A Brief History of Our Church


Early view of the Church from the west.

The story of the present church started when Sir Adam Forrester bought lands from William More of Abercorn in 1376, and erected a votive chapel "over and against" the then existing 12th century parish church of St. Mary. 

Adam Forrester was a very successful and influential burgess of Edinburgh, and held various offices including twice being provost of the city. In recognition of his service he was knighted. He was owner of many lands in and around Edinburgh, but it was when he came to Corstorphine that he settled and built a castle.

Adam Forrester as depicted on the tomb in the Baptistery.

He dedicated his chapel to St. John the Baptist. It is not know exactly how long this church had been in existence but reference is made to it in a Holyrood Charter of 1128. Sir Adam died in 1405 shortly after the completion of his chapel, and would have been buried in his chapel. The site of this is not exactly known but would have been within the precincts of the present day church, probably in the area of the south transept or Chancel.

His eldest son, Sir John, had succeeded him in most of him in most of his appointments. Sir John, Master of the Household and Lord High Chamberlain to King James I extended the chapel after his fatherís death to include what is now the tower, nave, chancel, vestry and south transept, establishing it as the Collegiate Church of St. John the Baptist in 1429. Within the chancel and south transept are the interesting early Forrester tombs with their carved stone effigies and heraldic panels but the damage and disturbance of five centuries of history make them difficult to identify exactly.

Conformation of his foundation of a Collegiate Church was ultimately granted in 1444 by the Pope (Eugenius), and is commemorated in the present by a memorial tablet (see below) to the first provost of the Collegiate Church, Nicholas Bannatyne, who guided the churches development from 1429 until 1473. 

These two churches functioned side by side until 1593 when under the Reformation the Collage was dissolved and all parish worship was transferred from the old church of St. Mary to the Collegiate building.

Following the Reformation when the Collegiate Church became the parish Kirk the chancel arch was infilled and the church re-orientated to face a pulpit at the west end of the nave.

The Kirk was extended in 1646 by the addition of a northern transept and a western porch, replacing the ruinous Kirk of St. Mary. The porch is believed to have been built out of stone from the church of St. Mary.

Sketch of the Church by James Skene c.1817.


In 1650/51 the building suffered from occupation by Cromwellís troops. They stayed from almost twelve months and although that was only one of several such incidents in earlier, turbulent times, the defacement of the effigies and memorials is likely to have taken place then.


The extension was inadequate by the nineteenth century and in 1828 William Burn, architect of St. Johnís, Princes Street, added a northern aisle parallel with the nave and a gallery lying over both this aisle and the old nave, replaced the nave vault by one of lath and plaster, and converted the chancel into an entrance porch placing his doorway below the east window. Deplorably Burn ruined much of the original stone carving.

The Church from the east after the Burn's reconstruction.

Rev. James Fergusson.

In 1905, less than eighty years later, the minister, the Rev. James Fergusson, the heritors and congregation obtained the services of Mr. George Henderson, architect, who because of lack of space was compelled to use Burnís floor plan. He restored the church to its present state. To harmonise with the stone flagged roofs of the fifteenth century Henderson restructured the slate roofs of the altered nave and northern transept and aisle with granolithic concrete slabs. 

Mr. George Henderson Architect.

The Bannatyne Memorial Stone.

On the east wall of the chancel there is the memorial tablet in memory to George Henderson, the architect in charge of the 1905 restoration. This complements the memorial to Nicholas Bannatyne, the first Provost of the Collegiate church in 1429, which is as the other side of the east window. 

The Henderson Memorial Stone.

It is fitting that two great men in the history of the church, the first provost and the architect that restored the building to its medieval glory are remembered on the same wall.


On the face of the gallery is a memorial to the Reverend James Fergusson the minister whose inspiration initiated the restoration of the building in 1905. Henderson produced a near medieval gem - a building that has aptly been described as the "Corstorphine Heirloom".

The Interior pre-1905 restoration

The Interior today (from the same point)

A spiral stair leads from the tower vault to the gallery and beyond to the bell chamber. Before this gallery was opened out in 1905, the chamber had several purposes, including that of the Kirk Session prison. This is where Betie Watson, being held for witchcraft in 1649 hung herself by the bell rope before she could be tried. The bell was cast in 1728; the original was donated in 1577 by Sir James Forrester, and lasted until then when it was reported to the Kirk Session that it was "rent" and "of no use". The 1728 bell was cast from metal, which included the original bell. This bell is still in use today and except for both World Wars has been rung each Sunday since 1728.

The 1728 Bell in the Tower.

The baptistery in the south transept has the remains of the original building, which was badly damaged during the 1828 alterations. The early medieval stone font came from Gogar church and was installed in 1955. 

The bowl, from about 1200, is roughly hewn and originally would likely have been lined with metal. The large south window replaced an earlier nineteenth century memorial window in 1970. The theme being Baptism.

In the wall in the baptistery is a six-ringed stone, which at one time covered the burial vault of the Watsonís of Saughton which lies beneath the floor in front of this transept. This memorial slab is dated 1620 and has a long Roman-lettered inscription from Ezekiel, Chapter 37. It was place in this wall in the restoration of 1905, and covers an old doorway. The Watsonís were influential landowners of Saughton House and estate for about three centuries from 1537.

The Gogar Font.

Looking into the Baptistery.

The Watson Stone.

The Pulpit.

The pulpit was carved in 1905 from Riga oak and is a copy of the pulpit in Lutterworth Parish Church, Leicestershire. The hourglass on the wall behind is seventeenth century, although one of the glass bulbs is not original. The carved heads on the corbels supporting the roof ribs were copied from Leonardo de Vinciís "The Last Supper" and were part of the 1905 restoration. The stone pillar lectern was designed George Henderson as were the timber furnishings.

On the west wall next to the Priestís Door, behind the curtain, are seen commemorative dates the earliest of which, 1429, likely referring to the foundation of the Collegiate church and the next is 1455 probably relating to the completion of the chancel. The significance of the date 1769 is unknown, but that year masons were busy laying paying stones in the church. The Priestís Door, not then being part of the building set aside for worship, would not be sacrosanct. Perhaps a masonís apprentice seeing the other dates tried his hand at stone cutting. The first two dates are earliest recorded in Arabic characters in Scotland.

Dates cut into the stone at the Priest's Door.

The Restored Lamp lit at night.

Look at the outside wall above the big east window. You will see, high up, a small hollow with a lamp standing in it. This is a modern electric light, which the Corstorphine Rotary Club funded, was installed in the old lamp niche in 1958. When lit on winter evenings the light reminds people of the original oil lamp that was kept there long ago by the priests to guide travellers across the boggy ground between Edinburgh and Corstorphine. To pay for lamp oil the church was given the rent from an acre of ground beside the Water of Leith at Murrayfield, roughly between the Kwik-Fit premises and the bridge over the river at Riversdale. When the lamp was not used in the 17th century the rent of the Lamp Acre was given to the schoolmaster as part of his wage. 

Corstorphine Old Parish Church is a building of national interest and historic importance. It has existed for over five and a half centuries and although its upkeep is onerous, the congregation are resolved to ensure the survival of this part of our heritage.

The Church is open for services on Sunday at 10.30am, and is open for visitors on Wednesdays between 10.30am and 12 noon and is well worth a visit.


Compiled by K. Aitchison

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