At the close of the Middle Ages, when all Christian churches in northern Europe belonged to the “one catholic church” under the authority of the Pope, Edinburgh was within the archdiocese of St Andrews, with its Archbishop’s seat (cathedra) in St Andrews itself. In 1560 the Calvinist reformation swept away the medieval system, and with it the order of bishops, which was not restored until 1610 under James VI. The Diocese of Edinburgh was founded in 1633 by Charles I, and the original parish church of the city, namely St Giles, became its Cathedral. After the victorious covenanting rebellion of 1637 which followed Presbyterian, rather than episcopal, ideas, St Giles lost the status of Cathedral, only regaining it at the restoration of the monarchy when, under Charles II in 1661, the episcopate was re-established.
At the revolution in 1688, the Scottish bishops and supporting clergy were ejected as non-Jurors because they refused to swear an oath to William of Orange, choosing instead to support the supplanted King James; so the established church in Scotland was handed over to Presbyterian governance. St Giles in consequence became once more the “High Kirk” of Edinburgh. The ejected Episcopalians, because of their Jacobite leanings, became subject to severe penal laws until 1792. After this they were free, largely to develop as they could. Gradually their obscure meeting houses gave place to churches, but for many poverty-stricken years there were no cathedrals in the seven dioceses of Scotland. In particular, in the Diocese of Edinburgh other churches were used as the “pro-Cathedral” until St Mary’s was completed in 1879.
Barbara and Mary Walker left the whole of their property to the Episcopal Church in Scotland, thus enabling the building of a Cathedral which was to be dedicated to St Mary the Virgin, and also setting up trustees to endow the Cathedral and to set up grants in aid of other church work.
An architectural competition was arranged. Amid controversy, including accusations of plagiarism and favouritism from six competing designs, three from Scottish, three from English architects. That of the English Sir George Gilbert Scott was chosen with plans submitted under the clever anonymous motto, “Auld Lang Syne”. The foundation stone was laid on 21st May 1874 by the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry, and the building consecrated on 30th October 1879. The cost was £110,000, but rising wages forbad the completion of the Chapter House and western spires. The former was added in 1890 by the munificence of Hugh James Rollo WS, at a cost of £5,000, the latter by church people in memory of the founders during 1913-17 at a cost of £13,200.
The style of Scott’s design for the Cathedral was inspired by the early Gothic churches and abbeys of Scotland. He gave it as large a floor space as the site would allow (80m by 40m) and made the massive central tower and spire (90m) and the twin western spires (60m) such prominent features that they may be seen from miles away. The enormous weight of the central tower (over 5,000 tons) is carried on four main pillars and spread through diagonal arches into buttresses in the outer walls, leaving unusually open views inside.
In the first twenty years of its existence the Cathedral had started up no fewer than six congregations in addition to gathering its own adherents. Many of those churches still thrive. In addition, the Cathedral devoted time and energy to furthering the missionary cause at home and abroad. Early on the Cathedral assisted in the formation of an Industrial Dwelling Company. Its purpose was to make available houses for labourers at reasonable rents and with good sanitary conditions. During the First World War there was much activity in the Cathedral and its Missions on behalf of those who were serving in the Forces. A number of clergy became Chaplains to the Forces and the Revd Pierce Egan died in the Middle East. After the war there was anxiety about the state of religion in the country. A great missionary campaign was launched in 1923, and in 1924 a Scottish Church Congress was founded with the Provost as its Chairman. Its policy was to be positive, persuasive and progressive and its aim to win the whole country for Christ. The effect of the Second World War on the life of the Cathedral was disruptive rather than destructive, although bombs fell in nearby Gorgie. The “blacked-out” Cathedral enabled services and meetings to continue. After the War, the Cathedral focused on the active concern for the disadvantaged at home and abroad and for ecological matters in partnership with many groups and individuals.
To mark the first anniversary of inscription of the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh as a World Heritage Site, an inaugural award was presented to the Very Reverend Graham Forbes, Provost of the Cathedral of St Mary’s by the Earl of Lindsay, Minister for the Environment and the Built Heritage at the Scottish Office on 13th of December 1996. The award was made in recognition of the exemplary quality of repairs to the stonework of the Cathedral achieved by the apprentices of St Mary’s Cathedral Workshop.