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Edinburgh and The Lothians
Chapter XIV - The Churches of Edinburgh


IN its pre-Restoration days St Giles was cut up, as many an Edinburgh man remembers, into various separate churches. There were, the old high-backed pews, no organ, the ordinary lofty pulpit, but the whole was nobler and ampler than the ordinary Scots kirk, and it was impossible to sit there unaffected by the memories and the ghosts that crowded round. For over 1000 years there has been a church in this place; there is a long succession of building and pulling down, and of fresh destruction and re-edification, still you may cherish the pleasing fancy that a little bit of the old part remains to-day in some unexpected corner of the huge fabric. St Giles’ may say, "I was wounded in the house of my friends." Neither English invader nor Knoxian iconoclast was so bad as the restorer and the improver. A Norman door-way on the north side of the nave, a gem of rare beauty, was smashed in 1797; and a thorough-going process of restoration in 1829 destroyed almost everything characteristic that could be easily got at. Fortunately the pinnacle Crown of the steeple, one of the striking architectural effects of Edinburgh, was left alone, and there it stands, as it has for centuries, the dot on the i, the finis of the whole pitiful and romantic tragedy of Old Edinburgh. Why St Giles? you ask, and no one can tell. The Saint was born at Athens and lived and died in France. By some forgotten accident he became patron of the great Edinburgh church. The legend tells how a hind pressed by the hunters took refuge in his woodland cell; that is the hind which appears as sinister supporter of the City Arms. Do not mistake it for the native Drumsheugh beast that pressed so hard on good old King David. Preston of Gorton, in 1454, brought the arm bone of St Giles from France, and in gratitude a noble burial-place was edified for him in the church. Do you not see the Preston aisle to this day? The festival of St Giles was on the 1st September, and on that anniversary a huge image was borne in stately procession for the veneration of the faithful throughout Edinburgh till the reforming mob laid violent hands thereon, dragged it through the mire, soused it in the Nor’ Loch, and made it centre piece in an ardent bonfire. After the Reformation the church suffered a more than sea change. Rough partitions divided it in every direction, and there was a High Kirk, and an Old Kirk, and a Tolbooth Kirk, and a Little Kirk, and the General Assembly met in this corner; and a Police-Court was in this nook, and the quaint name of Haddo’s Hole reminds that here was a prison and Gordon of Haddo one of the captives. This low part here was just the place wherein to teach a few bairns, and in that dark corner why should not the executioner store the implements of his dreadful trade, especially as he lived just at hand in the Old Fishmarket Close? The Montrose vault seemed providentially fitted for a coal cellar; and the Regent Moray’s tomb, round which the higgler and the gossip and the vagrant thronged, was a convenient place to fix for the payment of bills.

"I dined with saints and gentlemen,
E’en sweet Saint Giles and the Earl of Murray."

So ran the Scots version of the Barmecide feast of the Elizabethans with Duke Humphrey in old St Paul’s. The difficulty is to say not what St Giles’ was, but what it was not used for. The nineteenth century changed a great deal of that, and at least it was all used for Church purposes; but there was much to be done when patriotic William Chambers took the matter in hand. As he sat in all the glory of civic dignity, in the "laft" of the High Church, as they called the gallery in old Scots, he tells us, in words which recall a famous passage in Gibbon, that the idea of restoration entered his mind, and it is only due to the worthy Provost to say that he spared neither time nor trouble nor money. The last years of the century saw the work full and complete, though they are still at it, since as I write a chapel for the Knights of the Thistle is rising from the south-east side of St Giles’ on to the Parliament Close. Surely a great gain, and yet it is hard to please everyone. Crowded with Scots memorials it does not strike you as Scots at all, at least not the Scotland of yesterday or to-day, though it may be of to-morrow. Perhaps those in power can do no better, but they have set themselves to imitate English methods. The plate has become the offertory, there is a noble "kist o’ whistles," and a service-book, and three or four curates at a service.

St Giles’ is crammed with interesting memorials. On the north side is the Albany aisle and St Eloy’s Chapel, with its memories of the Hammermen and the Blue Blanket; opposite is the Moray aisle, the burial-place of the good Regent; and the Preston aisle recalls the adventures of the arm bone, and the Chepman aisle reminds of the great printer. Montrose rests there under the most splendid monument in all Scotland, and a tablet on a pillar recalls that Gawin Douglas, the sweet singer of an iron time, was once Provost of St Giles.

