St Cuthbert’s History

The setting…

For much of its existence St Cuthbert’s was a country kirk, outwith the city wall and in the county of Lothian and Tweeddale. In the reign of King David I of Scotland (1124 – 1153), Edinburgh was clustered on the ridge which runs eastwards from the Castle. All along the foot of the northern slope of the Castle rock was a morass or marsh and from there northwards it was all countryside until one came to Newhaven and Leith on the coast.

The Kirk below the Castle of Edinburgh has a claim to great, but imprecise, antiquity. One theory about its origins is that St Cuthbert journeyed from Melrose and stayed awhile in the sheltered hollow below the Castle rock. Another view is that the Church came into being only fifty years before the 1127 Charter. Simeon of Durham, in 1130, wrote of a church in Edwin’s Burgh in 854 but whilst some believe it was St Cuthbert’s others think St Giles.

Timeline

Before 1500

  • 1127: King David I granted a Charter giving all the land below the Castle to St Cuthbert’s. This is the oldest document in the Scottish Records Office, Register House, Edinburgh.
  • 1128: Foundations laid for the Abbey of Holyrood. A few years later, King David gave the Church and Parish of St Cuthbert to the new Abbey. St Cuthbert’s parish was very extensive in the 12th century with considerable revenues but the transfer to the Abbey meant a material lessening of status. The new Augustinian Abbey employed vicars to care for the souls of the parish but it also pocketed the surplus revenue!
  • Very little is known of the life of the Church during the Roman Catholic period – the 12th to the mid-16th century – but an occasional reference to St Cuthbert’s appears in Vatican documents.
  • 1242: 16th March, St Cuthbert’s-under-the-Castle rededicated by the Bishop of St Andrews.
  • 1314: An English Knight, St Giles de Argentine, fought and died at Bannockburn. Sir Walter Scott would later describe in his “Tales of a Grandfather” and “Lord of the Isles”, how the Knight’s body was brought to a quiet resting place “in Sanct Cuthbertis Kirk beside Edinburgh”. Scottish Independence was restored after Robert the Bruce’s defeat of the English army.
  • 1385: Richard II led an army north and burned Holyrood and Edinburgh. It is possible St Cuthbert’s was damaged or even destroyed at that time.
  • 1450: Large marshy area beside the Church used to form the Nor’ Loch.

Sixteenth Century

  • 1544: The Earl of Hertford was sent by King Henry VIII to enforce marriage between Mary, Queen of Scots and Henry’s son, Edward. Mary had become Queen at one week old in 1542. The Scots refused this “Rough Wooing” and so Leith was captured, Border Abbeys destroyed, Holyrood and Edinburgh burned and St Cuthbert’s suffered severely.
  • 1550: In “Cosmographie”, published in Basle, Alexander Alesius wrote that “Under the rock of the Maiden Castle is the new parish Church of St Cuthbert”.
  • 1559: John Knox became leader of the Reforming Party and drew up the Scottish Confession of Faith. The Reformation sought to restore Christianity to its early purity.
  • 1560: Scottish Confession of Faith adopted by the Scottish Parliament.
  • 20th December, William Harlow, first Protestant Minister of St Cuthbert’s, attended the first General Assembly of the Church of Scotland (held in the Church of St Mary Magdalene). Originally a tailor in the Canongate, Harlow became a noted leader in the new Kirk of Scotland. He conducted the first reformed service in St Cuthbert’s. Previously a priestly exercise watched by the people, this service – in their own tongue – invited participation. Each parish appointed a Kirk Session of lay-elders. Any wrong-doers, be they rich or poor, were brought before the Session. One of the elders’ duties was to go out into the parish on Sundays and find out what the absentees were doing!
  • 1573: English artillery sent to end the siege of Edinburgh Castle, held for Mary, Queen of Scots (reign 1542-67, executed 1587). A battery, set up near the Church by the English, attracted gunfire from the Castle and the thatched roof of St Cuthbert’s Church was set ablaze.
  • 1574: Rev. William Harlow gained a distinguished colleague named Robert Pont. Under their ministries, the West Kirk, as it was now called, had “ane greit congregatioun”. King James VI (reign 1567 – 1625) had grown to hate the Presbyterian Church, especially when it became extreme and calvinist. He appointed bishops and forbade the Assembly to meet. Robert Pont was the second minister of St Cuthbert’s after the Reformation. He was one of the most eminent of its Ministers and was born in Culross and educated at St Andrew’s University. Learned in law, he was, at various times, a senator of the College of Justice, Provost of Trinity College, Commissioner of Orkney and five times Moderator of the General Assembly. He strongly opposed James VI’s attempts to introduce Episcopacy but he and others had to flee to England. On his return he was briefly imprisoned. Nicol Dalgleish was appointed in Robert Pont’s absence, and he too was arrested for sympathising with his exiled brethern.
  • 1583: Kirk Session issued begging permits for use by the parish poor.
  • 1584: During Robert Pont’s absence, William Aird became Minister of the West Kirk. This able and fearless man was chosen by the Presbytery to excommunicate the wild Earl of Bothwell, a great favourite of the King!
  • 1585: Robert Pont welcomed back to St Cuthbert’s.
  • 1592: Being near the City, the Church had many aged, helpless, infirm and vagrant people to provide for. The list of the poor recorded 80 names.
  • 1593: Badge system introduced to help each parish identify its own poor.
  • 1594: Extensive church repairs left no money for a Manse. Robert Pont agreed to pay for one himself and it was later bought from his heirs. By the end of the 16th Century, the Kirk also had a small cemetery which – in over a century’s time – would have the unwelcome attention of grave-robbers. The main thoroughfare we now call Princes Street was then a straight country road called the Lang Dykes and, to the north, was a bleak common called Bearford’s Parks. A road called Kirk Loan ran from the Church to Stockbridge and, because of this, the Princes Street gate of St Cuthbert’s is still known as the Stockbridge Gate.
  • 1596: First reference made to a school, run by the Session Clerk

