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Greyfriars Kirk: Historic Church in the Heart of Edinburgh

Greyfriars Kirkyard is one of the famous historical sites in Edinburgh (it’s one of the stops on our Wee Golden Walks). As soon as you walk into the Kirkyard, you are greeted by a touching memorial to one of its most famous visitors- Greyfriars Bobby. Sawyer loves to pay his respects to Bobby and has even attended the memorial that is held annually in his honour. The Kirkyard is filled with an incredible history of its own, therefore, we will be sure to do a separate blog post on that soon. However, this week’s post is to shine the light on the Kirk itself. With a history that dates to the 1600s, Greyfriars Kirk has a storied past. Join us as we step inside this iconic church and give you a wee look at what makes it so special for locals and visitors alike.

Sami and Sawyer Attending the Greyfriars Bobby Memorial

Considering Greyfriars Kirk is a post-Reformation church, it might be surprising to hear that there is a connection to Mary Queen of Scots. The church is built on land that was once a Franciscan monastery. The friars that lived at the monastery wore grey habits, hence the name ‘Greyfriars’. However, during the Reformation, a mob forced the friars out. After this, Mary came into possession of the land, and gave it to the town council to be used as a burial ground.

The Greyfriars congregation originally attended a section of St Giles, but this was not a sustainable solution. According to Greyfriars Kirk, there was a need for a church for the south-west parish of the city, and they built a church on the land previously used by the monastery. It was the first post-Reformation church in Edinburgh, and began services on Christmas Day 1620.

Architecturally, much has changed since Greyfriars Kirk was first built. Over the centuries, the church suffered at the hands of fire and explosions (it probably was not a good idea for the town council to use the bell tower as gunpowder storage), which necessitated restorations that continue to present times.

Greyfriars Kirk points out that there is a ‘simplicity’ to the Kirk’s architecture that still exists today. The porch and main entrance, done in the Palladian style, were added in 1721. Let’s head in through the main entrance and explore a bit of how Greyfriars Kirk looks today.

According to Greyfriars Kirk, much of what you see inside the interior dates to 1938. Prior to this, there were two adjoining buildings, known as New and Old Greyfriars. However, in the 1930s, they were joined to form one congregation. If we look up, we see the rich, wooden ceiling that is made from California Redwood. Additionally, situated around the Kirk, are beautiful stained-glass windows which have an interesting history that deserves retelling.

Greyfriars Kirk is part of the Church of Scotland, and Greyfriars points out how, initially, “reformed worship in the Church of Scotland was notoriously austere, with long prayers and sermons. Music for psalm-singing was limited to a few tunes, and the setting for worship nearly always lacked ornament of any kind”. After a fire devastated the Kirk in 1845, the minister, Robert Lee, decided it was time for a change. In a bold but daring move, Lee commissioned stained glass windows (“the first coloured glass in any Church of Scotland church”) and a pipe organ to be installed as well as encouraged hymn-singing.

According to Greyfriars, normally, these acts would have resulted in Lee being “called to the Bar of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and put on trial as an innovator”. However, he died before that could happen and his controversial changes already created a momentum for change within the Church of Scotland.

Looking around Greyfriars today, we should be grateful to Minister Lee for the elegant additions to the Kirk. In my opinion, the beauty in this sacred space is its simplicity. Rising above the altar, the East Window displays parables including the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan. Fittingly, there is a memorial to Lee nearby that reminds us of his important role in the history of Greyfriars Kirk.

A particularly surprising find is tucked into the north east corner of the church. There, you will find an American flag that once flew at the White House and was presented to Greyfriars by the American Consul in Edinburgh. It “commemorates the Kirk’s 350th anniversary in 1970 and the landing of the Pilgrim Fathers in New England in 1620”.

The connection to Mary Queen of Scots mentioned at the beginning of this post, continues inside Greyfriars as well. Along the south west wall, there is a stained-glass window in the memory of George Buchanan. He was the tutor to Mary and her son, James VI.

As we continue to head along toward the west end of the Kirk, be sure to look up so you don’t miss the incredible Collins organ which was installed in 1990. There are some lovely carvings on it, including the iconic Greyfriars Bobby.

Lastly, when you visit Greyfriars Kirk, be sure to take a look around their wee museum situated underneath the organ. Photography is not allowed within, but there are some very important artefacts on display. One of them is an original copy of the National Convent that was adopted in Greyfriars in 1638. The display points out the importance of this document in religious history in Scotland by explaining that it was a “declaration of rights…of ordinary people to exercise their God-given consciences in matters of faith and life…”. Essentially, it was saying that the monarchy did not have divine authority to govern.

Another touching item on display is an original oil painting from 1867. Below is a photo of a lovely print of the painting that we bought in the Kirk shop.

This article has merely provided a brief visit to Greyfriars Kirk. We highly recommend that, after you visit the Kirkyard on one of our Edinburgh walking tours, you return to Greyfriars and do a proper visit to this historic church.

Until next time- Explore & Discover!


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