First thing to clear up, there are only two cathedrals in Edinburgh, and they're both called St Mary's. (St Giles' Cathedral, on the Royal Mile, isn't technically a cathedral but a high kirk...) One of the St Mary's is a Catholic cathedral, to be found at the east end of the New Town, but this post is about the episcopal St Mary's cathedral, which can be found at the west end of the New Town.
It's notable because the building has three tall spires which reach up over the city skyline, meaning that the cathedral can be seen from a variety of viewpoints and outlooks in the city. But the building itself is often overlooked by visitors, perhaps because it's a little further from the traditional tourism area of the Old Town, but perhaps also because of its reputation.
One of my favourite guidebooks to Edinburgh, written with a dry sense of humour, describes St Mary's cathedral as: "worth seeing, but not worth going to see"...!
Despite that phrasing, I think the building is rather interesting, so here is my short appraisal of it.
St Mary's is not actually as old as might be assumed from looking at it. Construction on the spires, which were a later phase of development from the body of the kirk, so to speak, was only completed in 1917. The land on which it was built was an estate owned by the Walker family, stretching from the Dean Village to the north all the way up to Charlotte Square, having been purchased by William Walker in the early 19th century.
On William's death, the land passed to his wife and three children. The eldest son, Sir Patrick Walker, oversaw the development of Walker Street, Manor Place, William Street, Coates Places - all survive today, with their grand late-Georgian terraces now serving as a mix of offices, residential and commercial properties.
After the death of Patrick, sisters Barbara and Mary Walker took over managing and developing the family estate. In 1850 the sisters drew up the first plans to create a church large enough to accommodate a congregation of 1,500 people, between Manor Place and Palmerston Place. They stipulated that the church should be named in honour of their mother, and so the plans to build St Mary's cathedral began taking shape.
From an original budget of £30,000 - equivalent to just over £5m today - the cost of the church eventually topped off at £110,000. Barbara died at the end of the 1850s, and it wasn't until shortly before Mary's death that a competition was launched to source an architect to handle the building's design. The final structure was the work of Sir George Gilbert Scott, a notable designer from the Gothic Revival tradition who also designed the Albert Memorial in London for Queen Victoria, the Midland Grand hotel at St Pancras Station in London, the main building of the University of Glasgow, and parts of the Whitehall collection of offices which house functions of the British Government today.
The central spire of Scott's church is 90m tall, making it the tallest structure in Edinburgh city centre, and the two shorter spires added to the western end of the building later became known locally as Barbara and Mary, after the Walker sisters themselves.
The church remains active and functional, and is known for its acoustic qualities which has led to it being used for a variety of musical events - choirs, chamber orchestra recitals and so on - for which its rather impressive organ is often deployed.
One of the stained glass windows in the cathedral was designed by Eduardo Paolozzi, the father of pop art, whilst one of the buildings in the cathedral's grounds dates back to around 1610. The large cross which hangs above the nave inside the church was created by Robert Lorimer as part of his war memorial, one of many which he designed and built cross Scotland in the years after the First World War.
Otherwise the interior design is also considered to be a curious mixture of architectural styles which borrow from a variety of other iconic churches across Europe, perhaps leading to its rather unfortunate reputation for not being worth visiting.
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