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The History and Architecture of Famous Churches in Edinburgh

I'm a graduate in Economic and Social History from the University of Strathclyde, a former Edinburgh Tour Guide and resident of the city.


The city of Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, is widely admired for its beauty and grandeur. The streets of the city have many marvels of art and architecture amongst its buildings and monuments

Among the architectural splendours of the 'Athens of the North' as Edinburgh is described are the many fine churches and cathedrals.

Here is a concise list of the most significant buildings of the city.

They have been chosen in terms of their importance in historical events and current use as well as their architectural achievements.

High Kirk of St Giles

The High Kirk of St Giles was founded in 1130 although it has experienced many alterations and additions since then. Most especially in the 14th century after it was set alight by invading English forces. A common occurrence during those turbulent times.

In the early 16th century the magnificent spire was added and has become a highlight of the cityscape. This was intended to impress King Henry VIII of England and it was designed in the shape of the crown of Scotland with the added decoration of gilded finials.

Also there were Victorian adaptations to the façade in the 19th century but these were still in keeping with the original Gothic style of this 12th century building. Inside you will find many objects of art and architecture but probably none more unusual than a wood carving of an angel playing the bagpipes.

High Kirk of St Giles

High Kirk of St Giles

The Kirk is named after Saint Gilles the patron saint of 'cripples and lepers' to quote the old parlance. It was popular to dedicate buildings to saints like this but there is no connection with the city. St Giles was a Greek Christian from Athens who became a Benedictine Monk at Nimes in the South of France. There you will find the Monastery of Saint Gilles.

Outside in an unmarked grave lies the burial place of John Knox the 16th century leader of the Scottish Reformation. It is under parking space No.23 on the south side of the Kirk. There is no monument to him as he declared that "Scotland is my monument" before his death.

Greyfriars Kirk

The Greyfriars Kirk dates from the 1620's and is very modest in shape and design. It is situated just off the end of the George IV Bridge south of the Royal Mile.

In 1638 the National Covenant was signed in the kirkyard on a tombstone around which the congregation had gathered along with noblemen and the merchant class. It is said that some even signed with their own blood

They professed loyalty to King Charles the First but warned him from interfering in the affairs of the Scottish Church. He was attempting to enforce his rule over the established church by introducing bishops and also the English Book of Common Prayer. The Covenant was a pledge by the signers to resist this royal meddling in Scottish affairs.

Greyfriars Kirk

Greyfriars Kirk

Within the graveyard you will find the Martyrs Monument which was built in 1688 to commemorate those Covenanters who were executed 20 years earlier. In the south-west corner is the 'Covenanters Prison' were 1200 were held captive in atrocious conditions chained out in the open during five months of the Scottish winter. Their leaders were transported into slavery on the American plantations.

Buried in the graveyard are William Adam, a classical architect, Joseph Black the famous physicist and chemist who discovered carbon dioxide and James Craig who was the designer of the Edinburgh New Town in the 18th century

Of course not forgetting that the famous dog Greyfriars Bobby is buried in an unmarked grave although there is a charming memorial to the little Skye terrier at the entrance to the Kirkyard.

St Margaret's Chapel

This is not only the oldest church in Edinburgh but indeed it is also the oldest building. It was created to commemorate the mother of King David the First of Scotland and is an attraction within Edinburgh Castle.

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She was Queen Margaret, the wife of King Malcolm III and she was later canonised in the same century. The reason that it is the oldest building is because in 1314 the army of Robert the Bruce destroyed the remainder of the castle.

They had successfully climbed up the precipice of the rock face upon which the castle stands and entered the fortifications. They promptly laid waste to the castle to prevent it falling back into English hands. However as a holy place the chapel was spared destruction.

St Margaret's Chapel

St Margaret's Chapel

It is a Norman building of Romanesque architecture and was a royal chapel until after the reign of Mary Queen of Scots in the 16th century. During its lifetime it has also been used as a gunpowder magazine for the military garrison in the castle. However it was refurbished and rededicated in 1934.

