St Cuthbert's Church

The Parish Church of St Cuthbert is a congregation of the Church of Scotland within the Presbytery of Edinburgh. The church building is situated off Lothian Road in central Edinburgh at the foot of the castle, well below the level of Princes Street, surrounded by its churchyard. It was throughout the 19th century a fashionable church preferred by the rich burghers of the developing New Town.

St Cuthbert’s "Core Vision and Values"
Core Vision

St Cuthbert's core vision is :

Core Values

St Cuthbert's core values are :

The Ministry and Mission of St Cuthbert’s

St Cuthbert's see their present and future mission as pioneering, as it has been over the past 1300 years - seeking out new ways of serving God by serving their fellow men and women in their parish and beyond. The parish is distinctive. It is not primarily residential, but is part of the city centre to which many people come for work and for leisure. It includes one of the largest financial centres of Europe. At night, it is a hub for leisure activities. Each offers a different and demanding opportunity for the further development of new forms of outreach. The parish area is also a magnet for the homeless and vulnerable, and that too offers an opportunity for service.

With its spaciousness, dramatic impact, capacity, acoustics, organ, belfry, central location, parking and the facilities it has to offer, St. Cuthbert’s is well placed to aspire to a cathedral type of focus. It lends itself to celebratory, festival style worship for the big occasions as well as providing a quiet mid-week haven in the heart of the city for personal prayer and devotion. (e.g. Time for Prayer, 'soul space' etc)

St. Cuthbert’s church building is one of the congregation’s greatest assets as the physical hub of their activities. This is where they maintain regular worship, promote outreach, offer hospitality and engage with a wide range of other city centre operators. This remarkable building – the seventh on the site - combines an outward austerity with richness of interior decoration, colour and atmosphere. It imbues a strong sense of the splendour and majesty of God and of the beauty of holiness.

The ministry of the building is distinctive and undoubtedly has an impact both quantifiable and otherwise. They say of themselves "If we are not exactly a “Church Without Walls”, we are working to make our walls sufficiently porous for the stranger and the outcast to be drawn inside, and for the gospel we proclaim to permeate the secular world outside."

Current Ministers

The Parish Minister since 2008 is The Reverend David W Denniston, previously Minister at Perth: North, and who has also served in ministries in Ruchazie in Glasgow and Kennoway, Fife. Extra-parochial service has included convenership of the Assembly Council in 2004-2005, and he also served as an observer on the “Church Without Walls”, Special Commission. The Ministry Team at St Cuthbert’s currently also consists of The Reverend Charles Robertson, formerly Minister at Canongate Kirk, Edinburgh, and The Reverend Jane M Denniston, who works with the Ministries Council of the Church of Scotland.

Notable Previous Ministers

Through the 20th Century many notable ministries were exercised in St Cuthbert’s including :

  • The Reverend Tom Cuthell - During the 31 year ministry of Tom Cuthell a significant healing ministry was developed which continues to this day.
  • The Reverend Peter Neilson - It was also in the time of Tom Cuthell’s ministry that Reverend Peter Neilson served as Associate and who convened an important Special Commission set up by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland whose eventual report (often entitled “Church Without Walls”) had – and continues to exercise – a considerable influence on the thinking and development of the Church of Scotland in the early 21st Century.
  • The Very Reverend Leonard Small - Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, 1966-67
  • The Reverend White Anderson
  • The Reverend George MacLeod
Organ and Organist

Although St Cuthbert's was the mother church of no less than eight parish churches established during 1756-1869, it was the last parish church in the city to have a pipe organ.

Built in 1899 by Robert Hope-Jones of Birkenhead, the organ was a gift of the Gorgie MP, Robert Cox. St Cuthbert's first Organist was John W. Cowie and the original instrument was installed in two chambers on either side of the chancel.

When the internal fabric of the church was redecorated in 1928, the organ was restored and improved. Most of the 1899 pipe-work was re-incorporated to provide a summary of 29 speaking stops, 2 tremulants and 19 couplers, with a new electro-pneumatic action and the original four manual console (keyboards) as before.

