A warm welcome to Dunkeld Cathedral. My name is Fraser Penny and I have been the minister here since 2001. Early followers of St Columba built the first wattle and daub monastery here in the late 6th century and this place has been a sacred site ever since.
I encourage you to stay awhile and enjoy the peace of this place, the tranquility, that has been shared here by fellow travelers, visitors and Christians for over fourteen hundred years.
We have created an audio tour for you to enjoy, which you can join by scanning the QR codes on the signs around the cathedral. Each time you’ll be brought to a webpage where you can listen to information about the place and the people that lie behind its story.
As the parish church of Dunkeld, the Cathedral continues to offer a place of worship, a sense of comfort and support to our congregation and our community, to those who visit, or are just passing through.
If you would like to help preserve this wonderful place for generations to come, then I invite you to use the donate button to make a contribution.
We hope you have an enjoyable stay in this beautiful part of Perthshire, and that you find this tour helpful in understanding more of the story of this place.
Finnian the Culdee
My name’s Finnian and I am a Culdee, this was the name for a follower of St Columba. I’m not sure how to translate Culdee into your English tongue, but assume the term means servants or worshippers of God. You can think of me as a monk, though as Culdees we didn’t take monastic vows.
As you walked up to the Cathedral you will have enjoyed the views of the river Tay flowing past on its way to Perth, about a day’s walk from here.
You may also have noticed on the far bank another river, the Braan, coming to join the Tay. To the early peoples of this area, water held a fascination, and they believed that the confluence of 2 rivers was where the gods resided.
As such, this place was held as a sacred site long before I arrived here, and long before Christianity first came to Alba, the old name for this part of Scotland.
For centuries these early inhabitants, the Picts, continued in their Pagan beliefs: erecting standing stones and attending magic wells. In the 5th century, these dark days of superstition were gradually being superseded. Replacing the worship of the sun, another bright light, the shining truth of Christianity arrived, brought by my group, the Culdees, the early followers of St Columba.
This was already a sacred site, so we chose this place to build our monk cells. These looked nothing like this grand building you are in. Our cells were built of mud and wattle, and when the wind and rain came, (deep sigh) let’s just say that they make this building feel positively warm by comparison.
We started to arrive in the 6th century, and began our work of teaching and spreading the word of the gospel amongst the pictish people of these lands, and slowly but surely, we began to exert a Christian influence in and around Dunkeld.
The Dunkeld Cathedral you are visiting today is not the first church on this site. Like all cathedrals, the building has its own story of evolution, growth, changes and extensions as it has evolved and been added to over the centuries.
The first church of stone in Dunkeld was built in 729 probably by a royal successor of Columba’s kinsman Conal. It was rebuilt and extended in 820 by King Constantine of the Picts. When King Kenneth McAlpine eventually united the Pictish and Scottish kingdoms, he enlarged and rebuilt Constantine’s church in 848, and Dunkeld became the virtual head of the Christian church in Scotland.
In 849, because of repeated Viking attacks and the split between churches in Ireland and Scotland, St Columba’s bones had been moved from Iona. Some were put into the care of the Abbot of Dunkeld and kept by the high altar. Venerated as holy relics, they were said to possess special powers and when dipped into water, they made the resulting potion a powerful cure.
The cathedral you are in today, started being built in the mid thirteenth century and was finished by Bishop William Sinclair, who died in 1337.
You are standing in the oldest part of the building. This was the Choir and as usual, is aligned in an east-west direction, with the altar where St Columba’s relics would have been kept, at the east end.
Can you recognise the different architectural styles?
The Cathedral is a mixture of Norman and Gothic styles. You can tell the styles apart by looking at the shape of the arches.
Gothic architecture is highlighted by pointed or ogival arches such as are found here in the choir.
The Nave of the Cathedral, now in ruin, was begun in 1406 and was completed by Bishop Lauder, and ready for consecration in 1464. The arches found there are a mixture of Gothic and Norman. Norman arches are semi-circular and typically supported by massive columns. This part of the building is now looked after by Historic Environment Scotland.
Eskyn the Stone Mason
My name is Erskyn, and I am one of the stone masons who worked on the nave. In the 15th century we looked to the continent to learn the latest building styles and techniques whilst also using what we knew from the old Scottish architecture of the 10th and 11th centuries.
It was hard manual work, splitting and shaping stone; dressing it so it fitted into place. There was a lot of trial and error and believe me, it was a special day when I stood in this place when the building was finally finished. A Cathedral no less and it was full of colour! There were beautiful stained glass windows that cast coloured light on the walls and bounced off the simple stone floor. As lay people we were allowed to come and stand on one side of the Rood screen that separated the nave from the choir and altar. There were no seats or pews.
We couldn’t see much directly. The clergy wore impressive vestments with wonderful colour and detailing, and through the screen we could hear the Latin choral music being sung. 7 masses were said daily – the Opus Dei (meaning the work of God)– by the canons who made up the Chapter. In addition, 2 masses were celebrated by the body of the clergy each morning. I have to admit that I only ever managed to attend one complete service as the rest of the time I was too busy tidying up the site.
As we heard from Erskyn, originally there was no wall where the organ is now housed. It was only added in the 17th century to separate the Choir from the ruined Nave and enable its use as the Parish Church.
What Erskyn stood behind is called a Rood Screen, a structure that separates the Choir from the Nave. Dunkeld Cathedral’s Rood Screen would have been a wooden structure decorated with very ornate paintings of the apostles on one side, and pictures of kings, bishop and benefactors on the other.
You can find the next talk to your left, below the organ loft.