9 of Edinburgh's oldest buildings

EDINBURGH is renowned for its old buildings and boasts a higher concentration of ancient structures than most European cities.

Monday, 27th March 2017, 10:09 am
Updated Monday, 27th March 2017, 1:19 pm
John Knox House and Moubray House are two of Edinburgh's oldest buildings and they stand together side by side. Picture: TSPL

If you’re visiting the UK for the first time and are hoping to take in a bit of history, then a stroll through Scotland’s capital is an absolute must. Edinburgh has an incredible number of ancient buildings - many of them built over 500 years ago.

1. St Margaret’s Chapel, Edinburgh Castle

Thought to have been completed in 1130 by King David in honour of his mother, Queen Margaret, St Margaret’s Chapel has seen a fair few changes in Edinburgh. In fact, as the oldest building in the entire city, it’s seen ALL the changes. The chapel is situated within the walls of Edinburgh Castle, which may sound like a safe place to be until you consider that the castle has historically been the most besieged location in the whole of Britain. Once you factor in the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s and the fact that the chapel lay disused for centuries afterwards - save for a spell as a storage room for gunpowder - it’s actually quite incredible that it’s still standing. Today’s chapel has since been tastefully restored, first by Queen Victoria in the 1850s, who made it usable once more and reintroduced stained glass to its five windows, and again in 1922. Despite the rather compact little chapel only being able to hold around 20 people, modern weddings and baptisms are a regular occurrence at the 900-year-old place of worship.

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St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh. Picture: TSPL

2. Trinity Apse, Chalmers Close

Trinity Apse is all that’s left of the ancient Trinity College Kirk, which was constructed on the eastern banks of the Nor’ Loch in 1460. Both the kirk and a nearby hospital were founded by Mary of Gueldres, consort to King James II. For centuries the little kirk lay undisturbed - even the Reformation couldn’t shake it. Then came the Industrial Revolution...

The original kirk was destroyed in the 1840s to make way for an expansion of Waverley Railway Station. It had been intended to move the kirk stone by stone to a new site, and each piece was numbered and deposited on Calton Hill. Unfortunately, thirty years would pass before a decision was made to rebuild the kirk, by which time many of the numbered stones had disappeared. A new church was eventually built on Jeffrey Street, but this too was demolished in 1964. A small section of the rebuilt Trinity College Kirk, known as Trinity Apse still survives and many of the painted numbers from when the kirk was dismantled can still be seen. The apse is located on Chalmers Close, between the High Street and Jeffrey Street.

3. St Giles, High Street

St Margaret's Chapel is the oldest building in Edinburgh. Picture: TSPL

Founded in the 12th century, St Giles’ Cathedral can be considered one of Edinburgh’s oldest buildings. In its early days, St Giles’ was just a small stone kirk, which stood roughly on the site of the present-day nave. This church was burned down by an attacking English army in the 14th century and subsequently rebuilt in spectacular fashion, owing the building its current look with distinct crown steeple. Although most of the church dates from later centuries, there are elements contained deep within which are considerably ancient. St Giles’ original 12th century doorway survived until just 200 years ago. Despite not having been a seat of bishops since 1638, St Giles’, similar to Glasgow Cathedral, has retained its title as a cathedral.

4. John Knox House, High Street

One of Edinburgh’s most historic and picturesque old dwellings, John Knox House on the High Street is thought to have been lived in and owned by the Protestant reformer John Knox - although there is no concrete evidence to actually support this. The house was constructed around 1490 and originally belonged to a Mr Walter Reidpath, who passed it on to his next of kin.

John Knox House has changed little in style over the years, retaining its ‘overhanging’ upper floors - a feature once common in medieval Edinburgh architecture. If John Knox did ever stay in the house, it is thought that it was for no more than a few months during the great siege of Edinburgh Castle in the 16th century. However, some claim the famous Scots minister died here.

St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh. Picture: TSPL

5. Moubray House 1500s, High Street

Sharing the same nook of the High Street as John Knox House is an equally-ancient residence, Moubray House. It was built back in 1477 for a Mr Robert Moubray and was later used as a tavern and a bookshop. The esteemed writer Daniel Defoe resided here for a spell while he was editor of the Edinburgh Courant newspaper. The facade of Moubray House was rebuilt in the early 17th century, though parts of the interior are very much original.

6. Merchiston Tower, Colinton Road

Although not in the Old Town, this building is worth a mention due to its age. Sometimes referred to as Merchiston Castle, this five-storey L-plan tower was built around 1454 by Alexander Napier, the second Laird of Merchiston. The building remained in the Napier family for several centuries and it is recorded that John Napier, the inventor of logarithms was born here in 1550. How appropriate then that the tower is now situated in the grounds of modern-day Napier University. The tower was built upon a rocky outcrop, which can still be seen on two sides of the building.

St Margaret's Chapel is the oldest building in Edinburgh. Picture: TSPL

7. Huntly House, Canongate

Similar to John Knox House and Moubray House further up the Royal Mile, Huntly House features overhanging gables. It was built around 1570 and has still managed to maintain its historic character. It is thought to have been named in the 17th century after the Marquis of Huntly, who stayed here for a time. The house is sometimes referred to as the ‘speaking house’ on account of Latin inscriptions displayed on its facade. Several inscriptions have been added over the centuries. Huntly House is now home to the Museum of Edinburgh.

8. Canongate Tolbooth, Canongate

One of Edinburgh’s most photographed old buildings is the Canongate Tolbooth. It was built in 1591 at a time when the Canongate burgh was still separate from Edinburgh, and served as the district tolbooth, comprising a courthouse, jail and public meeting place. The Tolbooth has undergone a number of alterations over the centuries, the most notable being City Architect Robert Morham’s remodelling in 1875, which added its distinctive clock. The building now houses The People’s Story Museum and boasts a Category A listing.

9. The Magdalen Chapel, Cowgate

Just to the east of the Grassmarket at the start of the Cowgate stands the quaint Magdalen Chapel. The chapel was built between 1541 and 1544 at the bequest of one Michael MacQueen who was interred here shortly after its completion. Magdalen Chapel is notable as being the last Roman Catholic church to have been constructed in Edinburgh prior the Reformation and provides us with the only remaining example of pre-Reformation stained glass in Scotland. This is particularly astonishing when you consider that the chapel is considered the ‘cradle of Presbyterianism’, having held the first ever assembly of the new Church of Scotland in 1560. John Knox was one of the 42 ministers present. The chapel is now the headquarters of the Scottish Reformation Society.