During 1956-57, the organ was completely reworked, with a number of tonal additions, and rebuilt by J.W.Walker & Sons. The Great, Swell, Solo and Pedal were moved to the North Transept Gallery and provided with new case work designed by Messrs Ian G. Lindsay & Partners, Architects of Edinburgh.

The Choir organ was re-sited in the upper north Choir chamber in the original case work. The all-electric draw-stop console was placed opposite here, in the former Solo chamber and the original case work removed. The organ had 65 speaking stops and 18 couplers. It was re-dedicated by the Very Rev Charles L Warr on Palm Sunday 1957 and a recital was given by William O. Minay, Organist and Choirmaster from 1946 to 1975.

After forty years of musical service the organ was again in need of attention, and Walker & Sons were called in for major reconstruction and improvement in 1997-98. Thanks to the legacies of two elders in St Cuthbert's, Janet Lusk and John Shepherd, the restoration was carried out to the specification of Colin Tipple - a previous organist - in consultation with David Sanger.

The opportunity was taken to replace the old choir organ with an entirely new organ which includes Great, Swell and Pedal divisions playable from a completely revised, detached all-electric four manual console. These divisions can be combined with the main organ in the North Transept Gallery. The new section not only provides accompaniment for the church choir but can be used as a separate instrument for services held in the chancel.

Both organ cases were retained without alteration. The chancel case - designed by Hippolyte J. Blanc, the architect of the church - only needed cleaning whilst the North Gallery case was restored and repolished. Between them they contain 114 display (visible) pipes. The reconstructed organ has 67 speaking stops, 3 tremulants, 20 couplers and 3 piston couplers, making a total of 93 registers.

The outstanding success of the latest phase in the organ's development has given the parish an instrument of versatility and flair, capable of producing an astonishing variety of tonal colour. It is not too much to say that it now ranks among the finest romantic organs in Scotland.


A chapel dedicated to St Cuthbert is first mentioned in the 8th century. It is believed a church has definitely stood on the same site as currently used since 850 AD, making it Edinburgh's oldest building in terms of foundation. A mediaeval St. Cuthbert's church is mentioned in 1127 (possibly rededicated by St. Margaret). The parish boundaries of the church were somewhat eccentric, encompassing outlying villages such as Stockbridge and Canongate (originally a separate burgh distinct from Edinburgh) but oddly also taking in Edinburgh Castle (resulting in many soldier burials over the centuries. After the Scottish Reformation the long nave, with a staged tower in its south flank, became the 'Little Kirk', and the choir was submerged in a mass of additions of which one - the Nisbet of Dean vault of 1692 - survives on the north side.

In 1754 a Chapel of Ease was proposed for the South side of the parish, and approved by the Kirk Session. This chapel was opened in 1756 and accommodated 1200 people, having cost £640 and 10 shillings to construct. It was later renamed Buccleuch Parish Church and is sited at 33 Chapel Street, not far from the Old College of the University of Edinburgh. The building was remodelled and extended in 1866. The church closed in 1969, and the preserved building is now used by the university for storage.

By 1772 St. Cuthbert's kirk was dangerous, and in 1773 - 1775 (following a competition) the architect-builder James Weir of Tollcross built a preaching box with two tiers of galleries reached by stairs in the pedimented western projection.

Between 1787 and 1790 the ground to the north of the church was drained for an extension of the burial ground, and in 1789 - 1790 Alexander Stevens built the spire which he probably designed himself. By 1888 the church had become unsafe, and Hippolyte Blanc was appointed as architect to address the situation. He first proposed to recase it, but eventually a rebuild was decided upon, maintaining the general proportions but greatly increasing the size. The result, with a pair of Baroque west towers flanking the domed apse, and is best seen from the lower level of Princes Street Gardens. In 1893 the Kirk Session decided upon 'a general and harmonious scheme of scriptural subjects applying to the stained glass windows of the whole church', not often seen in Church of Scotland kirks. These were executed, again a departure for Presbyterianism, in early Renaissance tabernacle frames almost all from the same firm, Ballantyne & Gardiner. The notable exception is the window depicting David going out to meet Goliath, which is by Tiffany Glass Company of New York (after 1900), one of only two or three Tiffany windows in the UK.

