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Publication Account

Date 1951

Event ID 1097491

Category Descriptive Accounts

Type Publication Account


2. St. Giles' Church.

For nearly eight hundred years the central feature of the Old Town has been the historic church of St. Giles, which has been, within the span of its long life, a parish church, a collegiate establishment and, for a brief interval of five years, a cathedral. Planted below the Castle and high above Holyrood, on the upper part of the ridge which forms, as it were, the spine of the city, it overlooked on one side the hollow in which the North Loch was subsequently formed and on the other the valley that was later to become the Cowgate. The nearer slope of this valley, on which the Parliament House, Parliament Square and the Law Courts ultimately rose, was partly occupied by the manse and garden of the vicar of St. Giles'. Another portion was set aside as the parish graveyard, the enlargement of which is recorded in 1477-8 (1). In 1844 a number of oak coffins, straight at the sides but with their lids rising into a ridge at the centre, was unearthed some 14 ft. below ground on the S

. of the Parliament House (2). In 1910, again, while the foundations of the Thistle Chapel were being dugout, the E. wall of the churchyard was located, and other burials, this time uncoffined, were found nea rits inner side at a depth of 4 ft. below the pavement of Parliament Square. Although farther S. there may be forced material to a depth of 10 or 12 ft. above the graves that underlie the Courts, the burials found beneath the Library of the Solicitors to the Supreme Court at the foot of the slope were at a usual depth. The roadway at the E. end of the church is now 4 ft. lower than it was originally. There is no evidence that the fabric of the Church rests upon a vaulted undercroft or crypt.

As it now stands, St. Giles' is a cross-church, distended by mediaeval and modern accretions, with a central tower capped by the open crown that still forms a distinctive feature in the sky-line of the city. Save for the tower and its superstructure, however, the outside of the building is wholly modern, and represents a restoration, carried out in 1829, in which an attempt was made to transform the building then standing into a systematic structure on the lines of a fully developed church of first rank. But, like so many of the greater parish churches N. of the Border, this of St. Giles had grown by a series of piecemeal additions which, if irregular, were yet harmonious and of value as reflecting the social conditions of their times. The parts W. of the tower have suffered most and their story, consequently, can be read only with the aid of such medireval features as survive inside, where restoration has been less drastic. Outside, the old masonry is encased with a veneer of modern ashlar resting on a modern base and varying in thickness from 8 in. at the foot to 4 or 5 in. at the top, where the original walls had been thrust outwards. The windows have been encased with sub-arches and jambs and are therefore narrower by a foot than formerly. The surviving portions of the original tracery now rest above the vaulting.

The earliest church of which vestiges can be found upon the site was of Romanesque design. Of this the one certain remnant is a scalloped capital built into the compartment known as St. Eloi's Chapel; but, three bays W. of the crossing*, a Norman porch, apparently dating from the second half of the 12th century, survived until the end of the18th century in the N. aisle wall, while part of the masonry at the junction of tower and choir may be Norman ashlars re-used. If the extent and ordinance of this early church are unknown, an examination of the plan of the fabric now standing leads to the conclusion that the primary building had an unaisled nave of the same dimensions as the present one and, probably, an apsidal sanctuary in the position of the existing crossing.

Although there is insufficient evidence to show precisely when and in what manner the original church became cruciform, in all likelihood the first step was an eastward extension of the sanctuary in the 13th century, possibly before 1243, the year in which the building was formerly dedicated by David de Bernham, Bishop of St. Andrews.** The troubled years immediately following the Wars of Independence are unlikely to have witnessed much further alteration, but the growing importance of the burgh in the third quarter of the 14th century may be reflected in the addition of side-aisles to the nave. There is some evidence that the N. aisle was intended to end in a W. tower, a project probably never realised. As first set out, the S. aisle generally corresponded in width to its neighbour. The erection of a crossing-tower and of rudimentary transepts an arrangement which may have been modelled on that of Glasgow Cathedral-was no doubt contemporary with this expansion.

Although the church was burnt by Richard II in 1385, a substantial part of the fabric must have survived as the provost and community were able, only two years later, to enter into a contract with three masons for the construction of five vaulted chapels “on the south syde of the paryce kyrc of Edynburgh, fra the west gavyl [gable] lyand in rayndoun [in a straight line] est on to the grete pyler of the stepyl, voutyt on the maner and the masonry as the voute abovyn Sant Stevinys auter [altar] stand and on the north syde of the parys auter of the Abbay of the Halryrudehous, the qwhylk patronne [pattern] they haf sene. Alsua tha ylk men sal mak in ylk Chapel of the four a wyndow with thre lychtys in fourme masonnelyke, the qwhilk patrone thai haf sene, and the fyfte chapel woutyt with a durre als gude maner as the durre stand and in the west gavyl of the forsaid kyrk ... " From this it is clear that the tower was already in existence by 1387. Down to 1829, when the two westernmost compartments were demolished, five chapels stood on the S. side of the S. nave-aisle, the one in the centre having a doorway which still exists and has finally come to rest as the E. door adjoining the Thistle Chapel.

These chapels have been identified with those specified in the contract, although if the document be taken literally it would appear that the new chapels were to be built in what is now the S. passage-aisle of the nave, which, by extension, is wider than its neighbour on the N. .Whatever their situation, the chapels were completed about 1391 at a total cost of £660 sterling. Then followed a similar expansion on the N. side of the nave, in which the Norman porch previously mentioned came to occupy the central bay between two chapels on each side. The two W. chapels are still extant and together form the Albany Aisle, to which a date between 1401 and 1410 can be given on the evidence of its architectural and heraldic details. Meanwhile the E. limb was being reconstructed, also with side-aisles. The Scotichronicon informs us (3) that storks built in the superstructure in 1416; some part of the present crossing-tower, if not the whole, must therefore have already risen above the high roofs. Thus by the first quarter of the 15th century what was virtually a new church had begun to take shape. Its nave, five bays long, covered with a low quadripartite vault, and lit by a clearstorey from the S., had passage-aisles, which in turn gave access to chapel-aisles, each containing a doorway in the centre subsidiary to the main portal in the W. gable. Farther E. rose the crossing, abutting upon short transepts and opening into a choir of four bays, which was covered with a low quadripartite vault and was lit directly only from the E. In 1419, when the reconstruction of the fabric was virtually complete, the burgesses sought to have their new church raised to collegiate status (4), but their petition was refused.

[see RCAHMS 1951 pp. 25-36 for a detailed description]


(1) B.R., i, p. 142. (2) O.E.C., iii (1910), p. 211. (3) Lib. xv, cap. xxiv. (4) Calendar of Papal Registers,

vii, p. 136.

*This is unlikely to have been its original position.

**This prelate's Pontificate gives the day as 6th October, cf. P.S.A.S., xx (1885-6), p. 198. The feast of the dedication of St. Giles' Kirk was, however, celebrated yearly on November 3rd (Registrum Secreti Sigilli, iii, fol. 134). September 1st is the Saint's day. In 1559, when the "auld faith" was restored for a brief interval, St. Giles' was consecrated anew by the Bishop of Amiens.

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