The History of Elgin
Exactly when the settlement that is now Elgin was founded is unclear. We have evidence in the form of coin and glass finds that there was probable trade contact with the Romans, though the area is well beyond the Antonine Wall, indicating that the place may have its roots that deep. Certainly the defensive qualities of the site, with the river protecting three sides and the high ground of a ridge would have been attractive in turbulent times.
And Moray indeed knew turbulent times from the dark ages until at least the Civil Wars. Until the middle of the first millennium Moray stood between the Picts and the Scots; by the 9th century it performed the same unwanted role as regards the Vikings in the north and the Kingdom of Scotland in the south. That is not to say things were as simple as Vikings being the enemy and Scotland the ally: the very name Elgin is possibly Viking in origin, from a Viking commander called Helgy; it may be that the men of Moray and the Vikings on occasion fought together.
It seems that by 1040, when Macbeth defeated Duncan at the Battle of Pitgaveney very close to Elgin, there was a castle standing on the spot already, Duncan supposedly taken there to die of his wounds after the defeat.
Elgin and the surrounding area were brought into the Scottish realm by the 12th century, in 1124 David I making it one of his network of royal burghs intended to help increase trade, be the seat of royal justice, and thus ‘civilising’ the region bringing it under royal control.
The area around Elgin became a noted royal hunting ground, frequently visited by William I, Lion of Scotland, both before and after his captivity following the Battle of Alnwick, and he granted the place many charters confirming its status as a regional trade centre. In 1215, the year after William’s death, the decision was taken to build a cathedral at Elgin, the work being completed by 1224 when it became the seat of the bishop of Moray.
With the wealth drawn to a great bishopric on top of that generated by growing trade Elgin’s prosperity bloomed in the 13th century, and when the cathedral was damaged by fire in 1270 it was rebuilt and expanded greatly – the cathedral was eventually to become the second largest religious building in Scotland. That century ended less happily for the town and country, however, as evidenced by the visit in 1296 of Edward I who stayed at the castle during a tour of his conquests.
The 14th century was less kind: with the silting of Loch Spynie Elgin’s port was lost, doubtless to the detriment of its merchants, though the raids by English armies caused more damage. It was a raid by a Scot, however, that brought ruin to the town and its cathedral: in 1390 Alexander Stewart, who is better known by his sobriquet The Wolf of Bladenoch, burned churches and the cathedral, and temporarily drove the townsfolk out as he vented his rage against the bishop of Moray’s support for his estranged wife.
By 1397 the cathedral had again been rebuilt, but the late medieval period continued to be a violent one for Elgin, with more raids in 1402 and 1452. In spite of this Spynie Palace was built for the bishops in 1470. In 1506 disaster again hit the cathedral, its spire collapsing. Restoration this time took until 1538, but the building had enjoyed its best days: seeing the Reformation to come Bishop Patrick Hepburn in 1540 began to misappropriate its lands and wealth, and after regent Murray in 1567 ordered the removal of the lead from its roof the structure rapidly decayed, soon transformed into a rubbish dump and source for building stones.
Elgin itself was greatly damaged in 1645 by the Earl of Montrose, who following his victory at Auldearn allowed his troops to pillage the place.
The 18th century was a time of relative peace for Elgin, in spite of the brief visit of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1746, and some fine Georgian buildings were added, but it was the next century that saw what was probably the town’s heyday. As Scotland’s infrastructure developed – first with road improvements in the early part of the century, then rail (arriving in Elgin in 1852) in the middle years – Elgin became a more attractive spot for the wealthy whether noble or merchant to settle. Villas and fine houses were built by Scots who had made fortunes in the Empire. It even attracted a visit by Queen Victoria in 1872.
Today the town is recognised for its fine architecture, and is at the heart of Speyside’s whisky industry, which local firm Gordon and MacPhail (founded there in 1895) did so much to revive with its championing of single malts.