The cathedral of the Bishopric of Moray was formally established at Elgin in 1224. It is understood that the church of the Holy Trinity was already in existence when it became the cathedral. Prior to 1224 it is referred to both in a bull of Pope Honorius III and a charter of King Alexander II as the church of Holy Trinity beside Elgin. In 1224, however, the Church of the Holy Trinity had been transformed into the Cathedral Church of the Province of Moray.
"The sacred lamp had been lighted which was to blaze forth to after ages as the 'Lantern of the North'" as the magnificent ruins that remain are still affectionately known.
The noble Western Towers, unsurpassed by any western towers in the kingdom, were probably built after the dedication in 1224. In 1270 the building was seriously damaged by fire, apparently very seriously, as the cathedral had to be substantially rebuilt. To the rebuilding after the fire is ascribed the octagonal chapter house and the great enclosing outer archway of the western entrance which is undoubtably amongst the finest examples in Scotland, if not in Britain.
The rebuilding would probably have been completed before the War of Independence (1290) which put a stop to building in Scotland, and the Cathedral thus complete remained so for about a century.
In 1390 the cathedral was ruthlessly burned and almost destroyed by the son of King Robert II, the Earl of Buchan, who was better known as the Wolf of Badenoch. He had been excommunicated in 1388 and in revenge he and a gang of henchmen charged upon Elgin and burned the cathedral. The rebuilding work would have been slow as the country would have become impoverished by long wars with England. The cathedral was ablaze again in 1402 after being burned by one of the sons of the Lords of the Isles, and yet again it was rebuilt.
Around 1506 the central tower, said to have been 198 feet high, had to be rebuilt, and that work was not finished until 1538, when the cathedral was admitted to have been the finest in Scotland. On the beauty of the interior we can only surmise. Bishop Bur (1362-1397) in December 1390, writing to King Robert III of the burning of the cathedral by the Wolf of Badenoch, described it as being "the special ornament of the country, the glory of the Kingdom, the delight of strangers, the praise of visitors".
With all this dedication to rebuilding the cathedral and adding more beauty during the rebuilds, how did it come about that all this magnificence and splendour has departed, and that the cathedral, the palace of Spynie and other monastic buildings in Moray are in ruins. That is the painful story of the Reformation in Scotland of 1560, and of the following century and a quarter. When that storm swept the country, most of the clergy fled, abandoning their property. The revenues of the Roman Catholic Church were alienated and with no income to uphold the cathedral, it and other buildings of religion fell in to disrepair.
The Reformation left the cathedral unscathed, but in 1567, by order of the Privy Council, the lead was stripped off the roof. Two years later the Privy Council had second thoughts, and but for the murder of the Regent Moray in 1569 the cathedral might have been intact today. With the roof unprotected, the cathedral started to decay and in 1640 the magnificent rood screen was torn down by fanatics. Eight to twelve years later Cromwell's Covenanting soldiers destroyed the beautiful traceries in the grand west window and elsewhere. Some of their bullets are still visible in the north choir wall.
By 1668 the double aisles of the nave had disappeared as they are not shown in Slezer's view of that date. The spire of the central tower had also gone. On Easter Sunday in 1711 what remained of the tower fell, doing irreparable damage to the north walls and for almost 100 years thereafter the ruins were used as a quarry.
It was only at the beginning of the 19th century that the public awoke to the scandal and in 1809 a wall was built around the ruins. In 1820, Isaac Forsyth took the matter in hand and secured the help of the "Barons of the Exchequer", who in 1825 gave a grant for a keeper, and a cobbler named John Shanks was appointed. He, under the direction of Mr. Forsyth and with the co-operation of the Morayshire Farmers Club, cleared away the accumulated rubbish and exposed the steps of the western portal. Public interest was aroused, and effective measures adopted for preserving the ruins.
Thanks to the dedication of people like Isaac Forsyth and John Shanks, we today can apply to the ruins the words used by Bishop Bur in 1390. "They are the special ornament of the country, the glory of the Kingdom, the delight of wayfarers, the praise of visitors, and lauded even in foreign lands.
It is indeed, still, our "Lantern of the North".