St Gile’s Cathedral

St Giles in the Painting

St Giles, in this period of its history, was regarded as a building ready for any function that it might please the Civic Rulers of Edinburgh to decree.[1]

St Gile’s Church, commonly misnamed St Gile’s Cathedral,[2] is the most prominent building in the Painting occupying almost the entire north side of the Square.  With its characteristic crowned steeple it is instantly recognisable to Edinburgh citizens and visitors today, but both internally and externally it has changed a great deal since the picture was painted. At the time of the Painting the Church was enjoying a relatively quiet period in its troubled history.  The upheavals of the Reformation during the mid 16th century and the subsequent attempts of Charles I and II to introduce Episcopalianism were long past, if not forgotten, and Presbyterianism was firmly established.

The varied functions of St Giles

St Giles, like all the other public buildings in Edinburgh at that period, performed several functions. It had even housed two prison cells, one above the roof of the Nave where there was an attic space – the vaute – which was put to various uses including providing the living quarters of the bellringer (see below).

In 1571, Sir William Kirkcaldy of Grange, Governor of Edinburgh Castle, became a leader of the Marian supporters of Mary Queen of Scots during the civil war which followed Mary’s dethronement and her escape from imprisonment. He fortified St Giles on 28 March by stationing some of his troops in the vaute and mounting three cannon in the steeple . The troops were required to make holes in the roof of the nave through which they could fire their muskets at the crowd of assailants in the church below. William Chambers reported that they ‘made the vaute like a riddle to shoot through’. On the 25 April a bloody brawl took place in the Kirk between Kirkcaldy’s men, who were guarding the steeple, against young men of the town who supported the King’s cause.

Kirkcaldy withdrew his forces from the Church in July 1572. The King’s men under the Regent, the Earl of Morton, supported by troops supplied by Queen Elizabeth besieged Kirkcaldy’s last stronghold in the Castle. The Marians, deprived of food and water, were starved into submission. Thus ending the civil war. Kirkcaldy was arrested and hanged at the Cross on 3 August 1673 for his part in the dispute.

During the 16th and 17th centuries the western end of the church was walled off to create what was known as the Outer Tolbooth to provide temporary accommodation for the Town Council, the Court of Session and Parliament at times when the condition of the Old and New Tolbooths rendered them unfit for these purposes.  The first meeting of Parliament presided over by Queen Mary in 1563 was held there in St Giles amid great pageantry. During the Commonwealth, Cromwell used part of the Church as a barracks.

Business deals were conducted within the Church. Scott in The Fortunes of Nigel describes a financial transaction between George Heriot and Lord Glenvarloch, which was to be concluded ‘beside the tomb of the Regent, Earl of Moray, in the High Kirk of Saint Giles, at Edinburgh, being the day and place assigned for such redemption’. This was a recognised location for the settlement of important business matters and the exchange of money. Wilson gives a history of this practice in Memorials of Edinburgh p390. The monument in Regent’s Aisle was approached by a door from Parliament Close which was never closed. (The entrance to this doorway can be seen in Le Conte’s engraving between the shops of Reid, watchmaker and Mathie, jeweller). This easy access made it a convenient place ‘to make bills payable at “the Earl of Murray’s” tomb.’ (The spelling of Moray and Murray was interchangeable at that time). Wilson regrets that that this historic memorial was deliberately demolished during the alterations in 1829 (see below).

The entrance to the Moray Aisle of St Giles between the shops of Reid and Mathie

All that remains of the Moray Tomb today is a brass plaque with a Latin inscription which translated reads:

To James Stewart, Earl of Moray, Regent of Scotland, a man by far the noblest of his time, barbarously slain by enemies, the vilest in history. His country mourning has raised this monument as to a common father.

An older brass plaque, which was removed during Burn’s alterations in 1829-33, bore the following inscription: (PSAS I P38-90)

Upon Tuisday the 14th of Februar, the Regent’s corps was careid from the Abbey of Halyrudhous to the Great Kirk of Edinburgh and was buried in the South ile. Mr Knox made a Sermon before the burial, upon these words, ‘Blessed are these that dee in the Lord’. Manie of the nobilitie was present. He moved three thousand persons to shed tears for the losse of such a good and godlie Governour.

As the population grew and the number of parishes within the City increased, St Giles was subdivided by partitions creating separate churches to accommodate the demand. The first division during the 1570’s split the church into two – the East or New Kirk and the Great or Old Kirk.

At the time of the Painting the partition of the Outer Tolbooth had been removed, making space for further subdivisions, and the Kirk was divided into four separate churches.  The New Church, the principal church of the City, occupied the original choir. It contained the King’s seat and those of the Lord Provost, magistrates and judges. The Old Church occupied the transepts and the Tolbooth Church the south west corner.  It was from the Tolbooth Church that George Robertson made his escape while awaiting his execution for his part in the Porteus affair. The North West Church which occupied the north west corner, was commonly known as the Haddo’s Hole Church – so named having been the prison in which Sir John Gordon of Haddo had been confined in 1644 before his execution for being an anti-covenanter.  The City Police Office was the last remaining secular body to be housed in the Church where it remained until 1829.