The St Margaret's Chapel Guild was established in 1942 under the patronage of Princess Margaret and its members tend to the church including placing fresh flowers inside to welcome its many visitors.

The Magdalen Chapel

The Chapel was founded by Michael Macquhane and intended as a religious Chapel and also a Guidhall for the local Incorporation of Hammermen. He died before the project was completed but bequeathed £700 Scots to his wife Janet Rynd who added another £2000 Scots. In 1541 the Chapel was finished and used as an almshouse. The spire was added in 1620.

The Magdalen Chapel

The Magdalen Chapel

The Magdalen Chapel is famous for having the only stained glass in Scotland that survived the destruction wrought by the Reformation after 1560. The windows outside have the Royal Coat of Arms encircled with a wreath of thistles and also the coat of arms of Mary of Guise.

In fact it is claimed that the leaders of the reformation met and planned within the chapel. However they were so busy with their campaign around the country that they forgot about the stained-glass right under their noses.

This may be an urban myth but certainly the chapel remains a historically significant part of the history of religion in Scotland.

Appropriately it underwent a restoration in 1993 at a cost of £305,000 and is now the headquarters of the Scottish Reformation Society.

Nowadays the Magdalene Chapel belongs to Heriot-Watt University in the city and services within the Chapel are open to all worshippers. In general the chapel has enjoyed a resurgence of interest since the 1990s restoration with many visitors. It can be easily missed as it is tucked away in the Cowgate area under the shade of the George IV Bridge which looms above. Therefore it is something of a hidden gem.

The Canongate Kirk

The Canongate Kirk on the lower end of the Royal Mile was built at the behest of William of Orange and was completed in 1691

It is the Royal Kirk being the local place of worship for the British Royal family when they are resident in the nearby Palace of Holyroodhouse. Therefore the Queen will attend services at least once a year when she is in Edinburgh which is normally in June. The wedding of Zara Phillips, daughter of Princess Anne, to her husband the rugby player Mike Tyndall took place in the Kirk in 2011.

The Canongate Kirk

The Canongate Kirk

The kirk has been described as an example of 'dignified simplicity' and was designed in the Dutch curvilinear style.

However the main entrance has a Greek style portico with a pediment supported by Doric columns

At the pinnacle of the kirk is the skull of a stag with golden antlers and in between a cross or the 'holy rood' as described in medieval language.

Buried in the graveyard is Adam Smith the 18th century pioneer of liberal economic theory who's 1776 book 'The Wealth of Nations' is still renowned today.

Also within the graveyard are two tragic figures from history. There is Robert Fergusson a famous Edinburgh poet from the early 1700's who coined the term 'Auld Reekie' which is still the nickname of the city today.

Also the body of David Rizzio, a 16th century Italian musician who was the personal secretary to Mary Queen of Scots. He was cruelly murdered by a gang led by Mary's husband Lord Darnley one night in the North-West Tower of the Palace in 1566.

St George’s Church

This building is situated in Charlotte Square and was designed by Robert Adam in 1791. He passed away the following year therefore it was constructed by his assistant Robert Reid from 1811 to 1814 based on Adams' plans.

The large copper dome was inspired by St Paul's Cathedral in London and is a notable landmark of the Georgian New Town of Edinburgh.

In the 1960s the building had to close as the weight of the dome and other embellishments were causing the southern side to sink into the ground. The church could not afford to save the building therefore it was given over to the crown.

After a careful engineering operation to gently shore up its foundations it was re-opened as West Register House. State records and historical documents are stored inside including criminal records of old and new. It serves as an annexe to the main Register House of the National Archives of Scotland in Princes Street.

The building is neo-classical in style in ashlar stone surmounted by the dome and with pavilions either side. It has an impressive entrance with a broad flight of steps leading to a Greek Ionic portico.

St George's Church

St George's Church

Church of St Andrew and St George West

It dates from 1781 and designed by Major Andrew Fraser of the Royal Engineers Regiment of the British Army. It was his only known work apparently.

