Greyfriars Kirk

Greyfriars Kirk, showing the original two parts
©2022 Gazetteer for Scotland

Greyfriars Kirk, showing the original two parts

Situated inside the Flodden Wall on the southernmost edge of the Old Town of Edinburgh, Greyfriars Kirk was built on the site of the 13th-century Grey Friars (Franciscan) Monastery, which had been sacked by a Calvinist mob in 1558. Completed in 1620, Greyfriars was the first post-Reformation church to be built in Edinburgh. The western section, added as a separate church in 1721, was damaged by fire in 1845 and reinstated by David Bryce (1803-76). The original church was also subject to a fire in 1857 and restored by David Cousin (1809-78). The two buildings and their congregations were united in 1938. Architecturally, Greyfriars is not grand. Resembling a Dutch-barn, it is more notable for the people and historical events associated with it.

The National Covenant, which had been drawn up in Tailor's Hall, was signed at Greyfriars in 1638. So large was the crowd that it was taken out into the churchyard and spread on a gravestone to allow those who had been unable to get into the packed church to add their names. The Covenant was a reaction against the Anglicisation of the Presbyterian Church and was signed by thousands at churches across Scotland. Within months, the Covenanting Wars began, first against Charles I, then Oliver Cromwell, who used Greyfriars as a barracks badly damaging it, Charles II, after he had reneged on his promises, and latterly James VII. A settlement enshrining religious freedom was not agreed until 1690.

Mary, Queen of Scots, allowed the ground of the ruined monastery to be used for burials (1562). Today, Greyfriars kirkyard has the best collection of 17th century monuments in Scotland and is the last resting place of many notables including architect William Adam (1689 - 1748) and two of his sons, poet Allan Ramsay (1686 - 1758), geologist James Hutton (1726 - 1797), architect James Craig (1744 - 1795), historian William Robertson (1721 - 1793) and, paradoxically, Sir George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh (1636 - 1691), prosecutor of the Covenanters. The Martyr's Monument (1706) remembers his victims, who were executed nearby in the Grassmarket. The graves of Thomas Riddell (d.1806) and poet William Topaz McGonagall (1830 - 1902) provided the names for characters in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books and now attract numerous tourists.

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