William Chambers.

The Scottish church from the earliest times to 1881 to which is prefixed an historical sketch of St. Giles' Cathedral online

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prelacy, and was frequented only by sound church-and-state
men, who did not care so much for the sermon, as for the
gratification of sitting in the same place with His Majesty's
Lords of Council and Session, and the magistrates of Edin-
burgh, and who desired to be thought men of sufficient
liberality and taste to appreciate the prelections of Blair.
The Old Church, in the centre of the whole, was frequented
by people who wished to have a sermon of good divinity, about
three-quarters of an hour long, and who did not care for the
darkness and dreariness of their temple. The Tolbooth
Church was the peculiar resort of a set of rigid Calvinists
from the Lawnmarket and head of the Bow, termed the Tow-
buith Whigs, who loved nothing but extempore evangelical
sermons, and would have considered it sufficient to bring the
house down about their ears, if the precentor had ceased, for one
verse, the old hillside fashion of reciting the lines of the psalm
before singing them, Dr Webster was long one of the clergy-
men of this church, and deservedly admired as a pulpit orator.'

As a type of the places of worship inconveniently crammed
within the nave and aisles of St Giles' a hundred years ago,
the Tolbooth Church became a subject for the satirical pencil
of Kay, a notable Edinburgh caricaturist. His sketch is
entitled ' A Sleepy Congregation.' The idea is conveyed of a
church of limited dimensions, with a gallery, crowded in all
its parts without an inch of free space, for even the passages
were provided with benches, which were let down on hinges
for sitters as soon as the clergyman entered the pulpit. Two
of the heavy stone pillars that were never designed for a church
of this kind, stood inconveniently among the seats. One of
them was so directly in front of the preacher, as to cause some
difficulty in managing the voice.

Mr W. Browne, who is a surviving member of the congre-

Sf Giles' Cathedral Church.

gation as it existed in the early years of the present century,
has written Notes and Recoiled mis of the Tolbooth Church,
printed for private circulation, in which is given an amusing
account of the state of affairs. We have space for only one
particular. ' The walls were dingy in colour, and seemed to
have dust resting on every available place. On one occasion,
when either Mr Whitefield or Mr Simeon preached, he noticed
a large cobweb which had been placed at a height above the
reach of ordinary besoms, and remarked : " That is the very cob-
web which I saw when I was last here " — so many years ago.'

What will strike every one with surprise is, that throughout
the eighteenth and the early years of the present century
there should have been such a general acquiescence in the
odious internal condition of St Giles' Church. Arnot, the
historian of Edinburgh, who wrote in 1779, and gives a list
of the congregations which then confusedly nestled in the
building, and must have suffered from the mass of decaying
mortality beneath their feet, has not a word of remonstrance
on the subject. There were accomplished men of letters in
Edinburgh at a still later period who are now reckoned among
national luminaries. Not one of them, as far as we know,
imagined there was anything wrong in the unseemly state of
St Giles'. They 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. Lord Cockburn, in his Memorials, makes some re-
marks on the total want of taste which prevailed at this period.
Speaking of St Giles', he says : ' It might have been painted
scarlet without any one objecting.' But the same dearth of
taste as regards ecclesiastical structures and the comfort of
congregations prevailed almost everywhere until very recent

Before it was despoiled, 1558-60, the vast interior of this
grand old building, with its many pillars and groined roof,
must have presented an appearance resembling that of a

Sf Giles' Cathedral Church.

spacious English cathedral of the olden class. The policy of
cutting up and apportioning this handsome structure, on which
so much architectural taste had been lavished, is inexcusable.
The transformation was effected in a manner altogether taste-
less. No care was taken to preserve the finer parts of the
architecture. Rows of fluted pillars sustaining lofty arches
were merged in the rough walls which were erected lengthwise
and crosswise to form the several compartments. The foliated
bases and capitals of pillars were hacked without mercy to bring
them within the required line. Characteristic heads carved
among the foliage were knocked off with hammers, and are
found buried in rubbish beneath the floor. The erection of
galleries in all the churches caused further dilapidation, as
cavities for beams to sustain these galleries were dug in the
sides of several pillars.

