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History of the Cathedral

The exterior of St Mary's Cathedral with lawn in the foreground.
The Foundation and Design

St Mary's Episcopal Cathedral was founded after sisters Barbara and Mary Walker left the whole of their property in central Edinburgh to the Scottish Episcopal Church.  This enabled 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.

Subsequently, 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 (architect also of St Pancras Station and Hotel) was chosen, with plans submitted under the clever anonymous name, “Auld Lang Syne”.  The foundation stone was laid on 21st May 1874 by the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry, and the building consecrated just five years later on 30th October 1879.  The cost was £110,000, but rising wages forbad the completion of the Chapter House and western spires.  The Chapter House was added in 1890 by the generous donation of Hugh James Rollo at a cost of £5,000, the twin spires by church people during 1913-17 at a cost of £13,200, in memory of the founders (and have since been nicknamed Barbara and Mary).

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, and made the massive central tower and spire and the twin western spires such prominent features that they may be seen from miles away. To this day, it remains the tallest building in Edinburgh.  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.

The First Twenty Years

In the first twenty years of its existence the Cathedral 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.

Our archivist, Iain Morrison, has written a series of articles about the history of the early Cathedral (from its consecration in 1897 until the end of the Victorian era in 1902), on a variety of subjects: The Cathedral Building, The Song School, Services, Finances, Children, The Organ, The Congregation, Congregational Questions, Advertisements, Charitable Endeavours, Memorial Services and the End of the Victorian Era.  It is available for download here.

The World Wars

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.


Post-War II

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 the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh status as a World Heritage Site (in 1996) an 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 (now closed).

What is an 'Episcopal' Cathedral?

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.  In 1560 the Calvinist reformation, led in Scotland by John Knox, swept away the medieval system, and with it the order of bishops, though this was subsequently restored in 1610 under James VI of Scotland (James I of England).  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 to regain it at the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II in 1661.

After the next revolution in 1688, the Scottish bishops and their supporters were ejected as 'non-Jurors' i.e. they refused to swear an oath to William of Orange, choosing instead to support the exiled King James.  The established church in Scotland was handed over to Presbyterian governance, and so St Giles became once more the “High Kirk” of Edinburgh.


The ejected Episcopalians, because of their support for King James (and later his son and grandson, 'Bonnie Prince Charlie), became subject to severe penal laws until 1792.  After this the laws were lifted, and they were free 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.

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