Nineteenth Century Restorations

William Burn Restoration

In 1826, William Burn the architect was commissioned by Edinburgh’s Lord Provost to draw up plans to repair the exterior and modernise the interior of St Giles’. Some years earlier, the shops adjoining the building had been demolished, revealing the fact that the church walls were leaning dangerously outwards. Archibald Elliot, a well-known Edinburgh architect, drew up plans in 1817 to make the building structurally safe and improve the interior. However, these aroused a great deal of controversy because they would involve demolishing several medieval chapels on the south west side of the church. Nothing was done, and Elliot died in 1823.

The town authorities then turned to William Burn. Son of an Edinburgh architect, Burn had trained with him before moving to the firm of Sir Robert Smirke in London, where he became the site architect at Covent Garden Theatre. Back in Scotland again, he made a highly successful career as a church and country house architect. Burn based his plans for St Giles’ on Elliot’s, including the controversial decision to demolish the south west chapels and, more importantly, he also came up with a new and successful solution to the problem of the leaning walls. He inserted iron tie bars, each two feet long, in the stonework. He then encased the whole building, apart from the perfectly stable tower, in a polished ashlar sandstone. He had all the roofs repaired, raising the height of the nave roof by 16 feet, to match that of the chancel, and enlarged the aisle where the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland met.

William Chambers Restoration

From poor beginnings, living on three and a half pence a day as an apprentice to an Edinburgh bookseller, and then selling books from a wooden stall that he had built himself, William Chambers went on to found the highly successful publishing firm of W. and R. Chambers with his brother, Robert. Deeply interested in Scottish history and tradition, they wrote books on these subjects themselves, and their firm’s schoolbooks, dictionaries and encyclopaedias became so well-known that William would eventually be presented at Buckingham Palace and entertained at the White House by the President of the U.S.A.

Reluctant to enter public life, he nonetheless agreed in 1865 to become Lord Provost of Edinburgh so that he could tackle the problem of its overcrowded slums in the streets and closes (lanes) around St Giles’. This he did to great effect and one day as he sat in his official pew in the church, he was seized with the notion of demolishing all the internal stone walls in order to return it to its original medieval sacred space, transforming it into ‘Scotland’s Westminster Abbey’. To this end, he engaged the prominent Scottish architect William Hay.

He launched his idea with a public speech in 1867, but it would take sixteen years of fundraising, personal expenditure, seeking permission from many authorities, and the actual demolition and reconstruction before the work was finally finished in 1883. A frail octogenarian by then, Chambers was carried into the Cathedral and placed in a chair so that he could survey the effect for himself. ‘I never could have believed that the interior was so fine!’ he exclaimed. He died on 20 May 1883, just three days before the triumphant re-opening service.

When William Chambers was planning his great restoration of St Giles’ in 1871, he decided that the best architect to employ was William Hay. The son of grain merchant in Peterhead, in the north of Scotland, Hay had begun his career there and then moved to Edinburgh before joining in 1846 the prestigious London firm of George Gilbert Scott, leading architect of the Gothic Revival. He was immediately put in charge of building the new Anglican cathedral of St John’s in Newfoundland, recruiting British tradesmen for the task before sailing to Canada with his wife. He later advised on designs for the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Hamilton, Bermuda.

After a brief return to Scotland, he decided in about 1853 to settle in Toronto, where he gained a fine reputation for designing handsome Gothic Revival buildings.  One of his students, Henry Langley, became the most prolific church architect in Ontario. However, on the death of his wife in 1860, Hay abruptly sold his very lucrative practice. He worked briefly in Bermuda again, and in Halifax, before returning to Scotland to establish a successful practice in Edinburgh.

At first people were wary of plans for the Chambers Restoration, but Queen Victoria sent a donation of £200 to the appeal fund and by the time the project was nearing completion, Hay noted that crowds of people even from England and America were flocking in to see what was being done, and he was constantly stopped on the street and questioned by individuals he had never met.

He died in 1888, five years after the completion of the Chambers Restoration, and is commemorated by a memorial plaque in St Giles’.