Under the authority of successive acts of Parliament, the
municipality of Edinburgh was extended, and churches for new
parochial divisions were erected in various places at consider-
able cost to the civic corporation. Nevertheless, St Giles'
remained in the condition now described until the first quarter
of the nineteenth century. There were still four churches and
a Police Ofiice under one roof. In 1 817, by the removal of
small shops or * krames,' which had long existed within the
niches of the ancient building, the exterior had a very ragged
appearance. Public sentiment was roused. Something must
be done to renovate St Giles'. For several years the subject
received the consideration of the Town Council, and a plan for
remodelling the church, by Mr Burn, architect, was at length
adopted. The cost was to be about ;^2o,ooo, towards which
sum government contributed ^^i 2,600. Dr Laing gives a
ground-plan of St Giles', before it was touched by Mr Burn ;
but by a singular mistake of the artist in framing the scale of
feet, the building is represented as being about two hundred
and fifty feet long. Its true measurement was a hundred and
ninety-six feet in length within the walls, by a hundred and

S^ Giles" Cathedral Church,

thirty feet wide at the transepts. The ground-plan we sub=
sequently offer shews its present dimensions and character.

Burn commenced his operations in 1829, and the work was
finished in 1833. On the south-west, two of the 'five chapels'
or aisles, contracted for in 1387, were removed, in order to
widen the entrance to the Parliament Square from the west,
while other alterations were made in this part of the building.
On the north side of the nave, two chapels were removed.
One of these, which adjoined the transept, says Daniel
Wilson, in his interesting Memorials of Edinburgh., ' was the
only portion of the church in which any of the coloured glass
remained, with which, doubtless, most of its windows were
anciently filled. Its chief ornament consisted of an elephant,
very well executed ; underneath which were the crown and
hammer, the armorial bearings of the Incorporation of Ham-
mermen, inclosed within a wreath. From these insignia, we
may infer that this was St Elois' Chapel, at the altar of which,
according to the traditions of the burgh, the craftsmen of Edin-
burgh, who had followed Allan, Lord High Steward of Scotland,
to the Holy Land, and aided in the recovery of the Holy
Sepulchre from the Infidels, dedicated the famous Blue Blanket,
or Banner of the Holy Ghost.'

Burn changed the entire exterior aspect of St Giles', the
spire alone excepted. Picturesque roofs and pinnacles dis-
appeared. The whole fabric was new cased in a bald style of
art. As concerns the interior, the sectioning into parts was
only modified. The choir remained as before. The southern
section of the building was fitted up for meetings of the General
Assembly ; but this appropriation not being found satisfactory,
the Old Church in a few years afterwards was here located.
The best thing done was the expulsion of the Police Office.
For it, was substituted a capacious lobby, common to
the several congregations, who all entered by one outer
door in the north transept. There was an alteration of
names. The Tolbooth Church and Haddo's Hole statutorily

Si Giles" Cathedral Church.

vanish. The nave is occupied by the New North Church,
now designated West St Giles'. It is much to be deplored
that, in the course of this remodelling, the fine old monument
of the Earl of Murray, which had once been a place of
resort, and was otherwise interesting, was destroyed. ' It
might have been thought,' says Dr Laing, ' that such a
monument would have escaped any sacrilegious hand ; but
to the disgrace of our civic authorities, it was allowed to
be demolished, and the brass tablet, containing engraved figures
of Justice and Faith, with an inscription written by Buchanan,
was removed.' The brass tablet, however, was not lost. As
after described, it is to be seen on the modern monument of
the Earl of Murray.

So much for 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.

As regards the spire of St Giles', it dates from the twelfth
century, in which, as has been stated, the church was built.
Of this antiquity, there is sufficient evidence in the massive
substructure of octagonal pillars resembling those in the choir.
Injured by the fire in 1385, the spire participated in the
renovations that took place in the fifteenth century. It is
known to have been repaired without detriment to its original
character in 1648. And so it remains till the present day.
As will be seen from our frontispiece, it is a handsome
square structure, terminating in decorated arches and pinnacles,
producing the appearance of an imperial crown, and rising
to a height of one hundred and sixty-one feet. Billings, in
his pictorial work on the Baronial and Ecclesiastical Antiquities
of Scotland, observes that of all the Scottish instances of
this species of structure, the spire of St Giles' ' is at once
the richest and the finest.' As far as we are aware, there is
nothing to compare to it in point of eftect in modern ecclesi-
astical architecture.

