On 25 April 1872, ten days after the submission date for the Berlin Reichstag competition, Sir George Gilbert Scott was in Edinburgh sketching the ruins of Holyrood Abbey. He was, it would seem, already immersed in his next great project: a new cathedral for Edinburgh.

Barbara Walker was the last of the wealthy Walker family who had developed a large portion of the western New Town of Edinburgh and her death in 1870 meant that with her legacy the Episcopal Church of Scotland could realise her family’s dream of a new cathedral for Edinburgh. In 1861, a plan for the New Town showed a site for a cathedral on the long axis of Melville Street, the main street in the development, which would make the cathedral the focal point of the area and, if sufficiently high, would form a distant termination to the west end of Princes Street.

The importance that this layout gave to the cathedral site reflects the desire of the Walkers to proclaim the return of the Episcopal Church as an acceptable religion in Scotland after many years in the wilderness and to give it with a proper cathedral in the nation’s capital. Barbara Walker had left £45,000 for the new cathedral and eight Trustees were appointed to supervise the work. They were the Bishop, the Dean, the Provost and five prominent citizens of Edinburgh, but these were Presbyterians and so seem to have left the decisions to the clergy. In the Scottish Episcopal Church the Provost is in charge of the cathedral, while the Dean has a wider role, more the equivalent of an Archdeacon in the Church of England. In 1872, the Trustees offered £100 each to three Scottish architects and three English architects to enter a competition to design the cathedral. The Scots were John Lessels, Alexander Ross and the firm of Peddie and Kinnear. The English architects were Scott, Street, and Burges.

Lessels was ‘renowned as a man of high integrity and Christian principle’. He was undoubtly chosen as the Walker Trust architect but his architectural work was somewhat limited compared with the Inverness architect Alexander Ross (1834-1925) who had built numerous Gothic style churches and schools, mainly for the Episcopal Church, all over the north of Scotland. The reason why the Edinburgh firm of Peddie and Kinnear were selected is not so obvious. Although they were one of the largest architectural practices in Scotland at the time, their ecclesiastical work was very limited. Their biggest work had been in Edinburgh where between 1859 and 1864 they cut a new street from the Royal Mile to Waverley Station which they lined with thirty blocks of Scottish Baronial style buildings. One of their few ecclesiastical works was the refitting of William Burn’s Episcopal Church of St. John at the west end of Princes Street in 1867.

The Episcopal Church of Scotland was directly influenced by the Ecclesiological Movement in England. Between 1840 and 1860 it had built eighty-six new churches, of which about one quarter were designed by English architects. This is probably the reason that the Trustees invited three English architects to submit designs. Scott was well known to the Episcopalians for his Dundee churches for Bishop Forbes, as well as St. Cuthbert’s at Hawick, which he had built for the Duke of Buccleuch in 1858, and in 1861 he designed the hall of the Episcopal Church’s new training college at Glenalmond in Perthshire. Two years before, when Peddie and Kinnear refitted St. John’s, Princes Street, Scott was consulted on liturgical changes by the incumbent, Edward Bannerman Ramsay (1793-1872), who was also the Dean of Edinburgh. After Ramsay’s death in December 1872, Scott designed a beautiful bronze plaque decorated with enamel and coloured stones to commemorate Ramsay’s life and works for the chancel of St. John’s.

But, of course, Scott’s special champion was Henry Cotterill, who had returned from South Africa to become the assistant bishop of Edinburgh in April 1871, having formerly been at Brighton College. The bishop, Dr Charles Terrot had had a stroke in 1862 and, after his death in April 1872, Cotterill became the new bishop. As a Trustee, he must have played a considerable part in setting up the competition and presumably ensured that his friend Scott was one of the competitors. The other two English architects are more surprising. Burges had built nothing in Scotland while Street’s only work, at that time, had been a private chapel and library for Lord Lindsay at Dunecht near Aberdeen in 1867. Street was clearly chosen because of his involvement in the Ecclesiological Movement but Burges was not particularly religious. As Robert Kerr once quipped, ‘Butterfield was High Church, Scott Low Church, and Burges no church’. Billy Burges was probably chosen because of his fantastic design for St Fin Barre’s Cathedral at Cork, which he had won in a competition in 1863. It has three spires, is covered in sculpture and took forty years to complete.

