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Greyfriars Kirk

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Greyfriars Kirk[1], now 'Greyfriars Tolbooth & Highland Kirk', is a parish kirk (church) of the Church of Scotland in Edinburgh, Scotland. Its name reflects a pre-Reformation association with the Franciscan order, the Grey Friars. It is one of the oldest surviving buildings in Edinburgh outside the Old Town, built between 1602 and about 1620 on land given by Mary, Queen of Scots to the Edinburgh town council in 1562 for use as a burial ground. It is adjacent to the back of George Heriot's School, which was founded in 1628.

The original church was a simple six-bay building in late Gothic style, with side aisles and pillars forming arcades; worshippers either stood or brought their own stools. Beyond it was a small tower, where the Town Council kept its gunpowder. In 1718, this tower blew up, and the west end of the church was destroyed. In the rebuilding, a new west wall was built two bays into the church, and on the western side a new church was created by adding two further bays in the same style, so that Greyfriars now housed two separate congregations, back to back.

In 1845 fire gutted the Old Greyfriars church and destroyed the furnishings of the New Greyfriars church. After the fire, the original roof and arcades were removed and replaced by a single-span roof introduced. The windows were made into lancets and stained glass - the first in any Scottish parish church since the Reformation - was introduced in 1857.

In 1929 the congregations of Old and New Greyfriars united, and between 1931 and 1938, a programme of reconstruction was followed. The dividing wall between the two halves of the building was removed, Old Greyfriars' arcades were restored, and a ceiling of Californian redwood was built over the six bays of the original church.

Place in History

The kirk has an important place in Scottish history. Opened in 1620, it was the first church built in Edinburgh after the Reformation;. In 1638 the National Covenant, a protest against attempts by King Charles 1 to exert control over the Scottish Church, was signed in front of the pulpit of Greyfriars Kirk, and in 1679, about 1200 Covenanters were imprisoned in Greyfriars Kirkyard pending trial. The present Kirkyard contains "The Martyrs Monument" commemorating the hundred or so Covenanters who were subsequently executed. The Kirkyard[2] is the burial place of many of these and of many other notable Scots. One of the graves is that of Duncan Ban MacIntyre (d 1812) who fought against the Jacobites in 1745, never learned to read, and sold illicit whisky in the Lawnmarket to make a living, but who is recognised as one of the most important Gaelic poets of his time. Dr Robert Lee, the minister of Greyfriars Kirk at the time, was a leader of a movement to reform worship in Presbyterian churches. He introduced to the Kirk the first post-Reformation stained glass windows, and one of the first organs in a Presbyterian Church in Scotland.

The most famous story from the 19th century, however, is that of Greyfriars Bobby, a Skye Terrier. Bobby guarded his master's grave for fourteen years, and was buried just outside the graveyard, near where his stone stands today. His statue stands on George IV Bridge, close to the entrance to the kirkyard, and is one of Edinburgh's best known landmarks.

In 1979, the congregation of Greyfriars united with 'Highland Tolbooth St John's', and since then, a service in Gaelic has been held each Sunday as well as the services in English.


  1. Greyfriars Kirk
  2. Greyfriars Kirkyard