Seventeenth Century

  • 1606: After much loyal service to St Cuthbert’s, Rev Robert Pont died. His body was originally interred in the Church but was later moved to the churchyard. At the Reformation, the parish population was 2000 but, by 1606, congregation size had increased considerably so lofts were added inside the Church and new parts were built on.
  • 1612: Samuel West applied to run a school at West Port and others followed in different parts of the Parish.
  • 1621: Parliament disjoined several parts of the burgh of Edinburgh which lay within St Cuthbert’s parish. These transferred to Kirks within the city.
  • 1627: Another Act led to more lands being annexed and so began the gradual reduction in size of St Cuthbert’s Parish.
  • 1633: King Charles I (reign 1625 – 49) visited Scotland and tried to establish Episcopacy. He appointed a bishop in Edinburgh and introduced an English style Prayer Book but the West Kirk refused to conform.
  • 1638: Opposition to the rule of the King led to the drawing up and signing of the National Covenant in Greyfriars Churchyard (it disavowed the Divine Rights of Kings in favour of man’s duty to God). The General Assembly met, deposed the bishops and rejected the Service Book. Charles I sent an army but it was defeated by the Covenanters.
  • 1640: St Cuthbert’s Church and Churchyard used by the Covenanters.
  • 1650: After defeating the Scots at Dunbar, Oliver Cromwell (rule 1653 – 1658), his troops and their horses, occupied the Church. The result was described thus: “The Church was altogider spoyled; naither pulpit, laft, nor seat left therein and full of filth; and also the roof ruinous by shotts of canone and muskett”!
  • 1661: In this year, King Charles II (reign 1660 – 85) re-instated bishops, and banned the Assembly. Reverends Reid and Williamson of the West Kirk were amongst about 350 non-conforming ministers deprived of their charges. David Williamson, probably the most romantic of St Cuthbert’s Ministers, prophesied he would “return and die minister of this Church”. He served the persecuted Covenanters over many years, preaching in the hills and fields. His most famous narrow escape took place at the house of a Lady Cherrytrees near Edinburgh. Troopers arrived suddenly, but the astute Lady Cherrytrees gave Williamson a night-gown and put him into bed with her daughter, Jean Kerr. That escapade may have earned him the sobriquet of “Dainty Davy” but he may also have been dainty in person. He was probably a lady’s man because he married seven times, including the girl in the bed! As he prophesied, he returned in happier days as Minister of St Cuthbert’s.
  • 1688: The “Glorious Revolution” replaced James VII (also James II of England, reign 1685-1688) with William and Mary and the Presbyterian Church was restored in Scotland. Rev Williamson and Rev Anderson substantially increased St Cuthbert’s congregation. This was reflected in collections for the poor whose numbers had continued to grow.

