Friday, 1 October 2010

St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh

The three spires of St Mary's Episcopal Cathedral form a prominent part of the iconic skyline of Edinburgh, especially when looking west along Princes Street.


The Episcopal Church had been without a cathedral in Edinburgh since the division of the established church in 1689, when the ancient Cathedral of St Giles had come under the Ministry of the Established Presbyterian church. However, the aspiration to build one was only realised in the 19th century, when two wealthy spinster sisters, Barbara and Mary Walker, bequeathed their Drumsheugh Estates to fund the building on a site to the west of the New Town.

An architectural competition was held for the new Cathedral, which was won by Sir George Gilbert Scott, perhaps best known as the architect of St Pancras railway station. The foundation stone was laid in 1874 and the Cathedral completed in 1879, although the towers were added later. Scott considered this his best church.

The Church

The church is the largest ecclesiastical building in Scotland, and its three spires - the central spire over the crossing is 275ft high - form a prominent landmark in Edinburgh, although the church itself is actually tucked away, off the City's main thoroughfares in the western part of the New Town.

The design is essentially in Early English Gothic, with Decorated Gothic additions. The layout is conventional, with a nave with aisles separated by arcades of 6 bays, with large aisled transepts and an aisled chancel of 4 bays. The overall impression is of great space and size, with the dark exposed stonework giving it an air of mystery.

Fittings of interest include the pulpit and high altar Reredos, both designed by J Oldrid Scott (son of Sir George); a brass lectern in the form of the Pelican; and a huge hanging Rood, designed by Sir Robert Lorimer (1864–1929) to form part of the War Memorial; and the Millenium Window in the Resurrection Chapel (in the South Transept), designed by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi. There are also excellent encaustic-tile pavements in the Chancel, and fine Victorian ironwork screens, elaborately painted, in the Choir. Most notable, however, is the pew of the novelist and poet Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), brought here from St George's Episcopal Church, now located in the King Charles Chapel.

The Cathedral boasts a choir that sings daily. A song school was built for them to practice in, in 1885. Designed by J Oldrid Scott, it contains a wooden vaulted roof, painted blue and decorated with gold motifs, while the walls are covered with mural-style paintings by Phoebe Anna Traquair. This building is open to the public, on a limited basis, to view the murals - see website for information on visits.

Palmerston Place, Edinburgh EH12 5AW

St Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh

St Giles is not the prettiest or most dramatic of cathedrals, but has a complex and interesting history and a striking setting on the Royal Mile.


There has been a place of worship on the site for around 900 years, and possibly longer, as there is a record of a parish church in Edinburgh in 854AD. A church on the present site was built in the 1120s in the Romanesque style. It was dedicated to St Andrew in 1243, but later rededicated to St Giles.

This church was later enlarged in the Gothic style, and the present choir, built between 1320 and 1380, is the main remnant of this building. Partially burned in 1385, it was repaired and further expanded during the 15th and 16th centuries. The Albany Aisle (1409) and the Preston Aisle (c. 1454) date from this later period. Private chapels were also inserted, and by the 16th century there were some 150 of them crowding the interior.

However, the church underwent major changes as a result of the ministry of the famous Scottish Reformation churchman, John Knox, who was Minister at St Giles 1559-1572. During this period the church was reorganised to reflect the Reformed style of worship, which included removing many of the chapels and much of the stained glass. Because of his Ministry, the church is regarded by many as the spiritual home of Presbyterianism. The building was also partitioned to enable other uses to take place, which over subsequent years including a police station, fire station school and coal store.

During the 17th century, the church experienced periods of Episcopal (Anglican) control, and was elevated to Cathedral status in 1635-38 and again in 1661-89. These episodes reflected tensions arising from King Charles’ plans to reintroduce episcopacy in Scotland: those opposed to the move signed a National Covenant and, by the end of the century, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland had become the Established church. Thereafter, St Giles ceased to be a Cathedral, although the name has stuck.

These tensions are well illustrated by two impressive tombs in the church: those of James Graham, Marquess of Montrose, who resisted the National Covenant, and who was executed in 1650; and his opponent, Archibald Campbell, Marquess of Argyll, himself executed in 1661. Montrose was interred in the church after the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660; his memorial dates from 1880. That to Argyll, in a similar style, dates from 1894.

The exterior was substantially restored in 1829, and from 1872 the partitions were removed and the interior opened up, with new stained glass windows inserted (all the glass dates from the 19th and 20th centuries). The major 20th century addition was the Thistle Chapel, built in 1911 for the Knights of the Thistle, Scotland's order of chivalry. It was designed by Sir Robert Lorimer in an elaborate 15th century high Gothic style.

The church

The church now dominates the central section of the Royal Mile, and its tower lantern is a prominent landmark. The exterior is impressive, but most of the interest lies inside. The interior is dark and cavernous, an effect magnified by the presence of double south aisles and numerous small chapels (also referred to as aisles), the arcade arches giving a forest-like appearance.

Although it has transepts, the addition of aisles and chapels give it an almost rectangular plan. The architecture is largely late Decorated and Perpendicular Gothic, although many of the windows date from the 19th century restorations.

Most impressive is the Thistle Chapel which, with its complex vaulted ceilings and elaborate woodwork, is a testament to early 20th century workmanship. The Chepman aisle houses Montrose’s impressive memorial, complete with life-sized alabaster effigy in full 16th century military garb. Argyll also has a life-size effigy, in Civilian dress, located in St Eloi’s aisle. The south Preston Aisle, which leads to the Thistle Chapel, dates from 1454 and was erected to contain a relic (an arm bone) of St Giles, although this was lost in the reformation around 1560.

The 15th century Albany Aisle is now dedicated to those who fell in the two World Wars, and includes memorials to the various Scottish Regiments. The church walls are covered in numerous other memorials, of varying quality and interest, predominantly from the 19th century.

High Street, Edinburgh EH1 1RE