Elgin, the capital of Moray

Written by Chris Thornton | 19th of March 2024
Elgin, Moray, Scotland

Elgin is the largest town in the Moray county. Located centrally, it's the ideal place to use as a base when exploring the area from Forres, Lossiemouth, Cullen, Keith and south to Ballindalloch. Elgin has a great deal to offer in terms of hotels, shops, history and places to eat.

Growing up in Lossiemouth and Buckie, I have great memories of Elgin, mainly at Cooper's Park for the large play park and annual fireworks display! I also spent two years at Moray College in the early 2000s.

Let's explore what Elgin has to offer.

Where is Elgin?

Elgin lies near the south coast of the Moray Firth, roughly central to the upper third of the county of Moray. Elgin is the largest town in Moray and can be found roughly halfway between Inverness and Aberdeen and can accessed from both cities via the A96 motorway.

Elgin is Moray's administrative and commercial centre and home to the Moray Council.

What to see in Elgin:

Elgin Cathedral

At the heart of Elgin's historical narrative stands the majestic Elgin Cathedral, often called the "Lantern of the North." This architectural masterpiece, now in ruins, once radiated the glory of Scottish Gothic architecture across the Highlands. Walking through its hallowed remnants, one can almost hear the echoes of the past, from the solemn prayers of monks to the bustling activity surrounding this ecclesiastical powerhouse. Even in ruin, its towering presence speaks volumes of the town's significance during the Middle Ages.

A lovely biblical garden is a short distance north of the cathedral and the River Lossie to the east.

Elgin Museum
The ruin of Elgin Cathedral.

Elgin Museum

Not far from the silent grandeur of the cathedral, the Elgin Museum invites curious minds to step closer to the history of Moray. As Scotland's oldest continuously operating independent museum, it houses an eclectic collection that spans from Pictish stones to fossils whispering of Moray's ancient past. It's a place where history is palpable, allowing visitors to touch, see, and feel the lineage of the region through artefacts and exhibits that tell the story of Elgin and its surroundings.

Elgin Museum - One of Britain's oldest museums
Elgin Museum, near the town centre.

Coopers Park

Cooper Park, a verdant oasis nestled in the heart of Elgin, offers residents and visitors alike a serene escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Donated to the town by the philanthropist George Cooper in 1903, this expansive park has become a cherished community hub, where the beauty of nature intermingles with recreational facilities and tranquil spaces for relaxation and reflection.

There is a great play park here for younger kids and a skate park for the older ones. Elgin Library borders the park alongside the boating pond. The grounds at Cooper Park are lovely, particularly near Grant Lodge.

Boating Pond at Cooper Park
The boating pond at Cooper Park, used more by ducks and swans today!
 
Cooper Park
Cooper Park near Grant Lodge.
 
Elgin Library
Elgin Library can be found at Cooper Park.

Elgin Castle / Lady Hill / Duke of Gordon Monument

Only small traces are left of Elgin Castle, a once grand Royal Castle built atop Lady Hill, which would have given it a commanding vantage point in all directions. Today, all that can be seen is a small section of wall.

Instead, the Duke of Gordon Monument is the main focal point, built in honour of George Gordon, the fifth Duke of Gordon in 1839.

Lady Hill is the best place to get a panoramic view of Elgin, with the rooftops sprawling out in all directions. You can also see Elgin Cathedral from this vantage point.

Duke of Gordon Monument
Duke of Gordon Monument atop Lady Hill.

Moray Motor Museum

Within walking distance of Cooper Park and Elgin Cathedral, Moray Motor Musem is located in an old mill building. The museum has a fantastic selection of vintage classic cars and motorbikes, including a 1904 Speedwell and a 1921 Regent Sport. It's £10 entry for adults, but kids are free.

Elgin Town Centre

Elgin town centre has seen better days, a victim of larger superstores built on the outskirts of town and the advent of online shopping. Many of the shops have closed, and the shop units within the St Giles centre are mostly empty. However, there are still a few gems to be found here:

  • Cadora Chip Shop - My favourite place for chips anywhere in Scotland.

  • Moray Playhouse - Moray's only cinema, a bit rough around the edges but full of character. I have seen films here for the last 35 years!

  • The Pancake Place - Great breakfasts and desserts.

  • The Gordon & Macphail Shop - One of the loveliest shops in Elgin, and of particular interest if you like Scottish Whisky, with a selection of more than 1000 available. It is currently under renovation at the time of writing this article.

  • The Dandy Lion - A controversial art installation within central Elgin. A half-merman, half-lion, it wears a top hat! Love or hate it, the Dandy Lion has attracted visitors worldwide to see its... weirdness!

  • Elgin War Memorial can be found a short distance from the Dandy Lion, in front of St Giles Church.

  • Thunderton House - This pub dates back to the 1500s and had Bonnie Prince Charlie as one of its guests in 1746, a few weeks before his historic loss at Culloden.

  • Moray Leisure Centre - Elgin has the best leisure centre in Moray, offering a swimming pool, ice rink and gym. Moray Leisure Centre has a pool with a flume, which is great if you want to do something with the kids.

Cooper Park, Elgin Museum, Elgin Cathedral and Lady Hill are all within walking distance of the high street.

St Giles Church. Elgin is a Scottish town in North East Scotland
St Giles Church in the town centre.
 
Elgin High Street. Elgin a modern town.
Elgin High Street with Dr Gray's Hospital seen in the distance.
 
St Giles Church at Christmas
St Giles Church and town centre at Christmas.
 