Eighteenth Century

  • 1706: Reverend David Williamson died aged about 72 years. He was buried next to his predecessor, Robert Pont but his widow erected no headstone – perhaps because her six predecessors would have had to be listed!
  • 1707: The Union of Parliaments. There was much opposition to this, particularly in Scotland, where people felt they would lose more than they would gain. Rev Neil McVicar was appointed to the collegiate charge of St Cuthbert’s. Courage and a muscular Christianity marked the Rev Neil McVicar, a Highlander and previously an army chaplain at Fort William. He spoke Gaelic and so was appointed to take charge of the Highlanders in and around the city. He strenuously upheld the Government position during the two Jacobite Rebellions of 1715 and 1745 – the Jacobites being those who remained loyal to James VII after he was deposed by his son-in-law, William of Orange. This Minister feared God but feared no man. Once he was threatened by a fellow who said he would have thrashed McVicar but for his clerical coat. In a moment the coat was on the ground and the Minister cried: “There lies the Minister of the West Kirk and here stands Neil McVicar, and by Yea and by Nay, sir, come on”. The man wisely fled!
  • 1721: Act of Parliament restored patronage, that is the congregation lost the right to choose their own Ministers. Ministers and congregation strongly opposed the Act but did so in vain.
  • 1732: Edinburgh was notorious for its riots and St Cuthbert’s experienced this around the Church doors. A new Minister was presented to the congregation but he was not acceptable to some of them and so a riot began. The City Guard, commanded by Captain Porteous, was called for, to quell the disturbance. Musket shots were fired and several rioters injured. Four years later, the same Captain Porteous and his Guards fired at rioters in the city, killing six of them. The mob took their revenge then and hanged Porteous in the Grassmarket.
  • 1743: Rev Neil McVicar produced a survey of the Parish population – 9,493 people living throughout 26 area divisions.
  • 1745: September, news reached Edinburgh that the Highland Army was approaching. The Gaelic-speaking horde had a fearsome reputation and so great excitement and terror was roused in the population. Prince Charles Edward Stuart seized the city. Several hundred in Edinburgh actively supported him and attended the Ball at Holyrood House after the Jacobite victory at Prestonpans but the Ministers of St Cuthbert’s Church – Rev Pitcairn and Rev McVicar – opposed him. Apart from one service held at the Tron Church, there was no public worship in the city itself during this time and many people sought refuge in the countryside. The Ministers of St Cuthbert’s, however, continued to hold normal services which were well attended despite the political and military upheaval happening all around.
  • 1747: After nearly forty years serving St Cuthbert’s, Neil McVicar died aged 75. He was buried in the Churchyard.
  • 1753: Parish population over 12,000 and Church accommodation quite inadequate. The Little Kirk, as it was known, was almost a ruin.
  • 1754: Proposal made and approved by the Kirk Session to build a Chapel of Ease on the south side of the parish. Funds were duly raised.
  • 1756: The Chapel of Ease opened. It accommodated 1200 people and cost £640 and 10 shillings.
  • 1758: Proposal made to build a Charity Work-house for the parish. It was in Riding School Lane to the west of the Church. 84 people were there the first year and it was enlarged as the need arose.
  • 1759: In this year, the draining of the Nor’ Loch (Princes Street Gardens area) was begun.
  • 1763: The Little Kirk’s bell was hung in the Chapel of Ease.
  • 1772: Sunday 27th September, the imminent collapse of the Church was feared. Tradesmen gave their verdict that it was beyond repair and should be replaced.
  • 1773: Workmen, digging in the foundations of the pre-Reformation St Cuthbert’s Church, found a leaden coffin containing bones and a leaden urn. They opened the urn and a fragrant smell issued forth. It was found to contain an embalmed human heart. This most likely belonged to a Crusader killed in the Holy Land because the custom was to send the embalmed heart home to the Crusader’s family.
  • 1775: 31st July, the new St Cuthbert’s Church was opened. Unusually, it had no steeple or bell but was fitted with a sundial !
  • 1789: A steeple was added to the tower of 1775.

