Greyfriars’ Kirk – over 400 Years of History

Tucked away in a quiet graveyard off Forest Road lies one of Edinburgh’s most famous churches, Greyfriars Kirk. The kirk took its name from the Franciscan friary which stood there before the reformation, when Roman Catholic friars and nuns were required to hand over their property to the crown. Mary, Queen of Scots, gave the land to Edinburgh Council to provide a burial ground outside the city walls as well a hospital and school.

Once the burial yard had been established, the Town Council decided to build a church, using stones from the ruined convent of the Sisters of Siena (which gave its name to the district of Sciennes) and timber from Sweden. After many delays, Christmas Day 1620 saw the first service with a pulpit brought from the Old High School.  The original building was a simple gothic structure but little remains of it apart from the old oak doors above which can be seen an early version of Edinburgh’s coat of arms, the portculllis.

In those days, it was the custom to have both a minister and a College appointed minister so Greyfriars actually consisted of two churches, Greyfriars Church and the Collegiate Church, back to back.

It was not long, however, before the churches were both occupied and vandalised by Cromwell’s troops, who were garrisoned there for three years in 1650.  On his departure, the churches were rebuilt but later the dividing wall was removed to make one larger building  and services took place in one church in the morning and in the other church in the afternoon.

Greyfriars Kirk InteriorAt the west end of the church stood a square tower, which was used by the Town Council to store gunpowder. In 1718, it blew up, taking down the west wall, which was rebuilt 2 bays into the church to allow services to continue while a new church was built on the site of the tower. The cost of rebuilding, incidentally, was met by a local tax on ale and a Palladian portico was built on the north side of the building giving access to both churches.

But further disaster was to come in 1845, when a boiler flue overheated and caused a fire which gutted Old Greyfriars and created considerable damage in New Greyfriars. While New Greyfriars was soon back in use, the rebuilding of Old Greyfriars took longer and the minister, Dr. Robert Lee, took the opportunity to introduce several changes, including a new single span roof and the first stained glass windows to be seen in a Scottish Parish Church since the Reformation. While many of the congregation were shocked by this move away from the simple style they had previously adopted, some approved and other innovations began to be seen, in particular the introduction of a harmonium to accompany the singing, and five years later, the first organ.

Greyfriars Kirk organIn 1929, the two congregations merged and the dividing wall was once more removed, signalling a need for serious renovations in the surviving church. The New Greyfriars  organ was relocated to the northwest loft, although there were a number of problems with the rebuilt organ, which were only solved when a new gallery was built and  and a new Peter Collins organ installed, complete with some beautiful carvings.

Gaelic Church in Greyfriars Kirk In 1979, the Highland Tolbooth St John’s Church congregation joined Greyfriars and the south western corner was kept much simpler for their Gaelic Service which still happens here every week.

Further renovations and development work have been undertaken recently, thanks to an International Appeal, Lottery Funding and Historic Scotland. All the wonderful windows have been removed and restored. The pews have been replaced by chairs, which can be arranged to face in any direction according to the needs of the particular service and an exhibition has been created detailing the history of the church and the churchyard. It shows one of the copies of the Covenant as well as engravings of the early Kirk.

If these stones could talk, they could tell of many historical events which have taken place here. One of the earliest, and possibly the most significant, was the signing of the National Covenant. It was drawn up by Johnston of Warriston and Archibald Henderson, consisting of three parts, the first a reproduction of the King’s confession of 1581, the second, a list of the Acts of Parliament condemning Popery and confirming Presbyterianism as the preferred option for Scotland and third, a protest against innovations in worship, such as the new prayer book. The Covenant was presented to various committees and nobles to be approved finally by the ‘body of the gentry’ at Greyfriars Kirk at 2 o’clock on the afternoon of Wednesday 28th February 1638. Once approved and signed, copies were taken away to those not present and not only Roman Catholicism but Episcapalianism or ‘Englishness’ was condemned throughout the country. But although the king of the day, Charles II, had promised to maintain Church Government in Scotland, it was the Episcopalian way that he wished to see and these Covenanters who did not wish the Church to be an instrument of the State were forced underground. For forty years they worshipped in secret, becoming more and more militant until they finally went to war and were thoroughly defeated at the Battle of Bothwell Brig. The minister, Robert Traill, went into exile in Holland. Over 1000 Covenanters were captured and held in Greyfriars Kirkyard with little food, water or heat. Some accepted voluntary exile, others were executed for murder and others were deported to Virginia. The Martyrs’ Monument was erected in the Churchyard as a memorial to 100 noblemen who were executed over the years.

Three major benefactors to the children of the city, George Heriot, George Watson and Mary Erskine established hospitals and schools for between three and four hundred children in need, these buildings being established in the Parish of Greyfriars and their founders being celebrated on the birthday of George Heriot with a service in Greyfriar’s Kirk. To this day, Heriot’s school uses the Kirk for its end of term services. The Church has also always had close connections too, to the University, the Minister often being the Principal of the University and 432 City of Edinburgh Corps Engineer Regiment (Territorial Army) who presented a gilt cross and crown to the Church in 1963.

Ruby at Greyfriars KirkGreyfriars Kirkyard is also famous as the home of Greyfriars Bobby, the loyal Skye terrier who was guarding the grave of his master John Gray, and did so for 14 years, allegedly leaving it at one o’clock each day with Colour Sergeant Scott to find food. A statue at the Forest Road entrance acts as a memorial and gifts from all over the world are to be found here. Each year the anniversary of the death of Bobby is remembered and in 2013, world pipe band champion Jennifer S. R. Hutcheon composed and played  a ‘Tribute to Greyfriars Bobby’.  The part of Bobby was played by Ruby, from the Edinburgh Dog and Cat Home while pupils from George Heriot’s Primary School in Edinburgh formed a guard of honour and Rebecca and Alistair from Primary 3M laid a wreath.

Greyfriars replaced St. Giles as the main burialyard of the Burgh in 1562 and many notable people have been buried here, including the father of George Heriot. Of particular note is the Martyrs’ Monument. Ironically George ‘Bluidy’ MacKenzie, the Lord Advocate who persecuted many of the Covenanters is also buried here in The Black Mosoleum.

Any visitors to the Kirk and Kirkyard will be able to obtain excellent detailed guide books to help them around.  In 2012 the Kirk was awarded the prestigious 4 Star visitor attraction status by the Scottish Toursit Board / Visit Scotland.  The Kirk, Story of Greyfriars Museum and shop are open to the general public between April and October every year. If you would like to arrange a visit outwith these times, phone 0131 225 1900 or email. If you would like to be a volunteer guide, you can use the same contact details to find out more.


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Suse Coon

Suse Coon started life training to be an architect but ended up as a fashion buyer then civil servant. After some time out to bring up her family of three, she returned to what had been a hobby and entered the field of freelance journalism. After becoming regional correspondent, then editor of the orienteering magazine CompassSport, she formed Pages Editorial & Publishing Services. In this guise, West Lothian Life was launched, while Suse maintained a level of freelancing and wrote the award winning children's novel Richard's Castle. In 1999, Suse bought over CompassSport and found her time taken up pretty well exclusively with the two magazines. In 2004, West Lothian Life was expanded to form Lothian Life, however, the workload was too great. In 2006, CompassSport was sold and Suse concentrated on the web version of Lothian Life. Her hobbies include gardening, orienteering, sea kayaking and Tai Chi.

One thought on “Greyfriars’ Kirk – over 400 Years of History”

  1. Hello:

    Thank you for this exemplary article. The writing is excellent and the entire story makes one desire to see the Kirk and yard and experience a service there. Thank you very much for writing this!

    Jim Walker

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