The church in those days was described as a ramshackle structure[4] and Henry Parry Liddon who later became Dean of St Paul’s found it depressing:

St Giles is now cut up into three meeting houses[5]…all are furnished with very capacious galleries…we passed the tomb of Montrose, his aisle has been fitted up to make a comfortable vestry for the minister of the central church.  Several Presbyterians went round with me; they seemed to think the whole affair a due blending of the beautiful and useful.  The men did not take off their hats and seemed surprised at my doing so…I left the church feeling a deep and unutterable aversion for a system whose outward manifestations are so hatefully repulsive.  I thank God the Church of England is very different from the Kirk of Scotland[6].

Floor Plan of St Giles at the time of the Painting   

From Elliot’s Plan of 1818

A Sleepy Congregation by John Kay 1785

It shows the Rev Dr Alexander Webster preaching to his congregation in the Tolbooth Church within St Giles. As minister of this church from 1737 until his death in 1784 aged 77, he was renowned for the eloquence of his preaching and for promoting a fund for the widows of clergy.

The Restoration of the St Giles

William Chambers in Historical Sketch of St Giles commented on the general acquiescence by the several congregations which occupied St Giles and the men of letters in Edinburgh who “complacently saw before their eyes an edifice abounding in some of the finest specimens of fifteenth-century architecture degraded into a collection of wretchedly fetid caverns”.  Externally it was no better. The Painting shows the south face of St Giles prior to the removal of the attached shops. The removal of the Krames and the Luckenbooths in 1807-14 revealed the medieval rubble walls of the Church to be in a dreadful state. Restoration was urgently required. The Government granted £12,600 (well over a million pounds today) towards the repair and restoration which was put in the hands of an architect, William Burn during 1829-33.  

Shortly beforehand, Robert Reid had carried out extensive alterations in Parliament Square during which he refaced the rubble wall of the Parliament House with ashlar sandstone in 1809-12.  Burn proceeded to do the same to the exterior walls of St Giles in uniformity with the work of Reid. All niches on the outside were swept away and a similar ashlar facing was applied together with metal reinforcement of the wall.

Within the Church he raised the roof of the nave by 16 feet. The extent of the roof’s elevation can be seen by the marks on the original stonework of the transept. It created space which enabled clerestory windows to be inserted to match the chancel. In the process it eliminated the ‘vaute’ – the attic space which contained several apartments latterly used as the residence of the bell ringer.

The extent of the raised roof of the nave can be seen from marks on the stonework of the transept. The sloping lines show the outline of the original roof.

Over the years many private chapels and memorials had been built against the internal walls of St Giles which encroached upon the space within the church and must have obscured the appearance of the interior just as the shops and Krames had spoiled the external appearance. Burn ‘tidied up’ many of these historic features including the Regent Moray’s tomb (see above). Side chapels were removed except those used for storage of coal. Lees records that ancient monuments were broken up to make bedding for the floor. Tombstones were broken to pieces and cartloads of ornamental stone were removed, some of which still adorn the rockeries of suburban gardens[7].

Fragment of an ecclesiastical stone found in a Morningside garden today. Origin unknown.

One of the most regretted and needless losses was the removal of the splendid entrance from the High Street adorned with beautiful carvings of animals and grotesque faces.

The Norman entrance from the High Street removed in 1797-8 prior to Burns restoration of 1829. It must have been obscured by the Luckenbooths before their removal. (From Grant Memorials of Edinburgh)

The Norman doorway was a survival of the original St Giles which had been largely destroyed by Richard II in 1385. Its removal was greatly regretted by William. Chambers ‘By an act of barbarism this ancient arch, a previous relic of the twelfth century, was taken down and utterly destroyed in the course of some repairs.’

The Police Office – the last remaining secular occupant of the Church – was removed, leaving the Church entirely dedicated to its religious function. 

Just as Reid’s modifications to Parliament Square attracted strong criticism, so Burn’s ‘harsh restoration’ of St Giles was greeted with mixed reactions[8]

Daniel Wilson wrote:

It must be a subject of unfailing regret to every true antiquary, that the restoration of St Giles’s Church in 1829 was conducted in so rash and irreverent a spirit, in consequence of which so many of its peculiar features have disappeared, along with nearly all those traces of its adaptation to the ceremonial of Roman Catholic worship, which had escaped the rude hands of the equally irreverent, but far more pardonable, Reformers of the sixteenth century.[9]

Robert Louis Stevenson, who objected strongly to the changes taking place within and around St Giles, wrote in his Edinburgh, Picturesque Notes:

Time has wrought its changes most notably around the precinct of St Giles’ church. The church itself, if it were not for its spire, would be unrecognisable; the Krames are all gone, not a shop is left to shelter in its buttresses; and zealous magistrates and a misguided architect have shorn the design of manhood, and left it poor, naked and pitifully pretentious. St Giles’ must have had in former days a rich and quaint appearance now forgotten, so the neighbourhood was bustling, sunless, and romantic…. [10]

The Statue of William Chambers in Chambers Street

William Chambers (1800-1885), author, publisher and Lord Provost of Edinburgh, is remembered by Chambers Street in which his statue now stands. He describes the various restorations of St Giles which took place in his lifetime in his Historical sketch of St Giles Cathedral and was particularly upset by ‘Mr  Burn’s improvements on St Giles’.

