City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

The Demise of St George's West, Shandwick Place

By Barnaby Miln - Posted on 20 July 2010

Charlotte Square was only half built when Edinburgh’s Town Council decided to build a church on its west side. And so in 1814 St George’s Church of Scotland Church opened for worship and relieved the over-crowded St Andrew’s Church at the east end of George Street.

The two churches continued until they were united in 1964, renamed St Andrew’s and St George’s, based only in the George Street church. St George’s Church was taken over by the Government and refitted. It is now known as West Register House.

However, in 1843 along with 450 other ministers, the Minister of St George’s walked out of the Church of Scotland with some of his congregation in protest at what they saw as increasing civil interference in church matters. One of many splits in the Scottish Kirk, this was the largest and is known as the Disruption.

The General Assembly of 1843 had been meeting in St Andrew’s Church. The protestors, led by Dr Thomas Chalmers, walked down to Tanfield Hall in Canonmills. There they started the Free Church of Scotland.

For the next few Sundays Dr Chalmers, who statue is at the crossing of George Street and Castle Street, is said to have preached from half way up his own staircase to everyone who could fit into his home. There is a plaque outside the front door, now known as 1 Church Hill.

Meanwhile the protesters from the congregation of St George’s in Charlotte Square moved  with Dr Candlish, their Minister, to a temporary home, the Brick Church in Castle Terrace, which they had built for just such an eventuality. They set about finding a site for a permanent home and settled upon the bottom of Lothian Road, opening their new church in 1845.

But in 1865 the Caledonian Railway Company forced them to move to make way for its Princes Street Station. However, the compensation was only enough to pay for the now familiar site alone in Shandwick Place, purchased in 1867. 

Meanwhile the stones from the Lothian Road church went to help build St Bernard’s Free Church in Henderson Row - a copy of the Lothian Road church. St Bernard’s Free Church was demolished in 1985 and those stones taken away as rubble. My home is in the block of flats on that site.

St George’s Free Church opened for worship in 1869. The feature of the exterior, its campanile (bell tower), was based on St Giorgio Maggiore in Venice and designed by Edinburgh’s Sir Robert Rowand Anderson. It was added in 1879.

In 1929 the Church of Scotland united with the United Free Church of Scotland. St George’s Free became known as St George’s West.

When I was a student in the early 1960s its Minister, the Reverend Professor Murdo Ewan Macdonald, could be relied upon to be outspoken on some of the great issues of the day. He was a radical with strong left-wing views. For a while in the mid 1980s my Father, a retired Anglican Lay Reader, took its ecumenical weekday service each week.But now in 2010 St Andrew’s and St George’s and St George’s West have become one. A recent decision means the end of Sunday worship at St George’s West from the end of September 2010, in favour of the George Street church. A decision on the future of the building is awaited.