Sf Gi/es' Cathedral Church.

The bells in St Giles' formed an important part of the ancient
establishment, but nowhere do we find any accurate description
of their number and character. There was, it seems, a bell
called the St Mary Bell, which was sold with certain church
furnishings in 1563. There still remained the 'great bell of
St Giles',' as it was called, which dated from 1460. This
bell is spoken of by historians and poets as being that which
was rung on special occasions, such as summoning the
inhabitants to assemble in military array for defence of the
city after the battle of Flodden. In one of Dunbar's satirical
poems, a dwarfish personage is introduced saying to the
citizens of Edinburgh :

* I come among you hier to dwell :
Fra sound of Sanct Gelis' bell
Nevir think I to flie.'

Referring to this famous old bell, Dr Laing says it 'was cast
in Flanders, and is described as having the arms of Guelder-
land upon diff"erent parts of it, together with figures of the
Virgin and Child, and other devices, and had the following
Latin inscription : " Honorabiles viri burgenses Villae
DE Edinburgh, in Scotia, hang Campanum, fieri fecerunt
Anno Dni : m.cgcc.lvv. [1460]. Johs et Wilhelmus
Hoerhen me fecerunt ; Ipsamque Campanum Gyelis
vocari voluerunt. Defungtos plango : Vivos vogo :
Fulmina franco." Translation — " The honourable men,
burgesses of the City of Edinburgh in Scotland, caused this
bell to be made in the year of our Lord one thousand four
hundred and sixty. Johannes and Wilhelm Hoerhen made me.
And they determined that I should be called Giles's bell. I
mourn the dead : I summon the living : I disperse the thunder." '
The latter part of the inscription reminds us of ancient
usages and beliefs. ' I mourn the dead : ' This refers to the
solemn sounds of the passing-bell on the occasion of a death.
* I summon the living : ' This signifies the call to church, or to

S^ Giles^ Cathedral Church.

arms. * I disperse the thunder : ' Here is a testimony to the
old superstitious beUef that thunder could be dispersed by-
making loud noises with bells. A similar inscription is found
on many old church bells of large dimension. It would
seem that the strange notion that bells are efficacious in
dispelling storms is by no means extinct. In 1852, the Bishop
of Malta ordered the church bells to be rung for an hour
to allay a gale ! The old great bell in St Giles' unfortunately
suffered a fracture, and had to be recast, thereby obliterating
the inscription. Its modern representative was founded by
C. & G. Mears, London, in 1844. It measures four feet
six inches and a half in diameter across the mouth, and three
feet four inches in height. It is this bell on which the hours
are struck, and which is rung for public worship. Near
it are two lesser bells, or chimes, for striking the quarters,
respectively dated 1700 and 1728.

Situated in a dark corner, which is inapproachable without
the light of a lantern, we find an old bell, indeed the only
genuine old bell in St Giles', one that

has survived from pre-Reformation ^^ " ' ~^£^ ' ' l^_
times. Although complete in its ^ " f ^-"

machinery for suspension and ringing,
it can no longer ring, for by some
accident it has lost its clapper, and
there it hangs mute, unnoticed, covered
with the dust of ages, a waif wrecked
on the stream of time. Shapely in
appearance, it measures seventeen and
a half inches in diameter, and thirteen
and a half inches high. According to
tradition, it is the original Vesper Bell
of St Giles' ; though possibly, judging
from the pious inscription it bears, it
may have been the Ave or Pardon Bell tolled before and after
divine service, to call the worshippers to a preparatory prayer

Vesper Bell.

Si Giles' Cathedral Church.

to the Virgin before engaging in the solemnity, and an invo-
cation for pardon at its close. The following is the inscription
in black-letter capitals : ' O Mater Dei, Memento Mei : Anno
D.M.IIII.' Translation — ' O Mother of God, Remember me,
1504.' This unfortunate bell, a curious archaeological relic,
might be rung as of old were it provided with a new clapper.
Perhaps the present notice will lead to its resuscitation for
some useful purpose.

