St Machar is said to have been a companion of St Columba on his journey to Iona. A fourteenth-century legend tells how God (or St Columba) told Machar to establish a church where a river bends into the shape of a bishop's crosier before flowing into the sea. The River Don bends in this way just below where the Cathedral now stands. According to legend, St Machar founded a site of worship in Old Aberdeen in about 580. Machar's church was superseded by a Norman cathedral in 1131, shortly after David I transferred the See from Mortlach to Aberdeen. Almost nothing of that original cathedral survives; a lozenge-decorated base for a capital supporting one of the architraves can be seen in the Charter Room in the present church.
After the execution of William Wallace in 1305, his body was cut up and sent to different corners of the country to warn other dissenters. His left quarter ended up in Aberdeen and is buried in the walls of the cathedral.
At the end of the thirteenth century Bishop Henry Cheyne decided to extend the church, but the work was interrupted by the Scottish Wars of Independence. Cheyne's progress included piers for an extended choir at the transept crossing. These pillars, with decorated capitals of red sandstone, are still visible at the east end of the present church. Bishop Alexander Kininmund II demolished the Norman cathedral in the late 14th century, and began the nave, including the granite columns and the towers at the western end. Bishop Henry Lichtoun completed the nave, the west front and the northern transept, and made a start on the central tower. Bishop Ingram Lindsay completed the roof and the paving stones in the later part of the fifteenth century. Further work was done over the next fifty years by Thomas Spens, William Elphinstone and Gavin Dunbar; Dunbar is responsible for the heraldic ceiling and the two western spires. The central tower and spire collapsed in 1688, in a storm, and this destroyed the choir and transepts. The west arch of the crossing was then filled in, and worship carried on in the nave only; the current church consists only of the nave and aisles of the earlier building.
The church is under the care of Historic Scotland, and contain an important group of late medieval bishops' tombs, protected from the weather by modern canopies. The Cathedral is chiefly built of outlayer granite. On the unique flat panelled ceiling of the nave (first half of the 16th Century) are the heraldic shields of the contemporary kings of Europe, and the chief earls and bishops of Scotland.
The Cathedral is a fine example of a fortified kirk, with twin towers built in the fashion of fourteenth-century tower houses. Their walls have the strength to hold spiral staircases to the upper floors and battlements. The spires which presently crown the towers were added in the 15th century.
Bishops Gavin Dunbar and Alexander Galloway built the western towers and installed the heraldic ceiling, featuring 48 coats of arms in three rows of sixteen. Among those shown are:
- Pope Leo X's coat of arms in the centre, followed in order of importance by those of the Scottish archbishops and bishops.
- the Prior of St Andrews, representing other Church orders.
- King's College, the westernmost shield.
- Henry VIII of England, James V of Scotland and multiple instances for the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who was also King of Spain, Aragon, Navarre and Sicily at the time the ceiling was created.
- St Margaret of Scotland
- the arms of Aberdeen and of the families Gordon, Lindsay, Hay and Keith.
The ceiling is set off by a frieze which starts at the north-west corner of the nave and lists the bishops of the see from Nechtan in 1131 to William Gordon at the Reformation in 1560. This is followed by the Scottish monarchs from Máel Coluim II to Mary, Queen of Scots.
Notable figures buried in the cathedral cemetery include the author J.J. Bell, Robert Brough, Gavin Dunbar, Robert Laws, a missionary to Malawi and William Ogilvie of Pittensear—the ‘rebel professor’.
There has been considerable investment in recent years in restoration work and the improvement of the display of historic artefacts at the Cathedral. The battlements of the western towers, incomplete for several centuries, have been renewed to their original height and design, greatly improving the appearance of the exterior. Meanwhile, within the building, a number of important stone monuments have been displayed to advantage. These include a possibly 7th-8th century cross-slab from Seaton (the only surviving evidence from Aberdeen of Christianity at such an early date); a rare 12th century sanctuary cross-head; and several well-preserved late medieval effigies of Cathedral clergy, valuable for their detailed representation of contemporary dress. A notable modern addition to the Cathedral's artistic treasures is a carved wooden triptych commemorating John Barbour, archdeacon of Aberdeen (d. 1395), author of The Brus.
- List of Church of Scotland parishes
- University of Aberdeen
- Bede House, Old Aberdeen