A History of Old Saint Paul’s

Old Saint Paul’s is a historic Anglican church in the Catholic tradition. It stands on the site of the original home of Scottish Episcopalianism in Edinburgh. Today, it is a living centre of worship and witness in the heart of Edinburgh.

There have been people worshipping on this site since 1689, when a breakaway group from the old Cathedral of Saint Giles led by Bishop Alexander Rose moved into an old wool store in Carrubber’s Close.

Although the present building dates from the 19th century, Old Saint Paul’s has a history going back 300 years to the beginning of the Scottish Episcopal Church. More than any other church in Scotland the history of Old Saint Paul’s has been the history of the Scottish Episcopal Church itself; often embattled, at times romantic, on occasion triumphant.

1560-1689: The Scottish Reformation

The Reformation came to Scotland in 1560 under John Knox, the first Protestant minister of Saint Giles’ Church. The Scottish Episcopal Church first came into being as a distinct denomination after the Catholic Stuart King James VII (II of England) was deposed during the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. In the new anti-Catholic climate, the Church of Scotland abolished the rule of bishops, the last remaining element of the pre-Reformation Church.

The original congregation of Old Saint Paul’s was a breakaway group from Saint Giles’, which had become the Cathedral of Edinburgh in 1634. The last bishop at Saint Giles’, Alexander Rose, left the Cathedral in 1689 accompanied by much of his flock, finding a new place of worship in an old wool store in Carrubber’s Close; this stood approximately on the present site of Old Saint Paul’s.

1715 and 1745: Jacobite Rebellion

Whilst the Presbyterian Church was loyal to the new Protestant monarchy, the Episcopalians remained staunchly Jacobite, loyal to James and his descendants. Members of Saint Paul’s were in the front line of the Jacobite struggle, several having been in action in the Risings of 1715 and 1745.

Members of Old Saint Paul’s (then known as ‘Saint Paul’s) were in the front line of the Jacobite Risings of the 18th century

Many tales of heroism survive; one member of the congregation brought the news of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s victory at Prestonpans to Edinburgh, shutting the town gates against the defeated Hanoverian army. Another printed the Prince’s banknotes, and Jacobite ladies of the congregation wore the ‘White Cockade’ (the White Rose) and graced the Prince’s ball at Holyroodhouse.

The 18th Century: Years of Persecution

As a result of the Risings, any Episcopal chapel was regarded as a potential bed of treason and repressive laws were passed. In 1719 priests were prohibited from ministering to more than eight people at a time; this seems to have been overcome at Saint Paul’s by conducting worship on two storeys, each being divided into cubicles with one priest ministering in the centre.

After the Jacobites’ defeat at Culloden in 1746, Episcopal clergy ran the risk of imprisonment or deportation to America. It was only after the death of Prince Charlie in 1788 that the association of the Episcopalians with Jacobite treason was shaken off. Penal laws were gradually repealed, and in that year the Scottish Synod resolved that George III would be prayed for in all Episcopal Churches; the first prayers for a Hanoverian monarch that were said in Saint Paul’s were drowned out by groans, sighs, coughing and nose-blowing.

1784: A Bishop for America

Old Saint Paul’s has played a part in the foundation of the US Episcopal Church. The young American Samuel Seabury first worshipped at Saint Paul’s in 1752. In later years he was chosen to become the first Bishop of the United States and returned to Britain to be consecrated. As the prospective bishop of a fledgling republic, Seabury was faced with a choice: consecration in the Church of England required an oath of allegiance to the crown; however, this was not the case in the Scottish Episcopal Church.

Window in the Lady Chapel illustrating the consecration of Samuel Seabury

Remembering his days at Saint Paul’s, he returned to Scotland and was consecrated in 1784 in Aberdeen. His consecration is remembered on a plaque in Marischal College, Aberdeen, and in Edinburgh the Lady Chapel in Old Saint Paul’s is dedicated to Seabury’s memory.

1800-1900: Decline and Revival

In the middle of the 19th Century the liturgy at Saint Paul’s was affected by a variety of influences, most notably by the first emergence of the Anglo-Catholic Oxford Movement. Conflict over liturgical matters led to a breakaway church being founded, St Columba’s by the Castle.

Structural problems also took their toll: in 1873, the dilapidated Saint Paul’s was closed until the completion of the new building in 1883. The following year, to avoid confusion with another Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in York Place, the Carrubber’s Close church was renamed Old Saint Paul’s; also at this time the Anglo-Catholic movement began to have a more lasting influence on worship in this church.

The Twentieth Century

One figure looms large over the first half of the 20th century, that of Albert Ernest Laurie, who became Rector in 1898 and held this position until his death in 1937. Laurie’s life reflected his intense devotion to the Blessed Sacrament - he continued the gradual shift to a more Catholic form of worship and he was a caring and faithful pastor to his flock. He received the Military Cross for his bravery in caring for the wounded at the battle of the Somme, and there are numerous tales of his continued acts of charity to his flock in the Canongate.

In 1989, Old Saint Paul’s celebrated its tercentenary. A joint service with Saint Giles’ Cathedral included a procession up the Royal Mile, retracing the path of Bishop Rose, and High Mass was celebrated in the old Cathedral for the first time in 300 years.

© Copyright Robin McMorran and Old Saint Paul’s Church, 1994, 1998, 2002


The Memorial Chapel

The Memorial Chapel remembers members of Old Saint Paul's congregation who died in the First and Second World Wars


Carrubber's Close

Carrubber's Close today: Old Saint Paul's started life here in an old wool store in 1689


Plaque in memory of Canon Albert Laurie

Plaque in memory of Canon Albert Laurie