In a city as old as Edinburgh, one question which arises with relative regularity is which building, precisely, is the city's oldest? Luckily for us, there is a specific answer to that!
Found within the complex of buildings that make up Edinburgh Castle, St Margaret's Chapel is considered to be the oldest surviving building in the city which still retains something of its original function.
Many churches in particular have been repurposed over the years, and St Margaret's Chapel hasn't always served as a site of religious worship, but the building today still offers the same experience that it was built to provide nearly 900 years ago.
It may not seem especially interesting from the outside, but this small but perfectly formed structure has survived fire, war, revolution, Reformation, military occupation and a rapid rise in tourism over the last couple of decades - and still it stands!
The building was built originally on the instruction of David I of Scotland, who was also responsible for establishing Holyrood Abbey at the eastern end of the medieval city. It is approximately 15 feet (4.5m) wide by about 30 feet (9m) long and is built right at the summit of the castle rock, at the highest point of the castle - what must have been considered an estimable location for communing with God!
Over its history there have been various additions, restorations and improvements to the chapel structure, but the earliest part of its construction is considered to date back to around the late 1120s. Queen Margaret had been married to Malcolm III (known as 'Canmore' or 'Bighead') and died at Edinburgh castle in 1093.
She had previously established the ferry service over the waters of the Firth of Forth, to the north of Edinburgh, for the central purpose of improving access to St Andrews for religious pilgrims, and the two towns established on the banks of the water where the crossing was made are still named North Queensferry and South Queensferry. In 1250 Margaret was canonised, and having been Queen Margaret of Scotland became St Margaret of Scotland.
Hence the chapel that David originally created in honour of his mother would have been Queen Margaret's Chapel, only a century or more later becoming dedicated to her as saint.
In 1314, during Robert the Bruce's 'scorched earth' policy of removing all fortresses and structures which might have been used by the English army as places of shelter or embattlement, he ordered all the buildings of Edinburgh Castle to be demolished, with the exception of St Margaret's Chapel. Later, on his deathbed in 1329, Bruce ordered the restoration of the chapel, with a provision of 40 Scots pounds being set aside for this purpose.
One notable occupant of the chapel, in the sixteenth century, was Mary of Guise, the mother of Mary, Queen of Scots. While Mary was overseas in France, her mother remained in Scotland, and stayed at Edinburgh Castle to hold the fortress on her daughter's behalf. In May 1560, after several months of declining health, Mary died. Her body was embalmed and laid in a lead coffin inside St Margaret's Chapel for several months (partly due to the English holding the port of Leith under siege) until she could finally be transported to France for burial in March 1561.
The building was later used as a storage of gunpowder, and served as a general storeroom by the military personnel barracked at the castle site for several centuries, until 1845 when its original role as a chapel was divined and restored.
There are five small stained glass windows in the building, which were created in 1922. They represent saints Andrew, Columba, Ninian and Margaret herself, along with more secular icon William Wallace.
Today St Margaret's Chapel is maintained and looked after by the St Margaret's Chapel Guild, a team of dedicated women who are all named Margaret - they ensure the chapel is kept stocked with fresh flowers for the enjoyment of visitors who can access the chapel during their exploration of the castle site.
The chapel also remains actively used for weddings and baptisms, primarily by members of the British military who are stationed at the castle barracks. By virtue of the size of the building, weddings held here are necessarily small-scale and intimate affairs!
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