Besides these bells, there are twenty-three small music-
bells, and a set of eight chime-bells ; making the entire number
of thirty-five bells in St. Giles'. The music-bells are fitted on
a frame in the open or upper part of the spire, and played by
hand. These music-bells, which date from 1698, were until
lately played daily by a lady of advanced age, and are by
no means in a good condition. A thorough repair is requisite.
The eight chime-bells were erected so lately as 1858. From
the imperfect nature of the mechanism and the unsuitableness
of the place where they are situated, they are not played.


When the present writer had the honour of being Lord
Provost of Edinburgh, 1865-69, he had often occasion to
attend public worship officially with the other magistrates
and members of the Town Council. The place of assemblage
was the choir, or High Church, in the front of a gallery on
the north side, having the King's Pillar on the right, and
the half-pillar with the Cranston arms on the left. In the
corresponding gallery on the south were the seats for the
judges of the Supreme Court of Scotland. Intermediately,
in front of the great east window, was a huge dark pulpit,
with a lofty sounding-board; such being the pulpit from
which Hugh Blair delivered his admired sermons a hundred
years ago. At the west end of the church was the gallery
with the Royal pew. It was a homely structure, consisting
of a light blue-painted canopy, supported by four wooden

S^ Giles' Cathedral Church.

posts, over a few tawdry arm-chairs. The technical name
of this kind of structure is a baldachino. No one could
look at it without being reminded of a four-post bed. Here
George IV. was seated when he attended church on his
visit to Edinburgh, 1822; and here for two Sundays every
year sat the Lord High Commissioner to the General
Assembly. The whole seating of the church was of plain
deal. A cram of old-fashioned pews from floor to ceiling.
There was a distressing mustiness in the atmosphere, which
ventilation failed to remedy, for the ground was saturated
with human remains, which ought long since to have been
removed as dangerous to the health of the congregation.

There and then, when seated in that elevated gallery close
to the carved shields of the boy-prince James and his mother
the inestimable Mary of Gueldres, we conceived the idea of
attempting a restoration of the building, and producing a
church in which the people of Edinburgh might feel some
pride — a shrine fitting for the devotional exercises of Royalty.
It would cost some trouble. But what good thing is ever
done without trouble? There would be no harm in trying.
Shortly afterwards, we called a meeting to take the matter
into consideration, ist November 1867. The scheme was
generally approved ; but difficulties interposed, and it was
laid aside until 187 1, when with recovered health and more
leisure, it could be prosecuted with a better chance of success.
At a public meeting, a Restoration Committee was appointed,
with the present writer as Chairman. The object of the
Committee was eventually to restore as far as practicable
the whole interior of St Giles', but to effect this step by step
as circumstances permitted, and to confine operations in the
first place to the choir. The idea of thoroughly restoring
an edifice so damaged by alterations was hopeless. But much
might be done. The intervening walls could be taken down.
The pillars might be mended. With patience, the outlay of
money, and the concurrence of the civic and ecclesiastical


Sf Giles' Cathedral Church.

authorities, the building could probably be brought back to
something like what it had been in long-past times.

The efforts to gather subscriptions for the object in view
were at first as successful as could be expected. Her Majesty
the Queen headed the hst with a subscription of ^200. The


Town Council of Edinburgh, the Royal College of Surgeons,
the Societies of High Constables of Edinburgh and Holyrood,
and the Society of Writers to the Signet, were among the public
bodies who subscribed liberally. Nobility and gentry of all
denominations contributed to facilitate an object which was
felt to be national in its character. In June 1872, when the


Sf GiVes' Cathedral Church.

amount of subscriptions had reached ;^2ooo, the Committee,
with consent of the authorities concerned, felt warranted in
commencing the work. The galleries which disfigured the
building were wholly removed, thereby developing the fine old
pillars, which were mended with stone to resemble the original.
The baldachino and the furniture of the Royal pew were taken
away as crown property. All the pews and the pulpit were
removed. When everything was gone, the floor was trenched

Royal Pew.

throughout to a depth of several feet. No vaults were dis-
covered, but there was an immense quantity of human remains,
which were taken away in hearses and decently buried in a
churchyard. A number of large grave-stones were removed
that had served as pavement, on which the professional devices
of craftsmen were rudely carved. These slabs were put at the
disposal of a corporate body representing the craftsmen of
Edinburgh. As a final act, the walls and groined roof of the
choir were cleaned, and rendered pleasing to the eye.