It is located on George St in the New Town and was originally known as St Andrews until a merger with the congregation of St George's Church in the 1960s.

It has an unusual elliptical design more reminiscent of a synagogue. The symbolic intention is to prevent the devil from hiding in a corner.

The church was the scene of the 'Great Disruption' of 1843 when over 500 ministers of the Scottish Church, led by Thomas Chalmers, walked out of the building and out of the established church.

This schism led to the temporary creation of the United Free Church of Scotland. Most followers returned to the fold in 1929 when the churches were largely united.

Church of St Andrews and St George West

Church of St Andrews and St George West

St Cuthbert's Parish Church

This Baroque style church with Gothic touches stands on the oldest ecclesiastical site in Edinburgh as there has been a presence there since the 9th century

However the current building was constructed as late as 1894 in Princes St Gardens. Previous buildings were damaged and destroyed under barrages of cannonballs during battles for the castle in the 16th and 17th centuries. The old churches were too useful as tactical military shelters to be left alone during war.

One of the outstanding features of the artwork in the church is a stained-glass window depicting John the Baptist and also David on his way to slaying Goliath. The latter was presented by Louis Comfort Tiffany the American artist and designer and son of the founder of the famous New York department store. There is also an alabaster frieze of a copy of Da Vinci's 'The Last Supper' and an Italian Renaissance style painted apse

St Cuthbert's Parish Church

St Cuthbert's Parish Church

St Cuthberts was the scene of the second wedding of legendary crime writer Agatha Christie in 1930. She married archaeologist Max Mallowan who later became Sir Max upon his knighthood in 1968. Agatha considered that it would be the perfect marriage given the occupation of her new husband. She reckoned the older she got then the greater his interest would become.

Buried in the graveyard is John Napier an influential mathematician from the 17th century. He introduced logarithms into the field with a publication in 1614. He also popularised the use of the decimal point.

The Church of St John the Evangelist

This Episcopalian Church was founded in 1818 and was designed in a neo-perpendicular Gothic style by William Burn. It is situated on the corner of Princes St and Lothian Road in West Central Edinburgh.

The interior has a fine whitewashed fan-vaulted ceiling as well as stained-glass by Ballatyne and Allan. The ceiling was inspired by Westminster Abbey in London. Also the sanctuary and chancel were completed in 1882 by Peddie and Kinnear with the vestry and Hall in 1916 by Peddie and Smith.

Underneath on the south side wall you will find a cafe and a bookshop. Visitors can sit outside in good weather and enjoy some food and drink. There is also the Peace and Justice Centre which is used for meetings as well as an impressive little library of political books and journals.

The Church of St John the Evangelist

The Church of St John the Evangelist

The Highland Kirk

The spire of old Highland Kirk is the highest point in Edinburgh as it stands at the top of the Royal Mile near Edinburgh Castle. It dates from 1844 and was designed in the Gothic Revivalist style by James Gillespie Graham and Augustus Pugin.

It was originally built as Victoria Hall for the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland after the schism of the 'Great Disruption' of 1843. It was last used for this purpose in 1929.

Highland Kirk

Highland Kirk

Being a centre for the Highland community in Edinburgh, services in Gaelic were held there until its closure as a place of worship in 1979

Many of its worshippers were from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland but who had migrated to Edinburgh. The congregation then amalgamated with those of the Greyfriars Kirk nearby.

Nowadays it has become 'The Hub' offices which is an organisational and information centre for the famous Edinburgh International Festival which takes place every August. It is also used as a performance area during that month as are many buildings in the city.

But during the rest of the year it is available to be booked for private events such as conferences, banquets and weddings with its rooms licensed for civil ceremonies. It now enjoys a new lease of life as it is a popular venue due to its elegant surroundings. Many locals and tourists will stop by and use its cafe and restaurant as it is ideally placed on the busy Castlehill section on the historic Royal Mile.

