Magdalen Chapel

Magdalen Chapel, Cowgate
©2022 Gazetteer for Scotland

Magdalen Chapel, Cowgate

Hidden in the Cowgate in Edinburgh's Old Town, just to the W beneath George IV Bridge, is the 16th Century Magdalen Chapel. This small chapel was built 1541-4, with a bequest from a Michael MacQueen (or MacQuhane), who had died in 1537, augmented by his wife Janet Rynd, who lies buried within. The couple wanted to build a chapel which would also serve as meeting-place for the Incorporation of Hammermen, an important guild of comprised numerous crafts and professions who had worshipped in a small aisle in St. Giles Kirk since the late 1400s. The Chapel included a hospital or almshouse which looked after the poor and sick.

Magdalen Chapel is important for several reasons. Firstly it was the last Roman Catholic chapel to be built in Edinburgh before the Reformation. Secondly, following the Reformation, it became the cradle of Presbyterianism, holding the first assembly of the new Church of Scotland on the 20th December, 1560 including, amongst the 42 assembled, John Knox (c.1513-72). Thirdly, it includes the only examples of Mediaeval stained-glass remaining in their original location; four roundels representing the arms of Scotland, of Mary of Guise (Lorraine), of MacQueen and of MacQueen and Rynd together. Most stained glass was destroyed during the Reformation in a process of cleansing churches of anything which diverted from the worship of God.

The steeple was not completed until 1628, and the bell, cast in Flanders, is dated 1632, however the Victorian street facade effectively hides the age of the core. Inside, two walls are almost entirely covered with panels recording bequests which had been made to support the work of the Chapel.

In 1957, a committee was formed to restore the chapel, which involved the Cockburn Association, the University of Edinburgh (who owned the adjacent building through which the Chapel was entered), the Incorporation of Hammermen (who owned the chapel until 1857) and the Protestant Institute of Scotland (who were the owners at the time).

A major restoration was undertaken in 1992-93 at a cost of £305,000 and is now the headquarters of the Scottish Reformation Society, which was formed in 1851. It now receives around 6000 visitors annually (2001).

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