THE HISTORIC crown tower at St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh may have been built in a bid to gain favour with the Pope, it has been revealed.

New research into the original oak timber used to build the bell tower has uncovered previously unknown details about its construction.

The Kirk, on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, was founded in 1124 by King David I, but it only achieved collegiate status in 1467 under Pope Paul II.

Analysis of timbers in the five-storey bell-frame within the tower has now revealed that the trees were felled in the Royal Forest of Darnaway, in Morayshire, during the winters of 1453/54 and 1459/60.

The samples, taken before lockdown, suggest the tower was constructed between 1460 and 1467 -- the period when the Kirk was being aggrandised in an effort to gain collegiate status -- and not the 14th century as many thought.

The trees, which were up to 300 years old when felled, were from the same source as those used in the Chapel Royal at Stirling Castle.

Historic Environment Scotland (HES) commissioned Dr Coralie Mills of the South East Scotland Oak Dendrochronology project (SESOD) to recover tree-ring data from timbers in the tower and determine the date of its construction.

Dr Mills said: “Discovering the date and provenance of the timbers in the tower at St Giles’, and allowing a new insight into the medieval history of our native woods, has been a highlight of my career as a dendrochronologist in Scotland.

“The mid-15th century was a pivotal time when Scotland turned to Scandinavia for most of its timber supply, but this research shows that Darnaway still had reserves of old growth oak, by then a very scarce and valuable resource in Scotland.

“Furthermore, the St Giles’ timbers match closely with other material from reused timber in the Chapel Royal at Stirling Castle, which is also thought to have come from Darnaway.

“These results enhance our understanding of St Giles’ construction history and provide valuable insights into the medieval timber supply in Scotland.”

She added: “A lot of other work was going on to extend and enhance St Giles’ in the mid 15th century, but we didn’t know when this structure in the tower was built.

“It appears to be connected with the work to aggrandise the Kirk in support of seeking collegiate status, which had previously been refused. Collegiate status allowed them to have a standing staff of clerics praying to God on behalf of the patrons, who saw this as a pathway to Heaven.”

In the mid-15th century, the Royal Forest of Darnaway was one of the last remaining reserves of old growth oak timber in Scotland.

With high quality native-grown oak scarce in Scotland, the nation largely turned to Scandinavia as a source.

While Darnaway supplied timber to many high status buildings, including Stirling Castle, the new discovery is the first evidence of it being used at St Giles’ -- which was named after a 7th century Greek hermit.

The forest belonged to the Earls of Moray until 1455 when it was forfeited to the Crown following the Douglas’ defeat to King James II’s supporters in the Battle of Arkinholm.

James and his Queen, Mary of Guelders, may have granted timber from the forest to projects they were patrons of, including St Giles’. Thhe timber would have been transported to Edinburgh by sea to the Port of Leith.

Dr. Kirsty Owen, Deputy Head of Archaeology at HES said: “This discovery at St Giles’ demonstrates that dendrochronological research has the potential to significantly enhance our understanding of our historic buildings, which in turn will assist in their conservation.”

John Andrew, Member of the St Giles’ Kirk Session and Convenor of the committee responsible for the building fabric, said: “The investigation and subsequent discovery of the history of the ancient timbers in the crown tower at St Giles’ has uncovered another key element in the fascinating history of this great and iconic building.

“The continuing research into the history of St Giles’ will continue to improve our understanding on how the building was constructed and will inform how the building will be conserved, and maintained for generations of worshippers and visitors in the future.”

John Lawson, Edinburgh’s City Archaeologist, added: “This fascinating research into the original timber used to build the bell tower of St Giles’ has given us new insight into the Kirk, a building that we thought we knew so well.

“This has been an incredible piece of work which has helped shed light on the long-asked question of exactly when and how the present tower was constructed.

“St Giles’ Kirk has changed in many ways over the last 900 years and until now various dates had been given for its construction, from the 14th century onwards. This research now confirms a 15th century date and highlights the importance of undertaking archaeological investigations in our historic buildings.”