The architecture and, especially the interior decoration of the current church building is very unusual in a Presbyterian Church, especially of this period. It is particularly ornate, reflecting the influence of the 'Scoto-catholic' movement and many influences more associated with Roman Catholicism and the ‘Tractarian’ movement within Anglicanism. As a result the building proved very controversial in its initial period occasioning comment in both national newspapers and at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

The Churchyard

The original burial ground was restricted to an area to the south-west, now a small mound in relation to the rest of the churchyard. This was latterly known as the "Bairns' Knowe" (children's hill) as it was often used for burial of children. Records show that this was open to the countryside until 1597, and sheep and horses would graze here. A wall was then built around the churchyard .

In 1701 ground was added to the west and north-west, concurrent with a refurbishment of the church, which is recorded as having been somewhat derelict since the period of the English Civil War.

In 1787 the north marsh (at the west end of what was then the Nor' Loch was drained, immediately north of the church, to expand the area for burial. A little later the ground to the south-east was raised to drier levels and enclosed on its east side by a new wall.

In 1827 the watchtower to the south-west was built to defend against grave robbing which was rife at that time.

In 1831 the manse (to the south) was demolished, and a new manse and garden built further south.

In 1841 a railway tunnel was built under a new southern section of the graveyard, dating from only 1834, to serve incoming trains to the new Waverley Station. Many graves had to be moved as a result of this. Stones from between 1834 and 1841 in this section have been totally lost or destroyed.

In 1863 the entire churchyard was closed under order of the newly appointed Medical Officer of Health, the graveyard being then considered "completely full". The church however refused to cease burial considering a viable and important source of income. In 1873 the church, in a rare event, was taken to court for "permitting a nuisance to exist (as defined) under the Public Health Act 1867, being offensive and injurious to health". This still did not effect closure. In 1874 they were ordered to close by the Council (then known as the City Corporation) but only did so after a year of further appeals.

The churchyard is impressive containing hundreds of monuments worthy of notice, including one to John Grant of Kilgraston (near Perth), and a three-bay Gothic mausoleum of the Gordons of Cluny by David Bryce.

One feature of oddness is at the west side of the churchyard, where Lothian Road has been widened over the churchyard (c.1900), but due to its greater height, has been done so on pillars, so the graves still remain beneath the road surface.

Noteworthy burials
  • John Napier (1550–1617) of Merchiston, inventor of logarithms is buried in an underground vault on the north side of the church.
  • Rev. David Williamson (1636–1706) known in Scots songs as "Dainty Davie". He was ousted from the church in 1665 as a Covenanter. He then served as a Captain on the rebel side at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge (1679). He was restored as minister of St. Cuthberts in 1689 and then rose to be Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1702.
  • Charles Darwin (1758–1778), uncle of the naturalist Charles Darwin, was a talented medical student but fell ill and was buried in the Duncan family vault at the Chapel of Ease on the South side of the city, now known as the Buccleuch Parish Church Burying Ground.
  • Alexander Nasmyth (1758–1840) Artist, architect, and inventor. His most notable painting is the much-copied portrait of Robert Burns. His son, James Nasmyth was also a prolific inventor, most famous for the steam hammer. His other son, Patrick Nasmyth continued the family line as an artist of note.
  • George Meikle Kemp (1795–1844) master joiner, self-taught architect and designer of the Scott Monument. His stone bears some similarities to the monument.
  • Thomas De Quincey (1785–1859) Author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. An addict himself, he was an acknowledged influence on many later authors, but he himself has now slipped from fame. Of those crediting De Quincey with influencing them probably the most notable is Edgar Allan Poe.

Building Activity

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