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Historic Religious Buildings Walking Tour (Self Guided), Edinburgh

Edinburgh is an enchanting city and home to numerous places of worship. The city is open to all religions and features magnificent Presbyterian and Catholic churches, the main two religions in Scotland; as well as Jewish synagogues and Islamic mosques, and even Buddhist centers. Check out this tour and visit some of Edinburgh’s beautiful religious sites.
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Historic Religious Buildings Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Historic Religious Buildings Walking Tour
Guide Location: Scotland » Edinburgh (See other walking tours in Edinburgh)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 6
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 3.3 Km or 2.1 Miles
Author: Helen
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • St. Giles' Cathedral
  • Greyfriars Church
  • Magdalen Chapel
  • St. Margaret's Chapel
  • St Cuthbert's Church
  • St. Mary's Cathedral
St. Giles' Cathedral

1) St. Giles' Cathedral (must see)

You will find St Giles’ Cathedral, or the High Kirk of Edinburgh as it is also known, on the Royal Mile and you shouldn’t miss a visit to this beautiful church.

The first church to be built on the site was put up in the 12th century but was destroyed by fire and only the central pillars remain. The second church was built in 1385 and over a period of time, many chapels were added, giving the church a rather haphazard appearance. At one time the church boasted over 50 side altars, called aisles.

In 1466 the cathedral became a collegiate church and the lantern tower in the form of a crown was added in 1490. During the Reformation in 1560, most of the church’s treasures were removed, stolen or sold, including the most precious relic – St Giles’ withered arm and hand which had a diamond ring on one skeletal finger. The church was separated into numerous preaching halls by partition walls during this period.

Although called a cathedral, it was only one for two short periods of time during the Bishop Wars in the 17th century, so its statute of High Kirk is more important. It was restored in the 19th century, the partitions were removed and several chapels were pulled down. The most beautiful of all remaining ones is the Thistle Chapel, built in 1911 in a 15th-century High Gothic style. The wood and stone carvings are marvelous; it is filled with heraldry banners and has a breath-taking delicately carved vault.

Among the memorials here, you will see a bronze relief plaque dedicated to Robert Louis Stevenson in the Moray Aisle, a marble sculpture of James Graham, the 1st Marquis of Montrose, in the Chapman Aisle and another dedicated to Archibald Campbell, the 1st Marquis of Argyll, in the St Eloi Aisle. These two men, deadly enemies at the end of their lives, were the main signatories of the National Covenant in 1638.

Why You Should Visit:
Quiet, architecturally very special, and with such a wealth of spectacular stained glass that one cannot be anything else but awed.

Entry is free or by donation, but if you want to take pics, you'll need to fork over £2 for a "permit".
Best to get onto a tour as there's much you could miss just wandering on your own. A rooftop tour (£6) is also worth it.
Don't miss the café downstairs. The food is great and it is really cute.
Greyfriars Church

2) Greyfriars Church

It is easy to find ancient buildings in Edinburgh as the whole city is divided into two quarters: Old Town and New Town. You will find Greyfriar’s Church in the former.

The construction of the church started in 1602 and it was consecrated in 1630, making it one of the oldest buildings in the Old Town district, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was built on the site of an abandoned Franciscan monastery and took its name from the monks who wore grey cassocks and were called the “Grey Friars”.

In 1718 a dividing wall separated the nave for the worshippers of Old Greyfriars and New Greyfriars so that the Covenanters were separated from the Roman Catholics, while worshipping in the same church. In 1845 part of the church’s roof and interior was destroyed by fire.

During restorations in the mid 19th century the beautiful stained-glass windows were added. It was the first time that such windows appeared in a Presbyterian church and it caused something of a scandal. A little later an organ was placed in the building, which caused a further scandal. The church was further renovated in 1929 and at this time the dividing wall was removed.

The adjoining graveyard is supposed to be haunted by the ghost of George Mackenzie, called the “Bloody” Lord Advocate as he was responsible for the persecution of the Covenanters. According to legend, you will have cuts and bruises wherever his hand has touched you.

Today the church hosts fashion shows, exhibitions, lectures and drama productions. The church museum is full of artefacts found in the area and you will find a comprehensive history of the Covenanters there.

***Literary Landmarks Tour & Hary Potter Tour ***
Hidden behind the Elephant House Café is another place of interest for the avid Potter fan visiting Edinburgh. The grave of Thomas Riddell can be found within the historic Greyfriars Kirkyard, with many fans citing it as author JK Rowling’s inspiration for the character of Tom Riddle (aka Lord Voldemort). From here you can also view George Heriots School, which is often believed to have inspired the fictional Hogwarts.

In Greyfriars Kirkyard you will find the gravestones of Robert Potter, Tom Riddell and William McGonagall. Other gravestones with potential links include Elizabeth Moodie (Mad-Eye Moody?) and Margaret Louisa Scrymgeour Wedderburn (Rufus Scrimgeour, the Minister of Magic in the final Harry Potter book?)

From August 2019, a map is available to purchase in the cemetery for 50p. This map locates all of the Harry Potter themed gravestones in Greyfriars Kirkyard with proceeds going to the upkeep of the grounds.
Magdalen Chapel

3) Magdalen Chapel

The Magdalen Chapel (or Magdalene Chapel) was built between 1541 and 1544 using money bequeathed by Michael MacQueen (died 1537), supplemented by his widow, Janet Rynd (or Rhynd). The Foundation Charter of 1547 reads: 'when the said Michael was greatly troubled with an heavy Disease, and oppressed with Age, yet mindful of Eternal Life, he esteemed it ane good Way to obtain Eternal Life, to erect some Christian Work, for ever to remain and endure.' It was designed to accommodate a chaplain and act as an almshouse for seven poor men who were to pray for the soul of Mary, Queen of Scots. Prior to the Reformation, the Queen Regent, Mary of Guise arranged academic lectures there.

