EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
Visitors often remark on the number of church buildings in Edinburgh that no longer serve as churches. Over time, as population changes have seen people come and go, very many buildings have been repurposed, renovated, and given new functions. At least two former churches today house casinos, one is an indoor climbing centre, and several have been turned into bars and restaurants...
Of course many churches, like St Giles' Cathedral or the churches at Greyfriars and Canongate, remain active as churches, but here is a very short list of some of the former church premises that you may still have reason to visit during your time in Edinburgh.
THE HUB (FORMERLY ST JOHN'S HIGHLAND TOLBOOTH CHURCH)
Built on Castlehill on the Royal Mile in the 1840s, St John's Highland Tolbooth Church functioned as a meeting place for the Church of Scotland clergy during their annual general meetings, which today are held just across the road at the New College building.
The 74m spire is still the highest of all the church spires of the Old Town, and the golden cross at the top is the highest point in the city centre, standing taller than the flagpole at Edinburgh Castle. As such it's a useful reference point for navigating the city, visible on the skyline from almost every edge of Edinburgh, but the building itself is also an important venue in the city every summer, as it is home to the administrative offices of the Edinburgh International Festival.
As well as their office space, The Hub (as it is known) has a popular café, a box office for festival events, and a large internal space that is well used for weddings, conferences, and special events throughout the year.
EDINBURGH FILMHOUSE (FORMERLY UNITED ASSOCIATED SYNOD CHURCH)
Dating from the 1830s, this former church building on Lothian Road was converted into a cinema in the late 1970s, and today is home to the annual Edinburgh International Film Festival, as well as hosting a variety of arthouse and blockbuster screenings all year round.
WEST REGISTER HOUSE (FORMERLY ST GEORGE'S CHURCH)
At the west end of the New Town, on Charlotte Square, is the former St George's Church, converted into municipal function in the 1960s and today housing one of Scotland's records and archive offices, for people tracing family history through archive records.
The church took its name from the original square, intended to be St George Square (to mirror St Andrew Square at the east end of the city) and was initially designed by the architect Robert Adam. Adam's plans were modified by Robert Reid, including the installation of a stunning dome modelled on St Paul's Cathedral in London. The church served its community from the 1820s until structural concerns in the middle of the twentieth century saw it repurposed as its current function.
The former congregation weren't left homeless, and they moved in with the congregation at St Andrew's Church on George Street, which became St Andrew's and St George's, as it is today.
BEDLAM THEATRE (FORMERLY NEW NORTH FREE CHURCH)
Utilised today by the theatre society of the University of Edinburgh, the Bedlam Theatre takes its name from the former asylum and poorhouse which used to stand on this site, at the southern end of George IV Bridge in the Old Town.
The original building was designed by Thomas Hamilton, although it was never popular with the congregation it served, who considered the building ugly and ill-suited to its purpose as a church.
The Bedlam stages student theatre through the year, and serves as a popular venue during the annual Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
QUEEN'S GALLERY (FORMERLY HOLYROOD FREE CHURCH)
Between the modern Scottish parliament building and the Palace of Holyroodhouse is a building which is today attached to the panoply of structures associated with the palace. The Holyrood Free Church was a nineteenth-century building serving the community of Holyrood at the time when it was still a densely populated industrial district. The church closed when the industries moved away, and the local population moved with them.
Today the building houses the Queen's Gallery, hosting rotating exhibitions through the year displaying artefacts and pictures from the Queen's private collection.
GLASSHOUSE HOTEL (FORMERLY LADY GLENORCHY'S LOW CALTON CHURCH)
Dating from the 1840s, this former church adjacent to the Playhouse theatre (itself on the site of a long-lost Baptist meeting house) was demolished during the renovation of the whole Greenside area in the 1960s and 70s.
Part of the conditions for its demolition stipulated that the façade of the building be preserved, and for many years (within living memory) it was propped up with steel scaffolding supports while the area around it was completed revitalised.
Today the original church frontage is incorporated into the glass and steel structure that houses the Omni cinema and a whole host of bars and restaurants, and accessed through the façade itself is the Glasshouse hotel, popular for its roof garden and rear views up to Calton Hill.
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