Elgin Cathedral has one of the finest and best-preserved collections of ex situ medieval architectural carved stones in Scotland. Among the 480 pieces are superbly carved vault bosses, corbels and column capitals, impressive monuments and effigies, and a substantial amount of window tracery from a 13th-century rose window. In April 2016, after many years in storage, Historic Environment Scotland completed a project to return this collection to the cathedral where it now features as a major part of its interpretation.
The first task of the project was to understand and assess the collection. Dr Mary Márkus, who catalogued it, classified the stones by date, style and function, and she highlighted carvings of high significance. New research was also commissioned. The window tracery fragments were examined to determine how the rose window would have been constructed. Pigment analysis was carried out on traces of polychrome from a 14th-century bishop’s effigy. Heraldic devices carved on some of the memorials were investigated to identify the individuals and families they represented. The stones were also examined to identify their geological provenance.
The main challenge of the project was finding the best way of displaying such a rich collection within the constraints of the cathedral. Ultimately, spaces in the north and south towers offered the logical location for the primary displays and the Bishop’s House offered an accessible storage solution for the remainder of the collection.
Research was used to select and group the stones into logical display themes to fit the spaces in the towers. The most accessible ground floor spaces were used to give visitors a sample and overview of the collection. An interactive kiosk allows visitors to browse a catalogue of the entire collection, see 360° views of displays on the upper floors, and panoramic views from the top of the tower.
Three upper spaces in the tower were used to explore recurrent themes in the carvings: animals, faces, mystical beasts, trees and foliage. An additional three spaces were used to explain how the cathedral was built, the work of the mason, and the function of different stones in its construction.
The new displays have brought together new ways of presenting collections of this kind. Mounting and illuminating the stones in both natural and light controlled spaces has allowed the carvings to been seen clearly and vividly. Working with Napier University an innovative method of projecting coloured light on the bishop’s effigy has also allowed it to be seen as richly as the pigment analysis has indicated. New mounting techniques also allowed a segment from the rose window to be displayed alongside fragments of medieval window glass from the cathedral, on loan from the Moray Society. Planning publicly accessible storage spaces in the Bishop’s House as part of the project has meant that all of this collection has now been displayed within a meaningful historical context.