The Granary, Elgin
The Granary, a popular pub and restaurant in Elgin.

Glen Moray Distillery

Elgin has its very own distillery - Glen Moray. Open to visitors all year, the visitor centre on the west side of Elgin gives a fascinating insight into traditional whisky making. There are a few different tours on offer, ranging in cost between £12 and £80, all offer complimentary whisky tastings.

Glen Elgin distillery can be found a short distance south of Elgin, this is a working site however and does not offer tours.

More local distilleries can be found all over Moray, all within about a 30-minute drive of Elgin.

What to see near Elgin:

  • Duffus Castle - A medieval castle built in the motte and bailey style, it's a great castle ruin to explore and take in the surrounding landscape.

  • Spynie Palace - Once home to the bishops of Moray, this impressive house ruin is run by Historic Environment Scotland. Great to take in before or after Duffus Castle.

  • Lossiemouth - Known as the "Jewel of the Moray Firth", it's easy to see why the town of Lossiemouth gained its title. Two stunning beaches flank the town, with the east beach accessible by a new footbridge—a wonderful place for a walk on the beach with an ice cream.

  • Pluscarden Abbey - A medieval abbey, still home to monastic monks today. It is a place of supreme solitude, a lovely destination for a day trip from Elgin.

  • Millbuies Country Park - A short distance southeast of Elgin on the Rothes road, you can find Millbuies Country Park - a man-made loch with beautiful forest walks and breathtaking scenery—an ideal place for a quick picnic near Elgin.

If you're looking for more ideas for places to visit in Moray, why not check out my 5-day Moray travel itinerary?

Duffus Castle
Duffus Castle, north of Elgin.

A Short History of Elgin

  • Elgin was historically isolated, bordered by the unbridged River Spey to the east and River Findhorn to the west, with the Cairngorms to the south.

  • Elgin likely existed by 1040, around the time Macbeth defeated King Duncan's army at Pitgaveney, near Elgin.

  • Chartered as a Royal Burgh by David I in 1136.

  • The cathedral was built in 1224 when Pope Honorarius agreed to move the Cathedral of Moray to Elgin on the banks of the River Lossie.

  • Had a Royal Castle by 1230, possibly on the site of Duncan I's death in 1040.

  • Edward I stayed at Elgin Castle during his 1296 suppression tours; little remains today except for Lady Hill and the Duke of Gordon Monument (since 1839).

  • In 1390, the Wolf of Badenoch, Alexander Stewart, attacked Elgin and burned down the cathedral and much of the city in revenge for excommunication.

  • Elgin was plundered by the Duke of Montrose's Royalists in 1645; the bishop's palace at Spynie was abandoned in 1686.

  • The late 1700s saw Elgin as a declining town, noted by Boswell, Dr. Johnson, and Robert Southey for its lack of vibrancy and poor meals.

  • Rebirth in 1820 as a neo-classical city, popular with wealthy Highland landowners and benefiting from overseas investments, especially from India.

  • Industrial growth, especially in distilling, boosted the economy from the mid-1800s.

  • Railway connections in 1852 to Lossiemouth and in 1858 to the Aberdeen-Inverness line facilitated growth; Elgin became a notable railway terminus.

  • Modern Elgin features a new railway station, with the Aberdeen to Inverness journey now much shorter.

  • Thunderton House, dating back to the 1500s, served as a royal residence and later a nobleman's townhouse, even housing Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1746.

  • Gordon and MacPhail's shop on South Street, founded in 1895, has played a significant role in the popularity of single malt Scotch whisky.

Landshut Bridge, Elgin
Landshut Bridge, illuminated at night time.

FAQs on Elgin

Is Elgin a town or a city?

Elgin is considered a town despite having a cathedral.

Is Elgin classed as the Highlands?

No, you must go west to Nairn or south of the Cairngorms National Park to be in the Highlands.

Is Elgin Scotland worth visiting?

Yes, from great hotels and restaurants, history, and many tourist attractions a short distance away, Elgin is definitely worth visiting! It doesn't have the charm of coastal towns like Cullen and Lossiemouth but has a great deal to offer in terms of amenities.

What is the meaning of Royal Burgh?

A Royal Burgh was a type of administrative area in Scotland before 1975. Historically, it was a town that the monarch had granted certain rights and privileges under a royal charter. These rights could include holding markets, the ability to levy taxes and control over local administration and trade practices. Being designated as a Royal Burgh was a mark of significant prestige and autonomy, allowing these towns to flourish economically and socially.

Where is the cheapest place to buy food in Elgin?

The ALDI and Lidl supermarkets are the cheapest places to buy groceries in Elgin. Aldi can be found in the centre of Elgin, not far from the bus station, and Lidl is on the south side near the railway station. There is also a large ASDA and Tesco superstore for any items you can't get there.

Where is the best place to stay in Elgin?

The Travelodge and Premier Inn are cheap options if booking in advance, but here are a few more suggestions:

  1. The Pines Guest House

  2. Belleville Bed and Breakfast

  3. Elgin Guest House

  4. Sunninghill Hotel

  5. Laichmoray Hotel

  6. Moraybank Guesthouse

St Giles at night in Elgin
Town centre in the evening. The hill in the background is the Bin of Cullen.

Conclusion

Elgin is a fine town to visit while touring Moray and is possibly the perfect base to branch out from to explore everything our beautiful area has to offer. Please consider my articles on the best things to do in Moray and Moray on a budgetMoray beachesMoray Castles and the Moray Firth.

All information was correct at the time of writing, please check things like entry costs and opening times before you arrive.

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