After all that, the two names most present to the crowds of Scots pilgrims that throng what is now called the Cathedral Church throughout the holiday season are those of a great Scotsman and a little Scotswoman: John Knox and Jenny Geddes to wit. No need here to tell the story of the attempt to read the Collects, part of the prescribed service, by Dean Hannay on that memorable day in 1637, and how Jenny, the market-woman, sent her faldstool straight at the reverend head, with the pungent phrase: "Deil colic the wame o’ ye, fause thief; wad ye say Mass in my lug?" You remember the tumult that followed, in which Scots Episcopacy went swiftly to pieces. Jenny was a character of Old Edinburgh; they say she gave her stool to the Restoration bonfire. Why not? The Bishop not the King, was her pet aversion, and she was nothing if not thoroughgoing. In life and death Jenny was a prominent figure. Even Bums called his mare after her. Knox sleeps just outside. He preached twice a day, not seldom thrice, to everybody who really made up Scotland in his own time. Ah! those biting, passionate words which still seem to burn out of the printed page, how they thrilled and awed with the passionate voice and the no less passionate gesture! Well that those shadows of the past do not take bodily substance to-day. Ten to one Jenny would be hurling faldstools or what not at the head of the service reader, with Heaven knows what forgotten words of archaic Scots, foul, bitter, pungent as the gutters from which they were raked. As for Knox, before the end he wrote, "the world is weary of me as I am of it," and to-day it would be still wearier of his stem measures and his intolerance and his passions, and he would feel a stranger in his own kirk, and leave testimony against that spirit of compromise that builds a temple to every god, that erects one tablet to Jenny Geddes and another to Dean Hannay; one monument to Argyll and another to Montrose, and generously lauds the virtues alike of Papist and Puritan and Prelatist. How excellent our charity and toleration, but "Lib’ral shepherds give a grosser name," and our sterner fathers had ascribed it all to Pagan indifference and scepticism.

St Giles is only one, though the most important, of Edinburgh kirks, and the city is a city of many kirks, and many of them deserve more than a word of notice.

St Cuthbert’s, under the Castle, ought to be old and famous for its site and its history, but it is comparatively new, and positively ugly, like the packing case, as Scott said, of the more elegant Episcopal Church of St John’s close at hand. It is called after a saint born by the Tweed, and had so big a jurisdiction that most modern Edinburgh parishes are carved out of it. A little to the north is the modern Cathedral of St Mary, averred to be the most important ecclesiastical building in Britain since the Reformation, but it is scarce thirty years old, and its only interest for the student of Edinburgh is that it preserves as pendicle the mansion-house of East Coats, a splendid example of the Scots style of 300 years ago.

You do not expect to find all the Edinburgh kirks models of beauty. The vivacious Professor Blackie described the Barclay Church, away at the north-west corner of Bruntsfield Links, as figuring a number of hippopotami joined together. The phrase hit the mark near enough to stick. Greyfriars again, though on a famous site, has no ancient history save for its Yard, even though Principal Robertson and many another famous divine were its incumbents. Two movements which have almost revolutionized the Church of Scotland, if they had not their origin, received powerful impulse from two incumbents of Old Grey-friars. Some half century ago Dr Robert Lee was minister there; he believed that the barren simplicity of the Presbyterian order, its extempore prayers, its tedious sermons, were unsuited to the newer time. He introduced a Service Book and fought for many other innovations; he bore himself gallantly in the years of controversy that followed. If the conflict shortened his life, the daily service of St Giles is obvious proof that his cause triumphed. A far more daring and wider movement was helped forward by Dr Robert Wallace, his successor. He was the extreme of Broad-Churchmen, daring, gifted, scholarly. I recollect the interest with which a band of us, who were then students, pressed into the afternoon services, Sunday after Sunday, to hear doctrines that we had been brought up to believe fundamental and unquestionable subjected to searching and powerful criticism. The old metal took strange shape in the agony of the crucible. Your Scots Broad-Churchman had hitherto been rather a namby-pamby fellow, who nibbled at minor matters in a mock heroic fashion that lent itself to easy ridicule, but this seemed David Hume in the pulpit. There were other influences, and as the new generation grew up all the Scots churches became more liberal in thought; a vague phrase, but I cannot find a better way of expressing an obvious fact. What will be the position if the flocks become as advanced as their pastors? Perhaps these same flocks will solve their difficulties by leaving the churches severely alone!

A little way down the High Street a landmark in the traffic that runs between Old and New Town is the Tron. It is the opposite of St Giles’; it is ugly and clumsy and of no great historical interest. It gets its odd name from the Salt Tron, which of old stood hard by, and was thus distinguished from the Butter Tron at the head of the Lawnmarket. And still further down, out of the Old Edinburgh boundary and under the slope of the Calton, is the Canongate Church. When James II. determined to reserve Holyrood Kirk for a Chapel Royal, Holyrood parish became Canongate parish, and this great barn replaced the sculptured glories and memories of Holyrood. Now the Castle, perhaps because it was Royal Demesne, was part of Holyrood parish, and so is ecclesiastically in the Canon-gate, and that is why for many a long day deceased soldiers were laid to rest here. This curious fact is recorded on the monument to them, whereof the sentiment is so much better than the expression. The geography strikes you as odd, but not odder than that Nova Scotia (for legal purposes only) is situated on the Castle Hill; thus baronets could take corporeal seisin of their lands without the then considerable difficulty of crossing the main. So in England, also for legal purposes, they placed the Island of Antigua in the parish of St Mary, Islington. But we wander from our kirks.