The competitors were asked to submit their designs by August 1872. Street went to see Cotterill and was given to understand that the Trustees would not make their selection without competent professional advice. He had worked in Scott’s office during the first phase of Brighton College, when Cotterill was Vice-Principal, and may have been suspicious that Cotterill would sway a lay panel in favour of his long-standing friend. The cost limit was raised to £65,000. Each design had to be accompanied by an explanatory memorandum and, in an effort to obtain anonymity, had to be submitted under a motto. Scott chose the title of Burns’s poem ‘Auld Lang Syne’. Perhaps he thought that it would combine Scottishness with the idea of reviving a long since forgotten architecture. The designs were duly submitted in late August and exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy. In spite of the mottoes, the architectural press had little difficulty in assigning the designs to their respective authors. Burges sent in twelve drawings, eleven each from Ross and Lessels, nine from Peddie and Kinnear, eight from Street and thirteen ‘beautifully executed’ drawings from Scott. Again Scott had resorted to his usual tactic of trying to overwhelm the judges. Not only had he sent in more drawings than anybody else, he had also submitted an additional design, Design B. This was promptly returned to him, without consideration, and his memorandum amended accordingly. It was then rumoured that the Trustees were still not going to take professional advice, so Scott, with the assent of Burges, sent in a protest and Ewan Christian (1814-1895) was appointed their adviser.

The choice of Christian is rather curious. As the architect to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners of England he would have known Scott and Street well and be immediately able to recognise their work. Although he worked on about 2,040 buildings in England, he never seems to have done anything in Scotland. His churches were said to be ‘distinguished more for quietness and repose than for architectural effect’. He lived at Hampstead, not far from The Grove, and worked closely with Scott on the report on Chester Cathedral. Christian’s report was sent to the Trustees on 30 October 1872 but was immediately suppressed. Street was furious. He insisted that it should be published but this did not happen until February 1873. The reason for this delay is now obvious: as Street had suspected, Christian’s advice had been completely ignored. He had analysed the designs by looking at their planning, construction, architectural character and cost. Street’s planning was ‘in every respect excellent’, Burges’s construction ‘stands first’, Ross for ‘general elegance would bear away the palm’, but when it came to cost, Burges was considerably more expensive than anybody else. Scott did not lead on any list, but on 29 November 1872 he was declared the winner. Cotterill was said to have supported Scott ‘through thick and thin’. Street complained that had he realised that the Trustees, regardless, would give the work to Scott he would not have wasted his time on the competition. Here was another competition scandal about to erupt. But Street, by now immersed in the contract drawings for the Law Courts and his old master a shadow of his former self, perhaps did not have the stomach to add to Scott’s woes.

Although the Walker’s western New Town was laid out with Melville Street as a grand approach to the cathedral site from the city centre, it led to the east end, or back of the cathedral. Burges’s design had an eastern apse confronting Melville Street, but aware of the problem, he attached a slip to one of drawings showing how the plan could be reversed to give an entrance at the eastern end. Lessels also considered the Melville Street approach by providing two towers near the east end of his design. But Street, The Builder noted, ignored the view from Melville Street with a central tower obscuring his single western tower. The only competitor to seriously confront the Melville Street vista was Scott. He considered placing an apse between two eastern towers with a fleche over the crossing, but in the end he decided on a square east end, which in Design B he showed dramatically framed between two tall spires. With the rejection of Design B, Scott’s winning design had only one tower, and almost immediately after his success, he was requested by the Trustees to lengthen the nave by one bay, and to add western towers. He accordingly moved his two spires from the rejected Design B to the other end of the cathedral.

Work began in 1873 and a contract was signed on 24 April 1874 between the Trustees and the builder, George William Booth of London and Gosport, to carry out the work. The Clerk of Works was Edwin Morgan, who had been Scott’s Clerk of works at Bangor and was to supervise the later stages of Glasgow University. The foundation stone was laid on 21 May 1874 by the Duke of Buccleuch. The nave opened on 27 January 1879 and the whole building, except for its western towers, was consecrated nine months later, on 30 October.

There is no doubt, from his sketchbooks, that St. Mary’s was Scott’s personal design. Caroline had died only six months before the submission date and, as before, this activity was his way of overcoming grief. St. Mary’s is rather an old-fashioned design for the 1870’s, but for Scott it was the epitome of his ideas for a great modern cathedral and it was fortunate that his middle-of-the-road Anglicanism coincided with the religious views of Terrot, Cotterill, and Ramsay. The building was required to seat a congregation of 1500 with, as Scott pointed out, a choir capable of accommodating all the diocesan clergy. In spite of its inherent structural problems, he stated that a cruciform plan and a central tower over the crossing ‘are in a high degree conducive to dignity of aspect, and are consequently most desirable features in a cathedral’. For the style of his design Scott said that he was:

most impressed by the earlier phase of the Early Pointed, a style which especially unites the architecture of Scotland with that of the North of England … In England one of its finest examples is in a border county. I refer to the exquisite sanctuary of Tynemouth Priory, which unites the severe dignity of the Transition with the richness of the developed Early Pointed. On this variety, then, I have founded my design.

