The more observant visitors to Elgin Cathedral might notice a stone tower house standing on the opposite side of King Street, a little beyond the cathedral entrance. Anywhere else, the Bishop's House, as it is known, would command attention as an attraction in its own right. But here, almost literally in the shadow of the imposing remains of Elgin Cathedral, it seems to go largely unremarked and largely ignored.
Which is a shame, because what you find if you care to look is a rather nice domestic-scale three storey tower house with the remains of what appears to be a large extension built onto its south-west corner. It is worth noting in passing that although the building is in the care of Historic Environment Scotland, it is not open to the public. When we visited the upper floor was being used to arrange the pieces of a large stone puzzle apparently connected with work under way at Elgin Cathedral.
The Bishop's House can, nonetheless, be viewed from the road, and from the park whose north-eastern corner it occupies. This allows a fairly good appreciation of the main features, both of the relatively complete tower house and the partial remains of the extension, whose massive buttresses suggest it was once a substantial building in its own right.
The first thing it's worth knowing about the Bishop's House is that it was probably not built, or used, as the bishop's house. Yes, it it the largest building of any real age to stand near Elgin Cathedral, and, yes, the cathedral had a bishop. But for five centuries the Bishops of Moray chose not to live in Elgin itself, preferring instead the much grander surroundings of Spynie Palace, two miles to the north, on the edge (at the time) of Spynie Loch, a sea loch giving a safe anchorage for sea-going vessels.
Not only did Spynie Palace provide higher quality accommodation, it was also much more defensible. This was an important consideration. In 1390 Elgin Cathedral was burned down, with much of the rest of Elgin, by the Wolf of Badenoch. This was the name given to Alexander Stewart, the younger son of Robert II. The Bishop of Moray, Bishop Alexander Bur had caused him to to be excommunicated for marital infidelity, and this was his way of getting even (see our Historical Timeline).
Parts of the building date back to 1406 and it seems likely that the "Bishop's House" was actually built to serve as the Precentor's manse. The Precentor was the senior clergyman normally based in the cathedral, while the bishop would have been called upon to fulfil a wider political role. It is certainly possible that the bishop might have stayed here from time to time, but with his palace just a short ride away, it seems unlikely to have been often.
We've already noted that the Bishop's House was once larger than it is today. It may actually have been considerably larger. Records suggest that a large part of the building was removed in 1851, while the south wing, whose partial remains can still be seen, collapsed in the 1890s. One architectural guide comments that what is left is "a rump of a rump": but it's still a building worthy of a little more attention than it gets.