St George’s marks anniversary after defying odds

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THE landmark building of St George’s, with its distinctive green dome, will mark its 200th birthday on Thursday.

That it has managed to reach this major milestone at all is remarkable as it has survived dry rot, religious dissent and talk of demolition.

The former church on Charlotte Square, now known as West Register House, is one of three main buildings of the National Archives of Scotland.

But the congregation of St Andrew’s and St George’s West has not forgotten the central role it played in the life of their church, nor the charismatic ministers who preached here.

A free exhibition St Andrew’s and St George’s West on George Street will tell its story from Monday.

Parish minister Rev Ian Y Gilmour said: “We hope that people will come and get a sense of the changing landscape in the city.

“While some of the buildings are still there, perhaps their function has changed. But there is still a connection with a living story, and it is a very stimulating story.

“It is a church populated by some outstanding Scots, placed in one of the great squares of Europe.

“The words and actions of many of these able people still resonate today.”

A Bold Congregation opens weekdays between 10am and 3pm and will feature display panels, communion silver dating to 1814, and original church furniture.

Researchers working on the exhibition have also discovered a 100-year-old time capsule from St George’s centenary celebrations in June 1914, just three weeks before the outbreak of the First World War.

Among the most famous of St George’s ministers was its first Dr Andrew Thomson, a vociferous opponent of slavery whose arguments were copied by other campaigners.

He also revitalised Scottish church music and wrote melodies which are still sung today, including a tune known simply as St George’s.

Another notable minister of St George’s was the Rev Gavin Lang Pagan, who enlisted as a private soldier in the First World War, and was killed in action in 1917.

A special service will also be held on Sunday in St Andrew’s and St George’s West, George Street, from 11am.

This month the church will not only celebrate its 200th anniversary but also 50 years since the union of St Andrew’s and St George’s congregation.

To mark the building’s bicentenary, a commemorative booklet telling its story has been produced by Alec Hope, whose father was the last session clerk, with the help of Alison Bruce, and Jean Mackinlay.

The church was opened on June 5, 1814 by Rev Sir Henry Moncrieff in a grand ceremony attended by civic and religious dignitaries.

In the summer of 1959, St George’s was about to embark on an extensive programme of refurbishment and redecoration.

However, a routine inspection of the church before work began revealed dry rot in the building and subsequently structural defects.

There was a lively debate in the pages of The Evening News and The Scotsman, with some correspondents even suggesting that the church should be pulled down, to provide “a much-needed direct outlet from Charlotte Square to Queensferry Street”.

john.connell@edinburghnews.com