The Heraldic Roof of St Machar’s Cathedral in Aberdeen, a 16th century Tableau of the Church, Scotland and Europe.

Above: the interior of St Machar's Catherdral. Photo:

It can be argued that Scotland’s ties to Europe have lasted for centuries, if not millennia. Examples range from the unions of Scottish royals to the French Houses of Valois and Guise, marriages to Danish royals such as Margaret (1456-1486)& Anne (1574-1619); to the participation of Scottish Generals and military personnel in the Thirty and Eighty Years’ Wars.

Yet there is a symbol in Aberdeen, close to the Old University Grounds that embodies a peculiar sense of Europeanism which dates back to the 1520’s, located at the St. Machar Cathedral (Scottish Gaelic: Cathair-eaglais Naomh Machar). It was named after Machar, a 6th-century Irish Saint active in Scotland. Given the fact that St. Machar’s has not been the seat of a Bishop since 1690 technically the monument is a High Kirk rather than a cathedral. The original place of Worship and church was built around 580 AD and had strong Celtic roots. The church became a cathedral in the 1130 under the rule of King David I of Scotland.

In 1305 after the execution of William Wallace it was believed that his left arm was buried within the walls of the Cathedral.

The Cathedral experienced its peak under the watch of Bishops William Elphinstone (1483-1514) and Gavin Dunbar (1518-1532) who commissioned in 1520 the construction of a ceiling of panelled oak bearing 48 heraldic shields.

The Heraldic Roof of the St. Machar Cathedral offers a very structured vision of power in Scotland and in Europe through 48 coats of arms organized in three rows of sixteen. One headed by ecclesiastical power, one for Scottish Political Power and the other for European Power. In turn each row presents a hierarchy of power in their respective realm, detailed as the following:

The Heraldic Roof of the St. Machar Cathedral

THE CENTRAL ROW of ecclesiastic power contains the following coats of arms.

It is important to notice the structure and ranking of power. From the Pope Himself, to the archbishops to all bishops ending with the coat of arms of an institution funded by a papal bull in 1495.

THE SOUTH ROW begins with the top of the Scottish political hierarchy:

The NORTH ROW is intriguing because the first Coat of arms is not of the French monarchy but of arguably the strongest catholic prince, The Holy Roman Emperor – Charles V (and I of Spain)

It has been speculated that there could be a correlation between the Shields of the Heraldic Ceiling and the ending of the biblical Psalm 47 which reads the following:

“God reigns over the nations;

God sits on his holy throne.

9 The princes of the peoples gather

as the people of the God of Abraham.

For the shields of the earth belong to God;

he is highly exalted!”

Imagery of shields is available via the following link:

With the turbulent changes brought by the Scottish Reformation in 1560, St. Machar’s lost its status as a Cathedral, most of its treasures and its lands were sold. In 1688 the church was severely damaged by a storm. In the 20th and 21st centuries The Cathedral Church of St Machar, today part of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, underwent full and substantial restorations.

The Cathedral also offers an exceptional range of stained glass reintroduced after the 1860’s made by renowned artists such as Marjorie Kemp, Margaret Chilton and Douglas Strachan between 1870 and 1953 (Last addition was the Main east window, done by William Wilson).

The builder bishop's window
PHOTOGRAPH BY,_St_Machar%27s_Cathedral.jpg

Internal Burials in the cathedral were predominantly for the Bishops of Aberdeen such as Gavin Dunbar, Patrick Forbes and David Mitchell.

The exterior burial grounds are the final resting place for many renowned Scottish academics, artists including:

Other Details:

Address: The Chanonry, Old Aberdeen, Aberdeen AB24 1RQ, Scotland, UK

Details about opening hours, services and other available via the website (link

*    *    *

Vlad Zamfira

Vlad Zamfira (Masters of Arts in Archaeology & History and Certificate of Postgraduate research in History at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland) is a historian and podcaster interested mainly in the History of the 16th century Mediterranean with particular focus to Venetian, Ottoman and Spanish relations during the period between 1559-1581 and the Fourth Ottoman-Venetian War of Cyprus. Also with a keen interest in the history of the Eighty & Thirty Years' Wars; Scottish and European History as whole.