Churches in Edinburgh
Written by Dani Baker Monday, 17 February 2020 10:30
As you’re no doubt already aware, Edinburgh is an incredibly beautiful city. The many church buildings dotted around the city centre play a big part in creating this appeal – here is our selection of wonderful churches you can visit
Greyfriar’s Kirk has possibly the most famous kirkyard in Edinburgh thanks to Greyfriar’s Bobby and the many Harry Potter references. However, this church is notable for other reasons too: it is the site of a pre-Reformation Franciscan monastery while the National Covenant was signed here in 1638. Nowadays Greyfriar’s Kirk hosts free music concerts, art exhibitions, ceilidhs and also offers a recording space recording space.
You are able to visit the church or attend services, including one in Gaelic!
King David I founded St Giles Cathedral, the High Kirk of Edinburgh, in 1124. He also contributed to the formation of the Royal Mile with the founding of Holyrood Abbey and the construction of houses up to St Giles. During the 16th century St Giles became the focal point of the Scottish Reformation, after John Knox, a Scottish priest who had converted to Protestantism, had been in exile. He marched with an army of followers to St Giles and was elected minister a week later.
Nowadays, St Giles forms an important part of Edinburgh’s cultural life, hosting concerts, exhibitions and civic ceremonies. One of the annual events is the meeting of the Order of the Thistle. This Scottish order of chivalry dates back to 1687 and has its own chapel at St Giles, where the order’s 16 members meet every year on St Andrew’s Day. Take a look at the gold leaf ceiling of this chapel when you visit, as well as the Robert Burns memorial window above the entrance, which depicts many of the poet’s major themes.
St Margaret’s Chapel, located at the top of Edinburgh Castle, was built by King David I to honour his mother, Margaret. She died at the Castle in 1093 and is believed to have performed many charitable works.
Robert the Bruce ordered the castle’s demolition in 1314 to stop it falling back into English hands. However, St Margaret’s Chapel was spared and on his deathbed Bruce pledged funds for the chapel to be repaired. The ornate arches are original and the building was even used as a gunpowder store– ideal given the 2-foot thick walls!
St Margaret’s Chapel Guild, in conjunction with Historic Environment Scotland, looks after the chapel and is formed of members in Scotland who share the saint’s first name. It was established in 1942 to uphold the teachings of St Margaret and to encourage the chapel being used for worship. The chapel is still used for baptisms and weddings and, when the Castle is closed, can be used by the castle garrison as a place for prayer and reflection.
The Canongate Kirk is a relatively simple building at the bottom of the Royal Mile. The church has many royal connections: in 1952, recently crowned Queen Elizabeth II was the first reigning monarch to visit while her granddaughter, Zara Philips, married here in 2011. Take a look at the coats of arms on the front two pews - these are the Royal Pew and the Castle Pew, reserved for visitors from the Royal family or Edinburgh Castle. You can also see the original chamber organ from 1843, which, although now powered by electricity, still has a functioning hand pump. Another point of interest is the fractured cross on the window looking towards Calton Hill. This was broken during a break in at the church and, when the glass entrance doors were installed, it was decided that the etching representing the Holy Trinity would also feature a fractured cross.
When you visit Canongate Kirk you will also notice many military references. The church is the Regimental Kirk of the Royal Scots and after the Cold War they brought back a window from Werl in Germany that is still housed in the church. You can also visit the poignant War Memorial Chapel with rolls of honour for the men from Canongate who died in WWII, Dunkirk veterans and the 603 City of Edinburgh RAF Squadron. Sunday services are at 10am and 11:15am and the kirk is open to visitors between May and September.
If there’s good weather while you’re in Edinburgh, why not take a tour of Canongate Kirkyard too? It is maintained by Edinburgh Council and is the resting place of many interesting figures, such as economists, doctors and poets. During summer there are tours of the Kirkyard, or you can download podcasts and guided maps here.
St Mary’s Catholic Cathedral, originally called the Chapel of St Mary’s, held its first masses in August 1814. The Cathedral houses the National Shrine of St Andrew, Scotland’s patron saint, and even has an underground passage leading to a priest’s house in York Place. It wasn’t until the 1970s that passers by could see the Cathedral in its full splendor when tenements in front of the building were demolished. One of the highlights in the Cathedral’s history was the visit of Pope John Paul II on 31/5/1982 during which he prayed at the National Shrine of St Andrew.
St Cuthbert’s Parish Church, located at the west end of Princes Street, has several theories surrounding its origins. One is that St Cuthbert sheltered in a hollow below Castle Rock while journeying from Melrose. Whatever the true origin, this is the most ancient religious site in Edinburgh, although the present church building dates back to 1892-4. There are several points of interest inside, such as a modified version of da Vinci’s Last Supper and a font based on that of Siena Cathedral. As you walk down the aisle you’ll also be following in the footsteps of Agatha Christie who married her second husband here in 1930.
St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral is a short walk from Princes Street towards Haymarket. Its spires are visible from most places in Edinburgh, especially looking west from Princes Street.
Not only does this cathedral offer a place of stillness in the bustling Scottish capital, there are also opportunities such as learning to be a stonemason in the Cathedral Workshop or a Cathedral Chorister at St Mary’s Music School. The Cathedral buildings are also often used for the community purposes, such as a GP surgery, nursery or mental health outreach centre.
When you visit look out for the Rood Cross, which depicts the crucifixion against a backdrop of Flanders poppies and was designed as part of the National War Memorial. We also recommend taking a look at the marble High Altar which depicts St Columba and St Margaret, both important figures in medieval Christianity in Scotland. If you’re lucky enough to visit on a sunny day you will also enjoy a kaleidoscope of colour as the light shines through the Paolozzi window, designed by Leith-born artist Eduardo Paolozzi.
The Cathedral’s doors are open to visitors each day, and also has daily services .
There are also several other church buildings on the Royal Mile that are no longer used for religious purposes, for example the Tron and the Hub are both typical of Edinburgh’s Old Town and well worth a look inside.
What are your favourite churches in Edinburgh? Let us know on Twitter @reserveapts