St Giles’ was founded in about 1124, either by King Alexander I, who died that year, or by his brother King David I, who succeeded him. They were the sons of the energetic King Malcolm Canmore and his devout wife, St Margaret. A parish for St Giles’ was carved out of the large existing parish of St Cuthbert’s Church, and the clergy were given a grange, a stretch of land a little to the south, where serfs could grow crops under their supervision.
According to legend, St Giles himself had been a seventh-century Greek hermit who lived in the forests near Nîmes, in the south of France, with a tame deer as his only companion. One day the King of the Visigoths, out hunting, shot at the deer, only to find it held protectively in the arms of Giles, who had been wounded in the hand by the arrow. The King was impressed by the holy man, returned many times to speak to him, and finally persuaded him to become the abbot of a monastery which he founded for him. Giles was subsequently canonised, becoming the patron saint of lepers, nursing mothers and the lame.
Many churches in England are dedicated to this popular medieval saint, as well as one in Elgin, in the north of Scotland, presumably because leprosy was such a dreadful scourge. David I, who ruled Northumbria as well as Scotland, granted the revenues of Edinburgh’s St Giles’ to the hospital of Harehope there. It was run by friars of the Order of St Lazarus of Jerusalem, whose special role was to care for lepers.