Elgin (surveyed in 1868)


Elgin was one of the Scotland's first royal burghs, receiving its burghal charter from David I in 1136. Its name may mean 'little Ireland' or simply 'worthy place', as it is believed 'Elgin' derives from the Scots Gaelic word ealg, meaning both 'Ireland' and 'worthy', and the suffix in, meaning 'little'. Elgin is the historic centre of the diocese and county of Moray, a low lying area between Inverness and Aberdeen in north-east Scotland. Its location near the Highland frontier made Elgin an important strategic point in conflicts between feuding clans and Lowland families, and the town's beautiful cathedral was burned in 1390 by Alexander, the 'Wolf of Badenoch', son of King Robert II. Perhaps owing to its location in one of the debatable lands of Scottish family politics, Elgin's economy decayed in the fifteenth century, but by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it had revived significantly and was a thriving market and service centre. The burgh population in 1861 was measured at 6,403.

Town Planning

Elgin is a fine example of medieval burgh planning in Scotland. It is dominated by a long high street, from whose sides closes and vennels extend, in a pattern similar to that of Edinburgh's High Street. Unusually in Scotland, where early town thoroughfares commonly slope in one direction, Elgin's High Street rises and broadens to a summit in the centre, where the parish church sits. The tolbooth and principal marketplace were originally situated in the open areas on either side of the church, and a royal castle once sat on Lady Hill, overlooking the town to the west of the High Street.

Trade and Industry

In the eighteenth century Elgin began to develop as a textile town, and spinning schools, a bleachfield, a linen merchant and textile mills were all opened. By 1800 a water-powered thread mill had been built, and Johnston's Woollen Mills, which were to be an enduring feature of trade and industry in Elgin, had also opened. The Linkwood and Miltonduff distilleries, producers of the internationally famous Glenlivet malt whisky, opened near Elgin in the 1820s, and by the 1840s the town also contained eight grain mills, reflecting the rich grain production in the surrounding countryside. Apart from these industries, the author of the 1845 Statistical Account for Elgin notes, 'the trade carried on in Elgin is mostly confined to retail', with custom drawn from the town and surrounding areas.


The county of Moray is rich farming country, supporting both arable and livestock farming. The Statistical Account for 1845 puts the number of farmers, cottars and farm-servants in the parish of Elgin at 365, and surrounding rural parishes are likely to have had a far higher proportion of their population involved in the farming industry. It is also explained in the Statistical Account, that while horses and cattle in Moray used to be of 'a very inferior description', better livestock began to be introduced from southern Scotland in the early-nineteenth century. Pigs were also farmed in quantity in the area, but sheep were less prevalent. The staple crops grown were turnips, wheat, barley and oats.

Religious Life

Despite the grandeur of its cathedral, reflecting Elgin's status as the See of the Diocese of Moray, the church of St Giles in the High Street was historically Elgin's parish church, and by the mid-nineteenth century the earlier building had been replaced by an elegant neo-classical church, built between 1825 and 1828. As well as St Giles', and various other established Church of Scotland congregations, Elgin was also home to Episcopalian and Free church congregations at the time the town was surveyed. By then, however, the cathedral did not house any worshippers. Despite being rebuilt after 1390, it was pillaged by the Reformers of 1560 and finally fell into disuse in the seventeenth century. The ruins remain a distinctive landmark in Elgin.


Dr Gray's Hospital, perhaps the most famous institution in Elgin, was funded by bequest from a native of Elgin, and opened in 1819. The Elgin Institution, intended both to support the elderly and to educate the young, was opened in 1830 and was again a charitable foundation by an Elgin man, Andrew Anderson. The Elgin Courant, a weekly newspaper, began publication in 1834, and the Elgin and Morayshire Courier in 1849. The town also contained a court-house, branches of five different banking companies, more than twenty insurance offices, a water company, a gas company and a property investment company.

Culture and Society

Elgin appears to have been rich in cultural amenities and societies in the mid-nineteenth century. Among its various organisations were a literary association, a scientific association, a chess club, a cricket club, a curling club and a horticultural society. The physical and cultural development of Elgin continued throughout the nineteenth century, enhanced by the opening of rail links to Aberdeen and Inverness in 1858.