Greyfriars in Scotland's history

Sixteenth Century

Greyfriars stands in grounds that had belonged to the Franciscan convent in the Grassmarket - hence the name Greyfriars.  It was the first church built in Edinburgh after the Reformation.  In 1562 Mary Queen of Scots had granted the land, which was then on the outskirts of the city, to the Town Council for use as a burial ground.  The Flodden Wall and later Telfer Wall can still be seen in the Kirkyard.  By 1602 building had started re-using stonework from the Dominican convent at Sciennes.  Progress was slow, and the new church did not open until Christmas Day 1620.

Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

In 1638 the National Covenant was presented and signed in front of the pulpit. This was a document of great importance in the history of Scotland. (An original copy is displayed in the Visitor Centre).  During Cromwell's invasion of Scotland, Greyfriars was used as a barracks from 1650 to 1653.  Little of what you see survives from the original church, a simple six -bay building in late Gothic style with side aisles and pillars forming arcades.  Worshippers either stood or brought their own stools, and the only furniture would have been the pulpit, which has been replaced but restored to its original position.  Entrances were from the east (still visible from outside), south (behind the pulpit), and north. The old north door now forms one of the main entrances to the church inside the porch.  The oak doors and the cherub's head as a decorative piece in the door-frame still survive.  Above them you can see the oldest extant example of the city's coat of arms, depicting a portcullis.  The church originally ended where the great west arch is now, above the organ.  Beyond that was a small, squat tower, where the Town Council kept its gunpowder.  In 1718 it blew up.  The west end of the church was reduced to ruins and a new west wall was built, two bays into the church.  On the western side a new church was created by adding two further bays in the same style, so that Greyfriars housed two separate congregations, back to back. The porch, added on the north side in 1721 provided access to both churches.  In 1679, some 1200 Covenanters were imprisoned in Greyfriars Kirkyard pending trial.

Nineteenth Century

In 1845 fire gutted Old Greyfriars and destroyed the furnishings of New Greyfriars.  Even today the sides of the windows in the eastern part of the church show traces of fire damage. Restoration of Old Greyfriars took many years.  Following the fire the original roof and arcades were removed and, a few years later, a new, single-span roof introduced.  The windows were made into lancets and stained glass - the first in any Scottish parish church since the Reformation was introduced in 1857.  At the same time a movement began towards reviving a less puritanical style of worship.  In 1860, Dr Robert Lee, the Minister of Old Greyfriars, led a movement to reform worship.  He introduced a harmonium to accompany the singing, followed five years later by the first organ to be installed and kept in any Presbyterian church in Scotland.  As well as introducing the first post-reformation stained glass windows, he also used a service book and encouraged the congregation to kneel for prayers and to stand for singing.  The most famous story from the nineteenth century, however, is that of Greyfriars Bobby.  Bobby was a Skye Terrier, looked after by John Gray for the last two years of the old man's life.  After the death of Gray, Bobby reportedly guarded his grave for fourteen years, capturing the heart of the Lord Provost, William Chambers (whose own statue stands nearby on Chambers Street).  Chambers organised for the Town Council to pay for Bobby's dog lisence, and so saved him from being rounded up and destroyed.  Bobby was buried just outside the graveyard, near where his stone stands today. One of the most famous images of Edinburgh is the statue of Bobby on George IV Bridge, near the entrance to the Graveyard.  It was erected in the year after Bobby himself died, 1872.  The story spread across the world, helped by Disney releasing the first moving picture based on the little dog in 1961.  In 2006, a new version, directed by Bafta award winning Director John Henderson, was released.

Twentieth Century

In 1929 the congregations of Old and New Greyfriars united and between 1931 and 1938 (the tercentenary of the signing of the National Covenant inside Greyfriars) an ambitious programme of reconstruction followed.  The dividing wall between the two halves of the building was taken down (you can still see where the wall was by looking at the ceiling in the aisles), Old Greyfriars' arcades were restored, and a ceiling of Californian redwood built over the six bays of the original church. The Greyfriars congregation united in 1979 with Highland Tolbooth St John's, since when a service in Gaelic has been held each Sunday as well as the services in English.  To honour the churches that had joined with Greyfriars, the Kirk was named 'Greyfriars Tolbooth & Highland Kirk' from 1979 until 2013 when another union, this time with Kirk o' Field, occured and the adoption of the shorter 'Greyfriars Kirk' was agreed. 

The congregation is ecumenically minded and Christians of other denominations often take part in services. Major refurbishment has recently been carried out through an International Appeal. Greyfriars' musical tradition was maintained and enhanced by the installation of a new Peter Collins organ in 1990; at the same time the pews in the centre of the church were replaced by chairs to allow more flexible arrangement of seating for worship and a regular programme of lectures, recitals and concerts.