By some they are thought to have made matters worse rather than better.  We are certainly left to lament that from whatever cause, he took away or mutilated much that can never be replaced’. [11]

It was generally acknowledged, however, that Burn’s reinforcement and refacing of the church wall saved the building from the threat of collapse.

Chambers used his influence and dedicated his last years to rectifying what he regarded as the unsympathetic alterations of Burn’s. He personally contributed funds towards a further restoration of the Church.  This was carried out by the architect, William Hay, during 1871-83.  Hay’s more sympathetic work removed much of Burn’s internal changes, replacing his pillars with more substantial ones and rebuilding a more imposing West entrance. An organ was installed and stained glass windows inserted. Stalls and chairs replaced the pews. A splendid new pulpit designed by Hay replaced the old wooden one that had been used by Knox.

Hay’s new West Door. The elaborate stonework sculpted by John Rhind.

The sculptor, John Rhind (1825-92), who carved the stonework for this pulpit and for Hay’s west entrance to st Giles and the statue of William Chambers (above) was remarkably productive. He and his son William Birnie Rhind also contributed several of the statues which surround the Monument to Walter Scott on Princes Street

Hay removed all the remaining internal partitions, which had separated the four churches which at one time occupied the Cathedral, creating the unified Church very much as it stands today.  Unfortunately the benevolent William Chambers died three days before the rededication of the Church on 23 May 1885, just before he was due to receive a baronetcy. His own funeral was held in the Church two days later.

One of the new stained glass windows. A bearded John Knox is seen conducting the funeral service of the assassinated Regent Moray. The inscription at the bottom of the window reads ‘In memory of Regent Murray presented by George Stuart fourteeenth Earl of Moray, 1881

It was Chambers’ ambition that St Giles should become the Westminster Abbey of Scotland and to some extent this has come about. Many plaques now adorn the walls commemorating notable individuals or events. There is even a ‘poets corner’ celebrating Robert Ferguson, Robert Louis Stevenson and John Brown author of Rab and his Friends but curiously no mention of Walter Scott. Robert Burns is commemorated by a stained glass window over the west entrance. The colours of Scottish regiments are displayed. Inevitably these introductions as with all the previous changes have come in for criticism.

Plaque commemorating the quincentenary of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh
An enormous plaque celebrating R L Stevenson

This mural bronze panel by Augustus Saint-Gaudens was erected in 1904 as a result of the initiative of the 5th Earl of Rosebury.

Chambers himself is commemorated in a side chapel. The plaque reads –

This Chapel is in memory of William Chambers of Glenormiston LL. D. Publisher, Lord Provost of Edinburgh 1865-69 to whose munificence Scotland is indebted for the complete restoration of this Ancient Cathedral

The last major change to the structure of the Church was the addition in 1910-11 of the elegant Thistle Chapel designed by the architect Robert Lorimer, which in contrast to the earlier developments has received general approval. 

During these various restorations many human remains were revealed under the floor, from the burials of prominent citizens within the Church, which had been permitted in the past. These were gathered and reburied elsewhere – some in Greyfriar’s churchyard. They may have contributed to the fetid atmosphere which Chambers referred to above.

The only structure that survived all the restorations unchanged was the Cathedral’s iconic crowned steeple. Lees (1889) wrote P274:

What a strange story its old gray crown, as it towers high above the city, tells out day by day to all who have ears to hear. It is the story of Scotland’s poetry, romance, religion – the story of her progress through cloud and sunshine, the story of her advance from barbarianism to the culture and civilisation of the present day.

Since the above was written even the steeple has been altered by the removal of the clock faces.

The bells and clocks of St Giles. Read more…


[1] Miller, R  Municipal buildings of Edinburgh  p53

[2] The name of the Church is somewhat confused.  During the reigns of Charles I and II, when Edinburgh was created a diocese and bishops were appointed, the Church was by Royal Command designated a Cathedral. In 1690 the status of Bishopric was abandoned and the Church no longer qualified for the designation as a Cathedral. Nevertheless the name has tended to stick and remains carved in stone at the West entrance.  It is more properly referred to as the High Church (or Kirk) of St Giles. 

[3] Maitland p282

[4] Galloway p68

[5] By the time of Liddon’s visit (1851) the Tolbooth and Haddo’s Hole churches had been joined into one. 

[6] Johnston, J O (1904)  Life  and letters of Henry Parry Liddon  p15

[7] Lees, J C (1889) St Giles Edinburgh p263

[8] Hay, G The late medieval development of the High Kirk of St. Giles  PSAS 107,  p244-260

[9] Wilson, D  (1891) Memorials of Edinburgh in Olden Times p378

[10] Stevenson, R L (1900) Edinburgh, Picturesque Notes p43

[11] Chambers, W (1894)  Historical Sketch of St Giles’ Cathedral  p39