History Scotland expert blogs - St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh

25 June 2014
Darren Tierney explores the history of St Mary's Metropolitan Cathedral in Edinburgh in the year of its 200th anniversary. ...
History Scotland expert blogs - St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh Images

Darren Tierney explores the history of St Mary's Metropolitan Cathedral in Edinburgh in the year of its 200th anniversary.

This year St Mary’s Metropolitan Cathedral on Broughton Street, Edinburgh, celebrates its 200th anniversary. During the intervening two centuries it has stood witness to some of the great events of Catholic and wider Scottish history, including Catholic emancipation, two World Wars and two papal visits.

When it first opened its doors for worship in August 1814 it had not, of course, been raised to the dignity of a cathedral, nor was it enhanced by the many embellishments that can be seen today. Indeed in 1814 this Gillespie Graham-designed chapel was little more than a box structure, 110 feet in length and 57 feet in width, fronted by a gothic façade with 70 feet high pinnacles that was intended to give the impression of a much grander structure.


Among some of the earliest services to take place in the chapel were the baptisms of John Brown, son of John Brown and Helen Robertson, and William Forrest, son of William Forrest and Helen Brown, both of whom were baptised by Reverend Alexander Badenoch on 6 September. 

One of the chapel’s first marriages had taken place a week earlier, when Thomas Collins, a street paver, and Euphemia Gunn were married by Rev. James MacDonald on 31 August 1814. 

During the course of the following year, the chapel’s first full calendar year, 143 children were baptised and 24 couples married.

The simple interior of the original chapel bears little resemblance to the impressive interior of the Cathedral today. But the little chapel did have one impressive artistic feature: The Deposition of the Cross attributed to Van Dyck, which was formerly used as an altar-piece but which now hangs in the cathedral porch.

While it is now known that the painting is not the work of the master himself, it nevertheless had its admirers. King George IV offered to purchase it for £4,000 on his 1822 visit to the city.

Over the years, the Cathedral’s treasury has grown, and some of its more interesting items will form the basis of the remainder of this blog.

When in 1878 Pope Leo XIII restored the Catholic hierarchy in Scotland, the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh was named as the country’s metropolitan see. In recognition of this event, the wealthy convert John Patrick Crichton Stuart, the Marquess of Bute, gifted a number of items to St Mary’s and the new archdiocese, including the Bute Mitre (pictured right) and the Metropolitan Cross.

The richly embroidered episcopal mitre, which on occasions is still worn by the Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, depicts Christ and the Virgin Mary along with a number of saints, including St Andrew. The metropolitan cross, which precedes the archbishop in all liturgical celebrations at the Cathedral, is gilt and set with red stones, and the corpus flanked by two enamel angels.


Within a year of the presentation of these gifts, Bute had donated another item to St Mary’s - the Bute reliquary - intended for the recently obtained relic (a large piece of shoulder blade) of St Andrew.

The relic was first exposed on St Andrew’s Day 1879, when a grand procession of local schoolchildren, a number of military personnel and 60 altar boys led by Archbishop John Strain, who carried the reliquary, wound its way around the Cathedral.

Today, the relic sits alongside another of St Andrew’s relics given by Pope Paul VI to Gordon Joseph Gray in 1969 on occasion of the latter’s appointment to the College of Cardinals, and together they form the National Shrine of St Andrew, housed in the Cathedral.

It was before these relics that Pope John Paul II prayed with Cardinal Gray during his 1982 visit to Britain. 32 later, during his state visit to the UK, POPE Benedict XVI prayed before the same relics, which had been specially transported to the archbishop’s residence in the Morningside area of Edinburgh.

As it enters its third century, St Mary’s remains at the heart of a thriving Catholic community, with an estimated 9,000 people attending services at the Cathedral during Holy Week 2014.

Yet for as much change as it has witnessed, and indeed for as much change as it has itself undergone, St Mary’s remains essentially unchanged as a place of Catholic worship in Edinburgh – a function it has fulfilled admirably these past two centuries.

St Mary's Metropolitan Cathedral, 61 York Place, Edinburgh EH1 3JD; tel: 0131 556 1798; website.


Darren Tierney recently completed a PhD in History entitled: 'Financing the Faith: Scottish Catholicism 1772- c.1890'. He is currently a Research Assistant on the project ‘Irish Catholic Discourse and Social Mobility in Nineteenth-Century Halifax: the exemplary case of Holy Cross Cemetery’, and is preparing a new history of St Mary's Metropolitan Cathedral in Edinburgh to mark its 200th anniversary.

His main research interest is the history of the Catholic Church and community in modern Scotland. He is also secretary of the Scottish Catholic Historical Association.

For more on the Centre for History at the University of the Highlands and Islands, visit the website.

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