•S/* Giles^ Cathedral Church.

Under direction of Mr W. Hay, architect, the process of
renewal according to a style of art appropriate to the char-
acter of the building, was now commenced. The passages
were laid with Minton tiles bearing antique Scottish de-
vices. A pulpit of Caen stone exquisitely carved by Mr
John Rhind, an Edinburgh sculptor, was placed against the
pillar on the south side nearest the east window. All the
seatings were of oak. The seats for the magistrates and for the
judges bore appropriate carvings. The Royal pew at the west
end, raised above the general level, was a highly ornamental
structure, with suitable devices. The cost of the Government
pews, including the Royal pew, and pews for the judges, alone
cost the sum of ;i^i586, towards which the Treasury made a
grant of ;^5oo. Altogether the cost of restoring the choir, as
now described, including the expense of heating by hot-water
pipes, amounted to ^^4490. The subscriptions actually
realised fell short of that sum to the extent of ;^65o, which
deficiency was made good by the Chairman and several mem-
bers of Committee. Thus the transaction was closed. Through-
out the whole affair, the Committee owed much to the valuable
services of Mr Lindsay Mackersy, W.S., Honorary Secretary.

According to appointment, the choir, in its renovated form,
was opened for public worship on Sunday, 9th March 1873.
From the interest taken in the alterations, the church was
crowded. At the morning and afternoon services, the judges,
magistrates, and various public bodies attended in official
costume, the spectacle being peculiarly effective. Latterly,
under the incumbency of the Rev. Dr J. Cameron Lees, the
church in its improved form has become one of the most
attractive in Edinburgh.


The choir in its restored state was still disfigured by three
arches, with blocked-up windows, forming the partition of
separation from the Preston Aisle on the south. To render


Sf Giles^ Cathedral Church.

the restoration of the choir complete, it was obvious that there
must be a second step in the alterations which should embrace
the Preston Aisle and other aisles on the south. These
southern aisles, as already mentioned, had been used as the
Old Church, with windows overlooking the Parliament Square.
By an Act of Parliament, 1870, the Old Church parish was
dropped out of the statutory parochial divisions. The church
was occupied for a time on a temporary footing, and at length
disused. Such was the state of matters in 1878, and an oppor-
tunity was afforded of clearing out and restoring this portion of
the building. Plans prepared by Mr W. Hay were submitted
to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners and the Magistrates and
Council, and received their approval, but only under a guarantee
given by the present writer that he would be responsible for
the expense of the undertaking. In giving this guarantee, we
resolved to relieve the Restoration Committee of any further
trouble and responsibility, and to proceed entirely on our own
judgment and at our own cost.

In February 1879, this second restoration was begun by
removing the galleries and pews, taking down partitions and
staircases, lifting the floor, and opening up the aisles. By the
lifting of the floor, a hideous scene of decaying mortal remains
was disclosed, as afterwards referred to. In the soil of the
Preston Aisle, about a foot below the surface, was found a
leaden coffin, bearing the inscription, ' Brigadier Richart
Cunyngham, Died 26th Nov. 1697, ^tat 47.' The Brigadier
had probably been a connection of the Dick-Cunynghams,
baronets, of Prestonfield. The coffin was in an imperfect
condition, and has been left undisturbed.

After a general clearance, the first operations were directed
to the aisle founded by Chepman. This once elegant aisle
was in a revolting condition. The arch between it and the
Preston Aisle had been built up. It was divided into three
floors. The lower floor was degraded into a coal-cellar ; in the
middle floor was placed a tall iron stove for heating by means


S^ Gilcs^ Cathedral Church.

of flues ; and the upper floor formed an apartment, with a fire-
place and other accessories. The floors were taken down, and
the whole interior cleared out. It was expected that the
remains of Montrose would be found in the coal-cellar; but
nothing of the kind was discovered.

When the thick wall that blocked up Chepman's Aisle was
removed, the fluted jambs sustaining the arch were found to be

much shattered. About
twelve feet of the jambs
on each side had been cut
away. A chimney had
been run right through the
key-stone of the arch. The

Online LibraryWilliam ChambersThe Scottish church from the earliest times to 1881 to which is prefixed an historical sketch of St. Giles' Cathedral → online text (page 3 of 37)