Scott possessed a copy of Sir Walter Scott’s The Border Antiquities of England and Scotland, which was published in two volumes in 1814 and 1817. This was probably the basis of Scott’s knowledge about the border cathedrals as it includes engravings and descriptions of Tynemouth. In his third Royal Academy lecture in 1858, he describes Tynemouth as being ‘excelled by few, if any, examples of its period’. It is pure Pointed, but retains ‘the great distinguishing characteristic of the transition – the square abacus’. In fact Tynemouth is a roofless ruin, and Scott showed his students a reconstruction by Weatherley of what he thought the interior of the east end had looked like ‘with its curious termination, against the east end’. He applied the vaulting of this ‘curious termination’ to the east end of St Mary’s making it look rather like an apse when viewed from the west end.

The square abacus is used throughout St Mary’s, usually over a stiff-leaf capital, but generally decoration and carved ornament are used sparingly. The clean lines of the pointed window arches are emphasised by the omission of cusps. Plate tracery appears in the nave and transept clerestories and on the towers, but otherwise tracery is confined to round windows at the end of the transepts and over the lancets of the west front. The south transept round window is modelled on the so-called ‘Dean’s Eye’ in the north-east transept of Lincoln Cathedral, which Scott describes as ‘perhaps the finest in England’, while that in the north transept seems to be a Scott version of the great west window of Chartres Cathedral. The west window is similar to his wheel-window at Christ Church, Oxford, below which, and within the same arched surround, is a group of four tall lancets. Here Scott seems to have been suggesting a sort of plate tracery that would develop into geometric tracery.

Scott most obvious reference to Scottish buildings is in the western portal which is based on a combination of the west entrances of Holyrood Abbey and Elgin Cathedral, but for his spires he turned to a fourteenth century English model. At Bloxham, in Oxfordshire, the tower changes into an octagon at the base of the belfry openings with pinnacles filling the corners of the square part of the tower which rise alongside the octagon to above the base of the spire. Scott had used this device on Christ Church, Ealing, in 1852, and repeated it on all three towers of St Mary’s. The central tower is a 275 feet tall structure and Scott resorted to a special construction to ensure its stability. He provided aisles to the nave, choir and transepts and this enabled him to insert great diagonal flying buttresses against each corner of the tower. Internally, the nave and transepts have oak barrel-vaulted ceilings, which Scott suggests is ‘particularly favourable to sound’, while the choir, aisles and crossing are rib-vaulted in stone with plaster infill panels. The height from the floor to the top of the ceiling is 71 feet.

The fittings, which have been described as ‘of considerable quality and invention’, were designed by John Oldrid during his eighteen month partnership with George Gilbert immediately after Scott’s death, and made by Farmer and Brindley. The reredos is in alabaster with inlaid coloured marbles and Skidmore provided a set of elaborate ironwork screens between the choir and side aisles. Scott designed a simple red granite Celtic cross placed on the south wall of the east chapel of the south transept in 1878, in memorial to the First Battalion Royal Scots Regiment from 1857-78, for Major Dean. He did not charge fees for this. The consecration took place in October 1879. By then the western towers had been built up to the level of the nave eaves but a chapter house that Scott had included as part of his scheme was not built until 1890 when it was carried out by John Oldrid.

Immediately to the north of the cathedral is the Manor House of the Walkers, Easter Coates, which was built in 1615. The competitors seem to have been given the opportunity to remove the house but they all wanted to retain it. Scott said that as an old building in a modern part of Edinburgh, its picturesque design would add much to the grouping of the buildings and it could be converted into a comfortable residence. In fact it became the choir school in 1887, when John Oldrid added a hall to the north side.

The western towers were built to Scott’s 1872 design over forty years later. Scott’s grandson, Charles Marriot Oldrid Scott carried out the south tower between 1913 and 1914, and the north tower in 1916. The great cathedral had taken forty-five years to build, cost £128,200 and had earned the Scott family £6,500 in fees. Robert Kerr, in his 1891 edition of Fergusson’s History of the Modern Styles of Architecture, writes that Scott’s success, in this instance:

was due, as was his popularity everywhere, not to such archaic enthusiasm as Street’s, or such ambitious and eccentric vigour as Burges’s, but rather to an almost feminine elegance, modesty, and repose, which always appealed successfully to the more Protestant sympathies of the great majority of the people. That such a style should eventually be called weak was inevitable, but it never failed to be pleasing.

However, it is an austere building made even more austere by the dark colour of its stonework and the dinginess of its interior. It stands on its island site aloof from its classical neighbours. Nevertheless, it is one of Scott’s great buildings and the last great design that he produced and almost saw to completion before his death. In 1879 the workers on the cathedral decided to donate a stained-glass window in his memory. This was installed in the east window in the north choir aisle and is inscribed:

To the glory of God and in memory of Sir Gilbert Scott Kt. R.A. LLD., Architect of this Cathedral Born 18 July 1811, Died 27 March 1878 This window is erected by those engaged in carrying out his design …

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