Doors Open Day: St Mary’s Cathedral

St Mary's Cathedral archivist Oula Jones with The Mary Stuart Vestment from the 17th century. Picture: Julie Bull
St Mary's Cathedral archivist Oula Jones with The Mary Stuart Vestment from the 17th century. Picture: Julie Bull
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BISHOP Hay knew what would happen. The mob had been assembled, people’s blood was up and torches were being lit as they made their way to Blackfriars Wynd.

It was a time of emotional religion, when the thin veneer of Edinburgh’s enlightenment was cut through to show the still, barely civilised attitudes which existed to those who practised a different form of worship.

With cries of “No Popery”, the mob descended on St Mary’s Chapel on February 2, 1779, and the small church just off the Royal Mile was soon ablaze.

The Bishop had fled. He had seen the Protestant mob destroy his church in flames before. And this time he knew that if there was to be a city centre place of worship for Edinburgh’s Catholics – including immigrants from Italy and Lithuania – it would have to be reborn elsewhere in the city.

So despite the fact that Blackfriars Wynd was historically important to the Catholics of the city – it was close to the original monastery at High School Yards founded in 1230 by King Alexander II and also destroyed by a Protestant mob two centuries previously in 1558 – St Mary’s would have to relocate.

“He wanted the new church to be somewhere less obvious, more hidden from view,” says St Mary’s Metropolitan Cathedral archivist Oula Jones. “He wanted it to be inconspicuous and less open to attack.”

It’s hard to believe now when you stand in Picardy Place looking south that the large, grand cathedral sitting atop a host of steps and in the shadow of John Lewis was once cloistered among tenement buildings which kept it from sight. Hard to believe it all, too, when this weekend St Mary’s will take part in Doors Open Day and let anyone interested in its history – Catholic or not – wander down its aisles and gaze upon its frescoes.

The cathedral is taking part in the city-wide event as it is also celebrating its 200th year. It was in 1814 – 35 years after its predecessor was razed to the ground – that it opened its doors for the first time.

“Bishop Hay chose the site in 1801, and it might well also have been because the population was moving from Old Town to New Town,” says Oula, a former librarian who has been the cathedral’s volunteer archivist for the last 14 years.

“But the first mass wasn’t celebrated until August 1814 and by that time Bishop Hay had died and it was Bishop Cameron who was head of the church.

“The original building was designed by James Gillespie Graham and it was much smaller than what we have today, because it was funded by its congregation.

“But by the 1840s when the Irish community in Edinburgh expanded rapidly, there was demand for a bigger church.

“In fact, there were plans drawn up for a much bigger St Mary’s to be built in Morningside as Bishop Gillies lived in Church Hill. But it was going to be far too expensive so that’s when it was enlarged and the roof was raised and it’s just the front facade that remains of the original building.”

The cathedral has certainly seen many changes in its surroundings in 200 years.

The tenements and shops which once hid it from view were demolished as part of slum clearances, while later even the Theatre Royal which was sited next door made way when the St James Centre, King James Hotel and Scottish Office complex was created.

Picardy Place became a major transport hub for cars, buses and trams – as it is once again – and the neon kinetic sculpture which once stood not far from the cathedral is long gone, although artworks by former congregation member Eduardo Paolozzi now take pride of place at the foot of the church’s steps.

As part of Doors Open Day – and through much research being done for a new book on the cathedral to commemorate its bicentenary – there will be exhibitions of photography showing how it has changed.

“We have some artist’s impressions from the 1960s of what was being planned for the area, including flyovers and skyscrapers,” says Oula. “Thankfully they never went ahead but the Scottish Office did and it was bad enough.

“The church bought the Theatre Royal site which was derelict [and] became the cathedral courtyard, and then in 2005 we built a new hall and the Cafe Camino in that space. Now everything looks like changing again, and if they build a hotel in front of us I suppose we’ll be hidden once more.”

Oula works in the cathedral’s office building in York Place, but she and all staff, including the priests, have easy access to the church thanks to an underground tunnel which connects the buildings under Cathedral Lane.

The archivist’s office is lined with cardboard boxes full of the paperwork of a church – marriages, baptisms, records going back to the 1700s.

“The French royal family was in exile here in the 1830s and they worshipped at the church, and the Comte de Chambord made his first confession in 1832,” she says.

“And Arthur Conan Doyle was baptised here in 1859.

“We’ve also had many important visitors like George IV and Queen Mary and, more recently, Pope John Paul II.”

There is even the Pope’s toilet in the basement – built especially for the Pontiff in 1982.

There is also a reminder of disgraced Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the Archbi for many years – a photograph on an office wall, though his name is no longer mentioned.

While immigrants helped build the cathedral – financially and physically – it is still immigration which helps to keep the pews full.

There are signs of the new Polish community everywhere, including their own idol surrounded by lit candles.

“The cathedral as the main Catholic church in Edinburgh – the first to be made a Metropolitan cathedral in Scotland – attracts a lot of new arrivals in Edinburgh,” says Oula.

“It’s always been that way and while we don’t have so many Lithuanians today, we have a large Polish community and some Hungarians and the Italian community is still very supportive.

“It’s the congregation which keeps the church going, as it was back in Bishop Hay’s day. It didn’t matter that his chapel was burnt down, he knew that the church was needed.”

Fire has followed St Mary’s, though. Back in 1853 the 
Theatre Royal caught alight, and part of the chapel was destroyed. Six men died, including two firefighters, as church artefacts were moved to safety.

“The cathedral has had a 
turbulent history,” says Oula. “We hope people will be fascinated by it and to come and see for themselves this weekend.”

From nurseries to gin distilleries

ST Mary’s Metropolitan Cathedral is one of 121 buildings which will throw their doors open to the public this weekend as part of the annual event which gives people the chance to explore some of Edinburgh’s most significant buildings.

And those participating in this year’s event range in age from the 200-year-old church to places like the Arcadia Children’s Nursery on West Mains Road, designed by award-winning architect Malcolm Fraser which only opened on September 11.

This year’s theme is Sustainable Edinburgh, and many of the buildings have been chosen specifically to fit with the message. The Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation at High School Yards, for instance, has transformed the stie of an old school into an energy-efficient hub of low-carbon knowledge, innovation and skills. The £10.5m project preserved the site but also incorporated modern sustainable buildings.

Similarly, the George Square Energy Centre in Charles Street Lane will be open to show how Edinburgh University operates four local power stations, generating 80 per cent of campus requirements through low carbon energy – and a look at the generator behind the Old Medical School is on the agenda.

Another new building to the Doors Open scheme, perhaps proving again the sustainability of 19th century architecture, is the Edinburgh Gin Distillery at Rutland Place – beneath the Rutland Hotel. Designed in 1819 and once home to Joseph Lister, the building now houses two custom-made stills which distill Edinburgh Gin.

• For more information on Doors Open Day, which runs tomorrow and Sunday, visit