The Tron Kirk

The Tron Kirk on the Royal Mile dates from 1647 and was built during the time of the 'War of the Bishops'.

This was caused by the aforementioned King Charles the First trying to impose his rule on the established Church of Scotland.

This led to the signing of the National Covenant in 1638 in Greyfriars Kirk and the subsequent turmoil and bloodshed.

St Giles had been converted into a cathedral therefore the Tron Kirk was built to house its displaced congregation who had rioted upon the reading of the English Book of Common Prayer.

The Tron Kirk

The Tron Kirk

At the time of writing it is currently a disused building although it had previously been utilised as an information centre for the Edinburgh Festival. It is planned for it to be used in future as a venue for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Outside the Tron on the Royal Mile was also the unofficial gathering point for many years of New Year revellers at Hogmanay waiting to 'see in the bells'. The celebrations now take place on Princes St and are among the biggest in the world.

The church is named after the Salt Tron which was a beam for weighing goods to calculate payment of local tolls.

St Mary's Episcopalian Cathedral

Designed by George Gilbert Scott in the neo-Gothic style beloved of the Victorian era and consecrated in 1879. It has three spires and is the largest cathedral in Scotland as well as being the only one that still holds daily Choral worship. It can be found in Palmerston Place in the Haymarket area.

However the two western spires and the Chapter House were not completed until later due to budgetary problems. The latter in 1890 and the former not until 1917. These were overseen by Oldrich and Charles Scott respectively who were the sons of Gilbert Scott. Inside it has an enormous floor-space of 3,200 square meters with seating for 1,500 people in the congregation. The huge central tower stretches up to 90 metres and weighes a massive 5,000 tons.

St Mary's Episcopalian Cathedral

St Mary's Episcopalian Cathedral

Artistic attractions within the cathedral include a hanging Rood Cross by Robert Lorimer, stained-glass by Paolozzi and High Altar reredos by Oldrich Scott in Verona and Carrera marble. The altar also contains a carving of the Crucifixion by Mary Grant and statues of St Margaret and St Columba in its niches.

Barclay Viewforth Church

The Barclay Viewforth Church was opened in 1864 in Tollcross as part of the Free Church of Scotland which had been established after the Great Disruption of 1843. It was then known as "The Barclay Church" after a women named Mary Barclay who provided the funds for its construction. In 2009 it merged with the Viewforth Church and assumed its present name

Barclay Viewforth Church

Barclay Viewforth Church

It was designed by the architect Frederick Thomas Pilkington. He was notable among the gothic revival school so prevalent in the Victorian era.

However the fabric of Barclay Viewforth certainly exudes the influence of the Franco-Venetian style and it's rough textured stone and ornamentation also lend a Medieval feel.

The outside of the church consists of many door openings, arches, gables, towers and window tracery. Above is a quite complicated roof structure leading to one of the tallest spires in Edinburgh.

Within its walls is a large heart-shaped Sanctuary with an elaborate roof made of timber held up by four huge pillars.

The exquisite marble pulpit faces out onto two tiers of galleries and for decoration there are wood carvings and stenciled decoration on the roof..

The church encourages a mixed group of people of all ages especially families and also students with the University of Edinburgh is situated nearby. They also strive "to be open and relevant to those who aren't Christians" and have a Church Centre that can be used by the public.

St Mary's Catholic Cathedral

This building was originally the Chapel of St Mary's designed by James Gillespie Graham and opened in 1814. It was based on the architecture of 13th and 14th century medieval England.

A previous chapel in Blackfriars Wynd had been burned down by an angry mob. This led Bishop Hay to chose a new site over in the north end of the city off Leith St in 1801 although it was eventually opened by Bishop Cameron. It became a cathedral in 1878 on the restoration of the Scottish hierarchy.

St Mary's Catholic Catheral

St Mary's Catholic Catheral

However, the original design for St Marys was simply a rectangular building with a shallow apse covered by a Gothic facade.