Ninteenth Century

  • 1822: Parish population in the southern division was recorded as 20,250 and half of them had no place of worship. The northern division situation was similar and so the Kirk Session resolved to build two more Chapels of Ease.
  • 1823: Stockbridge Chapel opened. This later became part of Kirk O’ Field.
  • 1824: Hope Park Chapel in Clerk Street opened. This is now the Queen’s Hall.
  • 1831: An existing Chapel in Gardiner’s Crescent bought for £2,500. It was named St David’s out of respect for Dr David Dickson, the senior Minister at St Cuthbert’s, and it served a local population of 2000. As the number of parish residents increased, many new churches were formed as Chapels of Ease.
  • 1837: The Charity Work-house now had 539 people working at various trades. There was a school attached for nearly 200 pauper children and also a sewing school. Out-of-door poor also received payments.
  • 1867: Charity Work-house removed when the Caledonian Railway was built.The poor were taken to a mansion about a mile and a half from St Cuthbert’s. This building is now the oldest part of the Western General Hospital
  • 1883: At this time, Dr James MacGregor was the Minister, respected and loved by his congregation. His colleague, Andrew Wallace Williamson, was a “prodigy” of 26 years old. The two men were of different generations and tastes. One was a Highlander and the other a Lowlander; one full of humour, the other serious and solemn but together “they pedalled the bike of St Cuthbert’s for 27 years and remained friendly”.
  • 1893: Both men later became Moderators of the General Assembly. They created an immense and lively congregation which threw itself into the project of a new Church building. Parish population recorded as 65,243.
  • 1894: 11th July. Day of dedication for the new Church. The architect was Mr Hippolyte J. Blanc. His building retained the 1775 tower and the 1789 steeple. Mr Blanc’s Church building is the present day Parish Church of St Cuthbert, the ‘Kirk below the Castle’. He was also the architect responsible for the designs used during the 1887-91 renovation of Edinburgh Castle’s Great Hall.

Twentieth Century and Beyond

  • 1906: An alabaster frieze, representing Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’, was erected in the Apse. The minister of the time, Rev Dr James MacGregor, had to defend the beauty of the Apse and its decorations against some who thought it too richly adorned.
  • 1908: The Font was installed. The mother and child sculpture set on the middle raised considerable controversy because some considered it a representation of the Madonna and Child.
  • 1912: As reported in ‘The Scotsman’ newspaper of 31st July, the Font sculpture issue was discussed at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. It became something of a national issue, the pros and cons debated from the theological and aesthetic viewpoints both in committee and in the press!
  • 1928: The internal fabric of the church was redecorated and the church organ was restored.
  • 1942: On 15th November the church bells rang out to celebrate the victory at El Alamein (site of the decisive British battle in the North Africa campaign). They were broadcast with bells from across the UK. Up until then, the bell clappers had been ‘tied’ for three years because of the war.
  • 1956-57: The church organ was completely re-designed and rebuilt, with a number of tonal additions. It was dedicated on Palm Sunday 1957 by the Very Reverend Charles L. Warr, Dean of the Chapel Royal and the Order of the Thistle, the opening recital being given by W. O. Minay.
  • 1988: St Cuthbert’s ‘The Kirk below the Castle’ Exhibition was held. The Change-ringers rang the church bells for 3 hours on Saturday 28th May as the Exhibition drew to a close.
  • 1989-91: The church interior was altered to the design of Stewart Tod & Partners, Architects of Edinburgh to provide hall accommodation on two floors. The new west wall was given splendid plasterwork to match the existing interior of the church.
  • 1994: Centenary year of the present church building, believed to be the 7th on the site. As part of the celebrations, a booklet was published telling the story of St Cuthbert’s Church and Parish. Much research had already been skillfully carried out by Congregation members and friends for the 1988 Exhibition, and this was built upon for the booklet (references).
  • 1997-98: Thanks to generous bequests from Elders John Shepherd and Janet Lusk, the organ was extensively restored, reconstructed and improved upon. Care was taken to retain the romantic tonal qualities of the instrument and the original organ cases were retained.
  • 1999: St Cuthbert’s Church first web site developed.