and early 19th century and most of the fine buildings scattered around the town date from that period of growth which was greatly ameliorated by the introduction of the railways.

The 19th century also saw the legal establishment of whisky distilleries in the area. Stretching into Speyside, there are more than a dozen distilleries within 30 miles of Elgin.

Its importance as an administrative centre for Moray was confirmed when Elgin became the county town – some histories still refer to Elginshire. And it is that position as chief town of the area that makes some people still talk of the cathedral city of Elgin.

At the very end of the 19th century, two local football clubs, Rovers and Vale of Lossie, amalgamated in 1893. There had already been an Elgin City club but it had folded, so the new club adopted the name and the club continues to this day. No citizen of the town has ever complained about the name.