There’s been fire and fury within its walls, a raging woman who threw a stool at a preacher and started a riot, the looming presence of fiery John Knox and the solemn dignity of the Queen’s Scottish farewell.

St Giles’ Cathedral has towered over the heart of Edinburgh for more than 900 years, eyewitness to some of the most defining moments in Scottish history.

But trying to condense such a long history of upheaval and change for a modern audience has posed a challenge for tour guides and its 1.4 million annual visitors alike.

Now a distinctly modern collaboration has propelled the 12th century cathedral into the world of artificial intelligence and video games, to bring its rich history to life for the digital age.

The landmark cathedral has been recreated in a game that has explored the use of AI to translate its complex heritage and winding story, and to help ease gamers through its centuries of evolution.

Dr Tim Peacock, Director of University of Glasgow Games and Gaming Lab, views the new video game launched to mark St Giles' Cathedral’s 900th anniversaryDr Tim Peacock, Director of University of Glasgow Games and Gaming Lab, views the new video game launched to mark St Giles' Cathedral’s 900th anniversary (Image: Martin Shields)

Designed to engage a modern audience increasingly used to online games and ‘touch button’ information, the free game takes them from the cathedral’s early beginnings in the age of King David 1, through the era of John Knox, and up to 21st century efforts to conserve its precious architecture.

On the way, users ‘build’ St Giles’ as they answer questions and learn about its history and architecture. They unlock new levels as they go before finally virtually reconstructing the cathedral’s famous outline as it stands today.

The free game, playable in web browsers and in the Cathedral itself, is a shift away from the traditional text and sign-based interpretation methods which normally guide visitors through the cathedral.

Launched to help mark the cathedral’s 900th year, the game is the result of a ground-breaking collaboration, Project HeritAIge, involving the cathedral, the University of Glasgow's Games and Gaming Lab, and game development studio Education Evolve.

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Hosted by the University of Glasgow’s Advanced Research Centre (ARC), one of the project’s key aims was to explore the responsible use of AI to crunch cultural heritage and historical data to produce a game which can be played by users around the world.

Louise Arnold, Business Engagement Executive, Interface, which facilitated the project, said: “The challenge facing St Giles’ Cathedral is one facing many visitor attractions today – how do you attract more visitors on any given day?

“It's amazing to now see the working prototype of the interactive game, enabling visitors to delve into a virtual world of history and heritage.”

Stephen Preston, Deputy Head of Heritage and Culture at St Giles’ Cathedral, said: “I knew showing how the Cathedral was built had to be an interactive experience and probably digital.

“Thanks to Interface, who put us in touch with the future Project Lead Dr Tim Peacock and his team, we will be realising this vision.”

St Giles’ was founded in 1124 and was dedicated to Saint Giles, a 6th century hermit and patron saint of, among others, disabled people.

In the 14th Century following the Declaration of Arbroath, a letter to the Pope affirming Scotland’s independence saw the English Kings, Edward II and later Richard II send armies north to destroy St Giles’.

Despite their efforts, much of the building survived although black scorch marks from the fires set by invading armies could still be seen on some of its pillars until the 19th century.

The cathedral was elevated to collegiate status by Pope Paul II in 1467 and was at the heart of the Reformation in 1559 with John Knox preaching from its pulpit.

Later efforts by Charles I to impose a Scottish Prayer Book in St Giles prompted one member of the congregation, Jenny Geddes, to throw a stool at the minister’s head, sparking a riot which in turn ignited the beginning of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.

Having survived centuries of conflict and turmoil, St Giles’ narrowly avoided being consumed by the Great Fire of Edinburgh in 1824. 

While more recently it has been the focus for solemn royal events: an estimated 30,000 people filed past the coffin of the late Queen, and King Charles returned to receive the Honours of Scotland.

The Cathedral is the latest Scottish heritage site to use modern digital technology to tell its story.

The Whithorn Trust has recently used digital reconstruction technology to create the images of 13th century bishops, while Uist Unearthed is an Augmented Reality archaeology app which enables users to visualise archaeological sites along the Hebridean Way.

While Glasgow University is at the forefront of the £5.6 million Museums in the Metaverse project, which will bring together history, heritage and culture with extended reality immersive technologies.

Backed by the UK Government’s Innovation Accelerator programme, one element will enable people to access an array of museums, sites, objects, and dynamic experiences virtually. The second part of the platform will allow virtual curators to tell stories by combining 3D objects and environments.

Matthew Leeper, of Education Evolved, which worked on the game’s development, said: “Being a part of this project, and bringing the cathedral to life in a new and innovative way, designed to engage and educate people who visit St Giles’ and visit their website around the world, has been a great initiative to be a part of.”