How city churches survived destruction of Second World War

North Leith Church survived the war, with details in the ledger. Picture: Neil Hanna

North Leith Church survived the war, with details in the ledger. Picture: Neil Hanna

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A HANDWRITTEN record of the damage caused to hundreds of churches – including several in the Capital – during the Second World War is to be displayed for the first time.

The Register of War Damaged Properties has been preserved for more than 70 years in the basement of the Church of Scotland’s headquarters in Edinburgh.

Now the ledger, featuring more than 800 Scottish buildings owned by the Kirk, is to be examined by historians at the National Archives.

North Leith Parish church, located on Madeira Street, is the only Capital building on the list still in operation.

The ledger describes its condition after it was targeted in April 1941 as “badly damaged” and states: “Damage to roofs and windows, window blackout frames and two leaded panels and doors were damaged at the church halls” .

The parish’s current minister, Alex McAspurren, said the church had narrowly avoided demolition.

“The building was in a state of disrepair,” he said. “The damage caused meant the roof was on the brink of collapse and it wasn’t safe for anyone to be inside. Everyone was relocated a couple of streets away to Summerside Halls in Great Wellington Street for ten years so repairs could take place after the end of the war.

“It’s hardly a surprise this church and others in the area were targeted, considering its position in relation to the docks and railyard.”

The former St Thomas’ on Sheriff Brae in Leith, which now houses the Sikh Guru Nanak Gurdwara, saw windows smashed and slates blown off the roof, while ceilings and doors were damaged by the same raids.

Several other churches never recovered from the damage suffered, closing their doors for good just after the conflict ended.

West St Giles Church on Argyle Park Terrace – built in 1881 – had its roof, hall and kitchens destroyed and, 
despite being rebuilt after 
the war, was demolished in 1974.

Dr Jeremy Crang, senior history lecturer at Edinburgh University, described the records as “fascinating” and said they shed new light on the impact the conflict had in Scotland.

“The geographical spread of the war damage to churches recorded in the ledger reminds us that the German air force ranged far and wide across Scotland during its bombing campaign,” he said.

“This ledger shows how the kirk was very much in the frontline of Scottish society during the war and provides a great insight into the challenges and trauma faced by members.

“There is a sense here of bureaucratic defiance – that order had to be maintained in the midst of chaos.”

newsen@edinburghnews.com