During our visit to Edinburgh in May half term we met with several of the congregation at St Andrew’s & St George’s West Church for lunch in their under croft cafe beneath the church in St George Street. I had been in correspondence with George Burgess and Jean Mackinlay about the organ, and we also met Brigitte Harris (their organist and choir master), Alison Bruce and Ian Gilmour (their minister). In addition, George had arranged for Bruno Longmore and Tristram Clarke from the National Records of Scotland to join us for lunch and a fascinating discussion ensued about Scottish church history, St George’s Church and the Willis organ.
I explained my findings in the Kirk Session Records and my puzzlement at the limited amount of information regarding the installation of the Willis organ that I had found. George and Bruno pointed out that this was probably because of the attitude in the Church of Scotland during the 19th Century towards the idea of a pipe organ in a church – the box of pipes was considered by many at the time to be a container of the devil (possibly due to association with organs in theatres which were at the time viewed by many as places of sin). They explained that some early organs in the Kirk had been subject to vandalism; however by the 1880s the organ was becoming more acceptable in Kirk as a way of enhancing the singing. So it is possible that the decision to install the organ might have been made by members of the Choir Committee (for which we have no records) or as a result of a bequest and wasn’t brought to the Kirk Session until the work was in progress. It is also possible that the disruptions in 1843, when the Church of Scotland had split apart, may have also played a part in the slowness of the Kirk to accept pipe organs (congregations were regrouping and building new churches before adding all the extras like stained glass and organs). This accounts for the proliferation of church buildings in Edinburgh which we had observed, especially as there are also Episcopal Church of Scotland and Catholic churches dotted around the city. Indeed, the congregation of St George’s Church, Charlotte Square, had split at this time and St George’s West was formed.
After lunch Bruno and Tristram lead the whole group (nine of us) along St George’s Street from St Andrew’s & St George’s West to Charlotte Square and West Records House, the former St George’s Church. We were very impressed with how imposing the front facade of the building is – the porch columns are enormous. When the 1950s congregation had discovered that the building was suffering from dry rot, a desperate campaign to raise the funds to repair it was set up, however it soon became apparent that the costs involved were far more than the congregation could hope to raise and the building was given back to the city of Edinburgh (it was a borough church). It was turned into archive storage space once the essential repairs to the dome and building were completed, and a huge steel framework was installed to create several floors (concrete) to house the miles of racking for storing some of the National Archives. So the large space which the Willis organ and choir once filled with glorious music and where generations of congregations had worshiped is now filled with floors and archives. Until 2011 it was possible for the general public to use the historical search room at West Records House, however now all the searches are based at the building in Princes Street as more records are digitized, so public visits to the building are rare.
We were shown into the main entrance lobby where a perspex model of the internal structure of the building was on show, then through to a meeting room where several photos and files had been brought out from the Government records for us to look at the correspondence concerning the campaign to save the building.
Then Bruno took us up through the records rooms, viewing the complete 1911 census records on the way, the Births and Marriages room and up to the terrace above the front porch, where we could peer through the balustrade to Charlotte Square below. I thought that was high enough, however we then went up inside the base of the dome tower. The inner domed ceiling had been removed when the church was converted to a records office (this dome had structural problems more than 100 years ago, which I had seen mentioned in the Kirk Session records) and a flat concrete ceiling installed on which was built the first flight of wooden stairs into the outer dome. In this chamber we could view the beautiful light stonework arches supporting the outer dome tower and the strong steel bracing rods put in to hold them together in recent years. Up several flights of wooden stairs we all went and out onto the balcony at the base of the high dome tower to an absolutely magnificent 360 degree view of Edinburgh. A high stone balustrade made it perfectly safe to view the city, still I felt more comfortable peering between the gaps rather than standing on the low step to look over the balustrade.
Once we had viewed the city from above, we made our way back down the many steps into the building. It was only after we were back in the meeting room, collecting our bags, that Bruno told us the story that one of the archives people who had worked in the building for years had always refused to go into the births and marriages room as he was convinced it was haunted with a ghostly lady. We finished our visit to West Register House with a group photo on the steps.
I would like to thank Bruno and Tristram for a very fascinating tour of the former St George’s Church and George Burgess for arranging it. We are deeply grateful that they gave their time and knowledge during our visit, and the rare privilege of viewing Edinburgh from the dome of St George’s will remain long in our memories.
Now we were anticipating the exhibition (put together by Jean and Alison) and special service on the Sunday even more, however that is the subject of another post.