By Coralie Mills & Hamish Darrah
Few people are aware of the massive five-storey timber frame hidden within the tower under the iconic crown spire of St Giles Kirk in the heart of Edinburgh’s old town. Analysis of the tree-ring patterns, the science of dendrochronology, has revealed the early date and unexpected source of these timbers. This was undertaken as part of Dendrochronicle’s SESOD (SE Scotland Oak Dendrochronology) research project to develop the regional native oak tree-ring record. We have sampled timbers in several historic buildings across Edinburgh, the Lothians and the Borders, including St Giles. The SESOD project is ongoing and results will be fully published in due course.
Felling dates and St Giles Kirk building history
Core samples were taken from the timber frame before lockdown. Two felling dates were established from analysis of the cores, in the winters of AD 1453/54 and 1459/60. This gives some very specific dating for the frame which was previously of unknown date.
The timber frame is part of the modification of an earlier tower at St Giles of which some masonry survives, known to have been present by 1387 and on which storks nested in 1416 according to the Scotichronicon, a medieval history of Scotland. This may be the last recorded instance of storks nesting in Britain, topical this year with the first successful hatching of white stork chicks at the Knepp Estate in southern England.
The new dendro-dates show this tower was greatly altered in the mid-15th century at a time when many other structural changes were being made at St Giles. The new dates infer the completion of the crown spire as being after 1460 and probably by 1467 when the church was granted collegiate status from the pope, although the crown spire we see today was repaired and much altered in 1653.
The surprising source of the timber
Even more exciting though was the timber source, revealed through comparison of the St Giles tree-ring data with reference chronologies of known origin. The timbers were brought from one of the last remaining extensive medieval reserves of old growth oak in Scotland, the Royal Forest of Darnaway, in Morayshire, including several from trees over 300 years old when felled. The survival of old growth oak at Darnaway into the mid-15th century is a testament to careful management of the forest by the Earls of Moray over a long period. The St Giles tree-ring data matched extremely closely with data from the late 14th century roof of Randolph’s Hall at Darnaway Castle.
By the mid-fifteenth century most of Scotland’s timber supply had switched from the dwindling native resources to Scandinavia. The majority of dendro-dated historic buildings in Edinburgh and the Lothians have imported Scandinavian timber in them, so this discovery is a rare example of use of scarce, good quality native oak here at this time. Timber would have been transported by sea to Edinburgh, probably through the port of Leith.
Darnaway Forest is known to have supplied timber to other high status Scottish medieval building projects, including Stirling Castle, but this is the most recent example so far detected through dendrochronology and it was not known that Darnaway had supplied St Giles. Shortly after these timbers were felled Darnaway Forest was closed to allow its recovery.
Royal patrons of St Giles Kirk
Amongst the patrons of the extensive mid-15th century construction work at St Giles are James II and, following his untimely death in 1460, his widow Mary of Guelders, who was regent of Scotland between 1460 and 1463 for their son, the infant James III. Their arms appear on shields on The King’s Pillar in the choir of St Giles, interpreted as a tribute to the late king by his devout queen.
The Forest of Darnaway was forfeited to the crown after the defeat of Archibald, the Black Douglas Earl of Moray, at the Battle of Arkinholm in 1455, which may explain why timber from Darnaway was used to build the bell-frame in the tower at St Giles, through this royal patronage.
Although the timber was felled when James II was still alive, its supply to St Giles may have occurred when Mary of Guelders was regent, between 1460-1463, after James’ death in the summer of 1460. This question could be investigated further with more sampling as the precise felling dates are from the lower levels of the structure.
Further evidence which supports the ascertained construction date of the tower are the bells from the tower itself. The oldest surviving ‘Ave’ or ‘Vesper’ bell dates to 1452 and the ‘Great Bell’, which was melted down and re-cast in the 19th century, originally carried the date of 1460. The ‘Great Bell’ was cast in Flanders and bore the royal coat of arms of Geulderland which is possibly further evidence of Mary of Guelders’ influence on the works at St Giles.
So, while we didn’t find what we were looking for, that is timber grown in SE Scotland, we are thrilled by this discovery. It has provided some really valuable new data to extend the native oak tree-ring coverage for NE Scotland, as well as significant new information about the history of St Giles Kirk and the Forest of Darnaway.
Thanks go to HES for the grant which made this research possible, to St Giles Kirk Session for permission to sample, to John Gilbert for information about Darnaway Forest history and to the many people who have helped with the SESOD project.