An inscription over the door reads 'He that hath pity upon the poore lendeth unto the Lord and the Lord will recompence him that which he hath given, Pro. XIX vers XVII.'

A semi-circular wooden platform was installed at the east end around 1615 and the layout of the Chapel was altered. The carved armorial panel over the door was created by John Sawer in the same year, and was moved to its current location in 1649. The tower and spire were added about 1620. A bell, by the Dutch bell founder Michael Burgerhuys of Middelburg, dates from 1632. The stained glass in the middle window of the south wall features the Royal Arms of Scotland and the Arms of Mary of Guise. It is the only intact pre-Reformation stained glass window in Scotland.

The Magdalen Chapel is designated as a Category A listed building.
Sight description based on wikipedia
St. Margaret's Chapel

4) St. Margaret's Chapel

Edinburgh Castle is on the “must” list of every visitor to Scotland’s capital city and St Margaret’s Chapel is perhaps the highlight of the tour due to being the oldest building still standing in the entire complex.

St Margaret was a princess of the House of Wessex. Her family moved to Scotland after the Norman invasion of England. She married King Malcolm III of Scotland and was renowned for her piety and charitable works. According to legend, she prayed every day in the chapel that bears her name, but actually, it was built in her honour by her son, King David I at the beginning of the 12th century.

The chapel was built in the Romanesque style, a 3 metre wide, rectangular building with a 4 metre long nave, a sanctuary 3 metres long and walls 61 centimetres thick. Between the nave and the sanctuary is a beautiful round arch with chevron mouldings.

In 1314 the castle was captured by the Earl of Moray after a long siege. As was the custom, once the earl gained the castle, he destroyed all the buildings in it, but for some reason he spared the chapel. In 1329, Robert the Bruce left a small sum of money for the chapel’s up-keep.

Between the 16th and the mid 19th centuries, the chapel fell into disrepair and was used as a gun powder storeroom. In 1853 it was restored under the patronage of Queen Victoria. The stained-glass windows representing St Margaret, St Ninian, St Columba, St Andrew and William Wallace were installed in 1929. After further restorations, the chapel was re-consecrated in 1934.

Try to visit when it's not too crowded as it can get claustrophobic in there.

Opening Hours:
Mon-Fri: 10am-6pm
St Cuthbert's Church

5) St Cuthbert's Church

The Parish Church of St Cuthbert is a parish church of the Church of Scotland now within the Presbytery of Edinburgh. The church building is situated east of Lothian Road in central Edinburgh at the western foot of the Castle Rock, at the west end of Princes Street, but set well below street level, unlike its more modern counterpart, St John's, which screens the church in views from the north. The church is surrounded by its churchyard, which adds a valued green space in the city centre, linking visually to Princes Street Gardens on its east side.

It is uncertain when the first church of St Cuthbert's was founded. Some secondary sources date its foundation to the latter part of the seventh century, during or shortly after the life of Saint Cuthbert. Others place its foundation and dedication to the saint after the arrival to Scotland of Queen Margaret in 1069. The parish may have covered the whole of Edinburgh before the parish of St Giles' was detached from it in the 12th century. The earliest explicit record of the church comes in a charter of 1128.[6] This charter, issued by David I, gave to Holyrood Abbey the parish of St Cuthbert.

The churchyard is impressive, containing hundreds of monuments worthy of notice, including one to John Grant of Kilgraston (near Perth), and a three-bay Gothic mausoleum of the Gordons of Cluny by David Bryce.

One feature of oddness is at the west side of the churchyard, where Lothian Road has been widened over the churchyard (in 1930) by the City Architect, Ebenezer James MacRae, but due to its greater height over the churchyard, has been done so on pillars, so the graves still remain beneath the road surface. The eastern pavement therefore traverses these graves.
Sight description based on wikipedia
St. Mary's Cathedral

6) St. Mary's Cathedral (must see)

St Mary’s Cathedral is located in Edinburgh’s New Town district and you shouldn't miss the opportunity to visit this fine church.

The building was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1874 and it is a wonderful example of Victorian Gothic architecture. The foundation stone was hollowed out and it contains a copy of the Trust Deed, Oliver and Boyd’s Almanac, coins, newspapers and an edition of the Post Office directory. The nave was opened in 1879 and the twin spires on the west end were added by Sir George’s grandson Charles in 1913.

The church complex comprises the Song School with its lovely murals of the Beneficiate by Phoebe Anna Traquair and the Chapter House which is open as a crèche on Sundays.

Inside the cathedral, you will find Sir Walter Scott’s pew, which was brought here in 2006 and memorials to the Soldiers of the Royal Scots Infantry killed overseas between 1857 and 1870. Other memorials are dedicated to important Scottish Generals.

The Lorimer Rood Cross over the nave altar was placed there in 1922; the reredos behind the High Altar represent Christ with the saints Mary, Margaret, Columba and John.

You can also admire the Paolozzi window – one of the first stained-glass windows in Scotland. It caused a bit of a stir at the time, but as it represented scenes from the Ascension, it was allowed to remain in place. The most notable item in the church is Borthwick’s powerful painting “The Presence”.

Why You Should Visit:
This Cathedral is very much a working one and you can be treated to fantastic choral/organ music on most days.
Otherwise, of course, the architecture is a treat to watch – a must for anyone interested in the splendor of 19th-century houses of worship.

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