Ruth Davidson: Mural that paints a picture of Edinburgh’s past

Edinburgh is rich with artistic and architectural gems. There is a reason UNESCO has deemed parts of the city a World Heritage Site and why hundreds of thousands of tourists make the ­Capital their destination each year.

Tuesday, 11th June 2019, 6:00 am
Updated Tuesday, 11th June 2019, 7:00 am
St Patrick's Church in the Cowgate is home to the Runciman mural. Picture: Greg Macvean

But everything that we already have on display shouldn’t blind us to the treasures that are hidden. One such obscured work is a mural, painted on the apse of St Patrick’s Church in the Cowgate.

Nicknamed Scotland’s Sistine Chapel, the frieze, by Alexander Runciman, dates from the 1700s. As well as being an outstanding piece of artistic significance, it also helps tell the tale of changes to Edinburgh’s religious community.

St Patrick’s was originally built as an Episcopal Church, and it was the Episcopal congregation that commissioned Runciman – newly-returned from a pilgrimage to Rome – to paint bible scenes including the Ascension of Christ, the Return of the Prodigal Son and Jesus talking to a Samaritan Woman at the Well.

Ruth Davidson is the Scottish Conservative leader and a Lothians MSP. Picture: PA

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A few decades later, the building was taken over by the United Presbyterian church who painted over the works. Now serving a Roman Catholic congregation (St Patrick’s was the church from which Hibernian Football Club was formed) the church wants to restore these old artworks to their full glory.

The work is hard and delicate and involves stripping back seven layers of paint used to cover up the scenes over the past 300 years. Work on a couple of test patches show that the mural underneath is in good condition and restorers are hopeful the majority of the work is undamaged. They have even had to ask for – and have received – special dispensation to use banned chemicals in order to carry out the painstaking work.

But their efforts cost money.

The trust formed to help fund the restoration needs a significant amount of the total to be collected before full-scale work can begin. In a city where, perhaps, there were not already so many treasures, a project such as this might have gained more publicity and the wholesale backing of the city fathers.

But just because Edinburgh already has so much doesn’t mean that we should forget about renovating and restoring works which have fallen into disrepair. The Runciman murals at St Patrick’s are not just artistically significant, they are historically significant too.

Professor Duncan Macmillan from Edinburgh University said: “A lost masterpiece and a pioneering work in the history of modern art is sitting there, waiting to be revealed.”

It would be a crying shame if, through lack of funds, Scotland’s Sistine Chapel was never ­uncovered. Anyone wishing to donate can go to

Ruth Davidson is the Scottish Conservative leader and a Lothians MSP.