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Historical Religious Buildings Walking Tour (Self Guided), Edinburgh

Amid the variety of other attractions, the historic city of Edinburgh abounds in numerous religious sites. The oldest of them, magnificent Christian churches, represent great interest from both historical and architectural standpoints. To visit some of the most notable and beautiful places of worship of Edinburgh, follow this self-guided walk!
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Historical Religious Buildings Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Historical 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
1
St. Giles' Cathedral

1) St. Giles' Cathedral (must see)

St Giles’ Cathedral, otherwise known as the High Kirk of Edinburgh, on the Royal Mile is the one you definitely wouldn't want to miss. The first church on this site, put up in the 12th century, was destroyed by fire; only the central pillars remain. The second church, built in 1385, over a period of time had many chapels added, giving it a rather haphazard appearance. At one time, the church boasted over 50 side altars, called aisles.

In 1466, the cathedral became a collegiate church, to which 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 itself was separated into numerous preaching halls by partition walls during that 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 pulled down. The most beautiful of all the 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 are 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.

Tip:
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.
2
Greyfriars Church

2) Greyfriars Church

With a clear division into the Old and New Town, it's not hard to locate ancient buildings in Edinburgh. One such building – Greyfriar’s Church – is part of the Old Town.

Construction on the church began in 1602 and it was consecrated in 1630, becoming one of the oldest buildings in the Old Town. It was put up on the site of an abandoned Franciscan monastery and took its name from the monks who wore grey cassocks and were called “Grey Friars”.

In 1718, a dividing wall split the nave between the Old Greyfriars and New Greyfriars, so as to separate the Covenanters from the Roman Catholics worshipping inside the same church. In 1845, parts of the roof and the interior were destroyed by fire.

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

The adjoining graveyard is said to be haunted by the ghost of George Mackenzie, called the “Bloody” Lord Advocate for being responsible for the persecution of the Covenanters. According to legend, wherever his hand touches a living person, it leaves cuts and bruises.

Today the church hosts fashion shows, exhibitions, lectures and drama productions. The onsite museum showcases artefacts found in the area and recounts a comprehensive history of the Covenanters.

***Literary Landmarks & Harry Potter Tour ***
Hidden behind the Elephant House Café lies the historic Greyfriars Kirkyard which is now a place of interest for avid Harry Potter fans. Found here the grave of Thomas Riddell is said to have inspired JK Rowling to create the Tom Riddle (aka Lord Voldemort) character. Also, visible from here George Heriots School is said to be the template for fictional Hogwarts.

In addition to the gravestones of Robert Potter, Tom Riddell and William McGonagall found in the cemetary, there are others with potential links, such as Elizabeth Moodie (Mad-Eye Moody?) and Margaret Louisa Scrymgeour Wedderburn (Rufus Scrimgeour, the Minister of Magic in the final Harry Potter book?).

Starting August 2019, there is a Greyfriars Kirkyard map available to buy, locating all of the Harry Potter-themed gravestones. Proceeds from sales go to the upkeep of the grounds.
3
Magdalen Chapel

3) Magdalen Chapel

The Magdalen (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
4
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 features Romanesque style, is 3 metres wide, rectangular in shape with a 4-metre long nave, 3-metre long sanctuary 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.

Tip:
Try to visit when it's not too crowded, as it can get claustrophobic in here.

Opening Hours:
Mon-Fri: 10am-6pm
5
St Cuthbert's Church

5) St Cuthbert's Church

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

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 about it is at the west side, 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.

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 17th century, during or shortly after the life of Saint Cuthbert. Others place its foundation and dedication to the saint after the arrival in 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. This charter, issued by David I, gave to Holyrood Abbey the parish of St Cuthbert.
Sight description based on wikipedia
6
St. Mary's Cathedral

6) St. Mary's Cathedral

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 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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