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Issue 43 - Edinburgh and the Lothians

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 43
February 2009


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Edinburgh and the Lothians

Thousands of visitors a year flock to the church of St Giles on the Royal Mile, but the Lothians have a lot more to offer, says John Hannavy.

It is one of the more curious ambiguities of Scotland’s ecclesiastical history that the Collegiate Church of St Giles, now the High Kirk of the Church of Scotland, is most widely referred to as St Giles Cathedral – a title it only ever officially bore during the few years when the Episcopal Church held sway in Scotland in the 17th century. The huge church on the Royal Mile is one of the many magnets for visitors to Scotland’s capital.

Split into two churches at the Reformation, the aisles were subsequently used as offices for the City Clerk, a police station, and as storage. The partitions only finally came down in the 19th century during major restoration. Sadly, those several restorations have all but hidden the medieval St Giles church from the outside, but inside the splendour of Edinburgh’s medieval parish church – and a collegiate foundation from around 1467 – can still be enjoyed. It is a confusing but compelling mixture of just about every architecture style from the 12th century to the present day.

At the bottom of the Royal Mile, alongside that other major tourist magnet the Palace of Holyroodhouse, stands the ruin of the church of Holyrood Abbey. As might be expected for an abbey sited just outside the medieval city, Holyrood’s history was rarely peaceful. The Abbey was attacked by the English in 1322 and again in 1385 – the damage from the later raid taking 75 years to repair.

A further attack in 1544 by the English under the Earl of Hertford reduced it to little more than a smouldering ruin, and, three years later, the army of Hertford, who had by then become Duke of Somerset, repeated the exercise. By that time, however, it had already been abandoned.

Holyrood Abbey also suffered attacks from the locals at the time of the Reformation, but in the 1560s, when the choir and transepts were demolished, the nave was restored, a new east wall built, and the western section of the church continued to be used as the parish church for the Canongate – as it had been for centuries – but now under the rites of the established Presbyterian church.

Attempts by King James II (James VII in the Scottish tradition) to re-establish Catholicism in the country, to create a Chapel Royal and to introduce a community of Jesuit priests, brought further attacks from the people of Edinburgh, leaving the ruin roofless and abandoned as we see it today.

The remainder of the abbey buildings lie underneath the parklands to the east, and the Royal Palace of Holyroodhouse to the south.

The 13th century west front of the church originally sported two square towers, but only the north tower survives – the remains of its southern counterpart being removed during the building of Holyroodhouse.

Moreover, the once-magnificent west door was cruelly mutilated during the construction of the palace, its southern side now disappearing into the palace wall.

North west of the capital, the town of Linlithgow hosts the magnificent Linlithgow Palace, and, just outside the palace walls, St Michael’s Church – never more than a parish church, but undoubtedly one of Scotland’s treasures, and one which has survived virtually unaltered since it was completed in the early years of the 16th century. Its only major addition has been the striking gold corona, added to the tower some 40 or so years ago.

A few miles south east of Edinburgh, on the edge of Haddington, the former collegiate church of St Mary has a remarkable story to tell. The effects of the passage of time are nowhere more dramatically illustrated than by a visit to the church often referred to as the ‘Lamp of the Lothians,’ after a previous Frannciscan Friary destroyed by the English in 1365. Alittle more than 30 years ago, only the nave of St Marys was still in use as the parish church. Today, the church stands apparently complete in all its medieval glory.

But all is not as it seems.

Haddington Collegiate Church was only established in the 1540s, only two decades before the Reformation, although the building itself dates from the 1460s. It is a large and beautiful cruciform church with a central tower, built on the site of an earlier 12th century building.

Both John Knox and his friend George Wishart preached from the pulpit in 1545 and, unusually for the period, it is recorded that 90 per cent of the parishioners stayed away, anxious about the repercussions and preferring to abandon Mass than listen to the two reformers preaching their fiery sermons.

Within a few years, their attitude towards John Knox would change, but for Wishart, the future held only arrest after his last sermon in the church, followed by his trial and execution at St. Andrews.

Of the church as it stands today, much is original, but much is not. The nave roof, originally a wooden beam structure, was replaced with the present plaster structure in the early 19th century. The choir roof, lost centuries ago, was replaced only in the 1970s, at which time the 16th century wall separating choir and nave was removed. The impact on the local clergy and community of revealing the church in its entirety for the first time in four centuries was considerable.

What appears to be a rich medieval vaulted ceiling over the restored choir is in fact late 20th century fibreglass, carefully coloured and tinted to look like the original stonework. It was felt that the ancient walls, exposed to the elements inside and out for so long, could not bear the weight of a traditional roof. The effect is amazing, and a visit is strongly recommended – the Lamp of the Lothians is a very special place.

And talking of lamps, on the exterior of the east wall of Corstorphine Church – a 15th century former collegiate church, much modified in the 16th and 17th centuries, there is a lamp niche – a reminder of a time when a tallow lamp burned in the darkness to guide worshippers across the marshy land which surrounded the church. After an absence of centuries, a replacement lamp was installed in the 1980s, but as Corstorphine is now a busy suburb of Edinburgh, parishioners are faced with much less daunting walks to church than their medieval predecessors.