In the sixteenth century, the population of Edinburgh was growing rapidly and in 1584 the town council decided to divide it into four parishes, each with its own church. By 1699 the interior of St Giles’ had therefore been transformed into four entirely separate churches, with the erection of a number of partitions. The word ‘partition’ may sound as though it refers to something flimsy, but the separating walls were actually made of stone, for the most part blocking up the existing archways. Attached to the inner walls of each of the four churches were tiers of balconies, known as lofts.
The largest of the four churches occupied the chancel of St Giles’, which was then called the East Kirk, the High Kirk or the New Kirk. The crossing and part of the nave became the Auld Kirk (Old Church) or Great Kirk. At the south west end was the Tolbooth Kirk or West Kirk, and at the north west end was Haddo’s Hole Kirk, entered by an arched doorway now occupied by the memorial to those members of the congregation killed in World War II.
The East Kirk was the largest of the four and was generally regarded as being the most important, although for many years the royal pew was situated in the Auld Kirk. People were supposed to attend their own parish church, designated by the town council, but many of them went to whichever church had a minister who preached the style of sermon that they preferred.
The internal divisions of the building persisted until William Chambers undertook his great restoration scheme in the 1870 and 80s.
The Fate of the Four Churches
The Tolbooth Kirk
During his restoration of St Giles’ Cathedral in 1829-31, William Burn changed the interior, so that at the west end of the building there was just one large church instead of two. Now called the West Kirk, it was occupied by the Tolbooth Kirk congregation until in 1843 they moved out to the newly built Victoria General Assembly Hall at the top of the Lawnmarket (now a secular building, The Hub).
Haddo’s Hole Kirk
The Haddo’s Hole congregation then moved into the now vacant West Kirk but when William Chambers started his restoration scheme, he needed them to leave. In 1873 he provided them with a temporary iron church on Bruntsfield Links until a new church was built for them in nearby Meadow Place. It opened in 1883 and was eventually demolished in the late twentieth century.
The Auld Kirk
In 1843 The Disruption took place, when the Church of Scotland split in two and the Free Church of Scotland was formed. Many members of the Auld Kirk left and so those who remained were also allowed to hold services in the West Kirk. However, because of their falling numbers, the Old Kirk was abolished by an Act of Parliament in 1860. The congregation launched a long campaign to remain in St Giles’, but their appeal was finally rejected by the Court of Session so that the Chambers Restoration could go ahead.
The High Kirk
Since the Reformation the High Kirk congregation had held its services in the former chancel of St Giles’. With the completion of the Chambers Restoration in 1883, they became the sole congregation in the Cathedral, as they are today.