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It is fair to conclude that St Mungo’s was not the first building on the site above the Molendinar Burn, which had been identified as a Christian place of burial and associated with St Ninian, the first named of our Scottish missionaries. St Mungo in placing his seat there, would have found or constructed a building perhaps of clay and wattle sufficient to provide accommodation for himself and the community which he gathered there to celebrate the liturgy of the Church. What we have today on that site has no trace of anything earlier than the episcopate of John Achaius which extended from 1115 to 1147, a small piece of transitional work in the southwest corner of the lower church may possibly be part of a church erected by this Bishop.
His successor, Bishop Jocelin, is credited with further work but most of what we see today commences with the work undertaken by Bishop William De Bondington, who, in 1233, resolved to build a new choir apparently incorporating some of the earlier work.
In its conception and completion, Glasgow Cathedral is, in architectural terms, one of Scotland’s finest buildings and remarkable indeed for its survival, being the only one of the great medieval cathedrals and monastic churches to survive intact on Scotland’s mainland at the time of the reformation – that is at least until Victorian times when, with the overwhelming confidence which characterised that period of our history, those who believed that they had the authority to do so, pulled down its two western towers on account of their being uneven! Ironically, they obtained plans from James Gillespie Graham for twin replacements which happily, in my opinion, were not constructed despite leaving the west front of St Mungo’s architecturally weak. Every other angle of the building is more majestic, with a well proportioned tower, magnificent tapering spire, and the marvellous chancel rising above the small valley created by the Molendinar burn, gaining its soaring height from the lower church built to cover the tomb of St Mungo.
That lower church is sometimes referred to as a crypt, though architecturally it is more fittingly described as the lower or inferior church, as was pointed out by my distinguished predecessor, Archbishop Eyre, whose contributions to the contemporary publication, The Book of Glasgow Cathedral, are hugely impressive.
Incidentally the only Cathedral to remain fully intact in Scotland is not in fact on its mainland but on the island of Orkney where Kirkwall’s sturdy Norman church provides what every Cathedral ideally sets out to do – namely to provide a spiritual heart to its city and a monument to the Christian faith.
In one of its main piers in more recent times was discovered the severed head of St Magnus – giving new meaning to the expression: “a pillar of the church”!