Thereafter it became a work in progress for many decades with new additions.

For example an enlargement of the sanctuary in 1841, a cloister chapel in 1866 and a new sanctuary in 1896. The roof was raised in height in 1932.

Most of the interior decoration was installed in the 20th century such as the alabaster canopy on the altar supported by marble columns.

This was modelled on the Italian baldachini and designed in 1928 by Reginald Fairlie.

There are also colourful depictions of the Stations of the Cross by Mayer & Co of Munich sited in the south aisle. Another notable feature is a painting of the Coronation of the Virgin Mary by the Belgian artists Louis Beyar.

During the Edinburgh International Festival every August the building hosts events such as organ recitals and choral singing. This is opened by a 'Solemn Mass' each year and there is also an annual 'Red Mass' to bring the "gift of wisdom on the deliberations of the legal profession in Scotland." The cathedral also enjoyed a Papal Visit in 1982 by Pope John Paul II when he addressed a large congregation of notables.

Priestfield Parish Church

Originally called Rosehall United Presbyterian Church it was opened 1880. In 1900 it became part of the United Free Church before returning to the established Church of Scotland in 1929. It became known as Priestfield in 1974 due to an amalgamation with Prestonfield Parish Church.

It is situated on Dalkeith Road in Newington on the south of the city and created by architects Sutherland and Walker in an Italianate design of Lombardy. Unusually the church has no spire but instead has two impressive square and open towers.

New stained-glass windows were added in 1921 designed by Strachan, Hamilton and Wood. They were a post WW1 memorial to the fallen in battle. Within the church there is a fine pulpit made of pine with intricate carving and arcading. Above the pulpit is the organ gallery mounted on corbelled shafts with a moulded arch. There is also a baptismal font of a kneeling angel with a clamshell based on a Danish original.

Priestfield Parish Church

Priestfield Parish Church

St Patrick's Catholic Church

This dates from 1774 and was originally an Episcopalian Church modelled on St Martin's in the Field in London. It was taken over by the United Presbyterian Church but after a union with another congregation in the 1850s it was no longer needed.

Therefore Bishop Gillies organised the purchase of the building by a mixture of finance from the Catholic Church and public donations.

It then serviced the spiritual needs of the now largely Catholic community in the area. The Cowgate area where it stands had become known as 'Little Ireland' such was the influx of Irish immigrants to that part of Edinburgh in the mid-nineteenth century.

In the 1840s thousands had fled the disastrous potato famine in Ireland causing the great Irish diaspora which sent them all around the world but particularly to Scotland, England the USA, Canada and Australia.

A triumphal arch was added in 1929 with terrace and steps incorporating statues of St Patrick and St Brigid within niches of the new facade. There was also extension work completed after neighbouring tenements were demolished.

In 1875 the famous Edinburgh Football team Hibernian FC were founded in the church by local Irishmen. The clubs name deriving from 'Hibernia' the ancient Roman name for Ireland.

St Patrick's Roman Catholic Church

St Patrick's Roman Catholic Church

Most of these churches and cathedrals are in and around the city centre of Edinburgh and therefore within easy reach.

Many are actually on the routes of the many tour buses that are on offer for visitors.

Other places of religious worship that may be of interest are the Church of St Paul and St Andrew in York Place, the Polish-Speaking Church in Abbeyhill Baptist Church in Elgin Terrace and the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Dalmeny St, Leith.

There are also the Central Mosque in Potterrow and the Edinburgh Synagogue in Salisbury Road.

If you wish to venture further afield and are a fan of the Da Vinci Code novel and movie then just outside Edinburgh in the south is the famous Rosslyn Chapel in Midlothian. Buses are available from Edinburgh city centre to take you there.



Marco Piazzalunga from Presezzo, Italy on January 24, 2013:

The north of Europe offers a fantastic range of churches built since the year one thousand and even before. What most strikes the eye and the imagination, however, is the immense research to reach the heights of heaven of Gothic art.

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