I must still notice Trinity College and the Magdalen Chapel, both of importance, both far from obvious to the tourist, or perhaps the New Town resident. A new street runs from the Netherbow or end of High Street; it is called after the famous critique and lawyer, Lord Jeffrey. It goes north towards the railway, then sweeps round to the west, and so down hill. You note in passing a kirk to the left. An ordinary Edinburgh type it seems. Easterly haar and railway smoke are sovereign to confound the new and the old under a common covering of grime, and it may not strike you that the gargoyle or the pinnacle is other than a cheap modern copy. They are genuine antiques, for here be the carted, or transported, remains of a great Scots medaeval foundation, the Collegiate Church of the Holy Trinity, founded in 1462 by Mary of Gueldres, for not only was there a church but a hospital. The railway lies in the valley, and in your own time you have rushed from platform to platform in that distracting Waverley Station with the cares of the instant all supreme in your mind, the last place for antiquarian talk or thought. Yet dig down in fancy through some forty feet of railway embankment, and there is the site of Trinity College and Trinity hospital, which rose for 400 years under the Calton Hill or Dow Craig. Its foundation stood strong on an old Roman causeway that you might get at if you went still deeper, and there was a nave and a tower, but the design remained incomplete as the foundress died a year after the work began. There were many burials of folk great in these long-distant days, and their dust, spite of various removals and transmutations, still lies below. Even when the place was adapted, in the rough-and-ready fashion of the period, to Presbyterian worship, the beauty of the sculptured stones charmed the eye. It was taken down in 1848 after a long controversy, for the time was gone when you could destroy at your will, and without protest, the monuments of Old Edinburgh. When the breakers got to the lofty ceilings they found those columns that looked so solemn had another aspect. The whole roof was crammed with grotesque, leering figures. That strange, medaeval buffoonery had here one of its most remarkable expressions. Knox himself had never mocked more freely at the Mass than did those forgotten masons with their grinning images. The controversy ended not with the destruction of the hospital. Mary of Gueldres was buried in this her own foundation. The remains were disinterred and duly conveyed to the Royal vault at Holyrood. The pious task was scarce done when another Mary of Gueldres’ body turned up amidst the ruins; and if the learned Daniel Wilson stoutly maintained that the first was genuine, the at least equally-learned David Laing was strong for the second, and who could decide on such a question and between two such authorities? Again the railway company had been forced to pay £18,000 as compensation; the stones of the church were numbered with a view to rebuilding, and for years they bleached on the Calton Hill. How much was to go to church, how much was to go to college? First the Scots Courts held that it must all go to rebuilding, and then the House of Lords would only allow £7,000 for this; and when the kirk was built as you now see it, in 1871-1872, many stones were lost. But the apse of the old church at any rate is still behind the more modern building, only it is sideways and not endways. It is almost invisible. You get an imperfect glimpse from Chalmers’ Close, which runs to the west of it. The hospital was never rebuilt, though compensation is paid in pensions or allowances. On visiting the church I found a great bare hall which contained one bicycle! "Was it used for anything?" I asked. The attendant said something about meetings which I scarcely credited. He took me to the vestry and showed me some beautiful pictures of the old college in the days of its later glory. This was the end of four centuries of splendour, and thirty years of pamphlets and poems, witty or otherwise, and controversy in court after court—a superior bicycle shed! The mocking irony of those old masons was clean outdone. Is reverence for the past in Edinburgh not altogether thoroughgoing and complete spite the almost excessive care now lavished on Holyrood and the Castle?

The suspicion becomes stronger if you take the Magdalen Chapel after Trinity College. It stands on the south of the Cowgate, close to where it joins Candlemaker Row. It was the pious foundation in 1503 of Janet Rynd; she left it to the corporation of Hammermen and dedicated it to the Magdalen. Here these same Hammermen held their meetings for many years, and here you see again and again their sign of the Hammer and the Crown. And here John Craig, Knox’s colleague, preached in Latin till he could recover his native tongue, clean forgot in his long exile. Here a General Assembly, that of 1578 to wit, had their meeting, and in 1661 the headless body of Argyll rested for a period; his head, you know, was on the Tolbooth. A long list of old-time benefactions is inscribed on tablets of wood hung upon the walls, and in the windows are a few pieces of pre-Reformation stained glass; a rare thing in Scotland, preserved, it is said, because the windows looked on a garden, the proprietor of which was not an out-and-out adherent of the new order. The chapel has come into the hands of a Medical Mission. Not a bad end for the old hospital, you think, but it looks dusty and dirty, and I wish it were better kept. I don’t know how many bicycles I counted in the vestry, and when I looked for the table on which Argyll’s body had reposed I was told it had lately been taken to the Advocates’ Library, where it is as much in place as Trinity College in Jeffrey Street, though the why and the wherefore of the removal seems hard to spell. They still show you the tomb of the foundress with its quaint, simple, old-time inscription, and though no sweet and solemn requiem be breathed over her dust in the stately Latin tongue, yet here are gathered the young barbarians of the Cowgate to learn sweetness and light from the pages of the Shorter Catechism, and Janet, if she takes note of such things, is, you hope, passably contented. Though I could wish the whole place were less dingy, it has so pathetic an appeal that I would urge, whatever you neglect in Edinburgh, do not neglect to spend one short hour in the Magdalen Chapel.


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