Standing at the east end of Cathedral Street in Glasgow, and not far from where Castle Street becomes High Street is Glasgow Cathedral. One of the few Scottish medieval churches to have survived the Reformation unscathed, Glasgow Cathedral is truly magnificent, full of beauty and wonder. Yet any visit to Glasgow Cathedral is also tinged with sadness, for it brings home just how much was forever lost to the nation in the orgy of vandalism that destroyed or defaced so many other Scottish churches in the period from 1560.
It's worth starting the story of Glasgow Cathedral in the middle. The reforming mobs in the years after 1560 were no less zealous in Glasgow than elsewhere in the country. But the affection of the ordinary people of Glasgow for their cathedral was such that the organised trades of the city took up arms to protect it.
Perhaps what saved Glasgow Cathedral more than anything else was simply the size of the city's population: when the crisis arose, enough collective sanity remained to allow the defenders to outnumber the attackers. Elsewhere the story all too often had a different outcome.
Had Glasgow Cathedral fallen in the Reformation, a thousand years of history would have been lost. The Cathedral's origins date back to about AD550 when St Mungo, also known as St Kentigern, founded a religious community here around a small church. Today this church is the site of the Blacader Aisle in the Lower Church of the cathedral, the structure that extends beyond the very short South Transept.
During St Mungo's time the church was visited by St Columba (see our Historical Timeline), and St Mungo himself travelled widely, preaching in both Cumbria and North Wales, and going on pilgrimage to Rome. After his death on 13 January 614, St Mungo was buried close to his church. His tomb today lies in the centre of the Lower Choir, probably on the actual site of his grave.
St Mungo's original church was built of wood, and was probably changed and enlarged over the following five centuries. The first stone church on the site was consecrated in the presence of King David I in 1136 and occupied the area now covered by the nave, with part of the earlier church probably surviving off to one side. This first stone church was destroyed or badly damaged by fire within a very short time, and its replacement was consecrated in 1197 by Bishop Jocelin.
The earliest significant parts of what you can see today are the walls of the nave, up to the level of the bottoms of the windows. These date back to the next round of rebuilding, in the early 1200s. In the mid 1200s much of the rest of the cathedral appeared: in particular the upper and lower choirs were added to the east end of the nave.
In the 1400s a tower was built above the crossing, and two more at the western corners of the nave. At the same time the Blacader Aisle was built on the site of St Mungo's original church and the chapter house was added at the north-east corner of the choir.
In the 1800s major repairs included the removal of the two western towers, sadly before it was realised that the available funds wouldn't cover their rebuilding. At around the same time alterations made since the Reformation to allow the cathedral to serve three congregations were reversed, leaving the cathedral much as you see it today.
Though not quite, because one of the joys of Glasgow Cathedral is the way it is continually changing and adapting. There are many examples of this, but the most striking is the beautiful Millennium Window (see below left) in the north wall of the nave. This was officially unveiled by HRH Princess Anne on 3 June 1999. It was commissioned by the thee schools holding annual services in the Cathedral, Glasgow Academy, Hutcheson's Academy and the High School of Glasgow.
It was produced by John Clark and is widely recognised as one of the most technically demanding stained glass windows ever produced. A range of complex traditional techniques were employed including multiple layer etching, painting and silverstaining.
As a result the window is true to the spirit of others in the Cathedral produced as far back as the 1400s. Although the methods of production used in the Millennium Window were traditional in origin, the imagery and overall appearance are a highly distinctive symphony of multiple shades of blue.
Today's visitor to Glasgow Cathedral finds an awe inspiring place. It is overlooked from the east by the Glasgow Necropolis and has a fine precinct resulting from the building in 1993 of the St Mungo Museum, which doubles as a Cathedral Visitor Centre.
The site on which the cathedral was built slopes down from west to east. This allowed the building of its most unique feature, a lower church effectively occupying the whole of the area under the choir. This is a beautifully vaulted space. At its heart lies the tomb of St Kentigern or St Mungo, while at its east end are a series of chapels.
These include the Chapel of St John the Evangelist, still containing part of what is believed to be the well used by St Kentigern in the late 500s. These chapels were particularly well used after 1451, when the Pope declared that a pilgrimage to Glasgow Cathedral would carry the same merit as one to Rome. In the same year he approved the foundation by the cathedral of the University of Glasgow.
The upper parts of the church are divided by the choir screen or pulpitum into the separate spaces of the nave and the choir. Despite this division, and despite the cathedral's relatively modest proportions, the overwhelming impression is one of great size and in particular of great height. Glasgow Cathedral is some 285ft (87m) long by 63ft (20m) wide, and the nave roof is 105ft (32m) high.
The towering internal spaces are enhanced by the apparent narrowness of the central potions of the nave and the choir, and by the very short transepts, which don't extend beyond the nave and choir walls.
Glasgow Cathedral deserves to be better known than it is: and would be if it were not to be found in Scotland's largest city, alongside many other competing attractions. But if you are coming to Glasgow, you really should add the cathedral to your must see list.