Historic Edinburgh church to mark 400 years on Christmas Day

Greyfriars Kirk, which is also famous for its association with the Covenanters, church radicals of the 17th century, will hold a special service on December 25 and also create a time capsule commemorating this year for future generations.

By Jane Bristow

An Edinburgh church known around the world for Greyfriars Bobby, the loyal terrier who guarded his master’s grave for 14 years, will celebrate its 400th anniversary on Christmas Day.

Greyfriars Kirk, which is also famous for its association with the Covenanters, church radicals of the 17th century, will hold a special service on December 25 and also create a time capsule commemorating this year for future generations.

The Rev Dr Richard Frazer, who has been the minister of Greyfriars since 2003, said: “Compared to the immensity of ‘Deep Time’, a phrase coined by the Geologist James Hutton, 400 years is the mere blinking of an eye. Hutton is one of the many Enlightenment figures associated with Greyfriars Kirk and his memorial is in the graveyard.

“That being said, these last 400 years have seen the world transformed more radically than any period during human history.

“The Reformers who founded Greyfriars were deeply committed to universal education, especially for those whose lives were blighted by poverty.

“To this day our congregation continues the tradition of anti-poverty advocacy through our partnership with the Grassmarket Community Project and our commitment to issues around social justice.”

The Rev Richard Frazer with his dog Guinness, and Gillian Couper who is a member of staff and also the congregation with her dog Toby.

Current parishioner Mrs Heather Jack first starting attending Greyfriars as a young child in the 1940s when her father the Rev Duncan Strang became the minister of the church. He had served in World War I with the 9th Seaforth Highlanders.

Recalling her early memories of attending services there, she said: “There is no doubt the stress of battle had left my father with impaired health, despite which he retained amazing stamina for the Sunday morning route march across the Middle Meadow Walk to the Kirk. Meanwhile the family car, an elderly Morris, was furloughed in the manse garage.

“For this he was always formally attired in full morning dress, with top hat which he would doff to parishioners as he rapidly overtook them.

“Hats for women attending church were de rigueur.  For all the years we lived in the parish, I remember the interior of Greyfriars was furnished with traditional pews: no flexibility to rearrange them for special services, which are an interesting feature of our congregational worship nowadays.

“In the immediate post-war period there were continuing shortages and restrictions which lasted for many months after the war was over. Attendances were large at the kirk, and our father had two assistants to help in worship and pastoral care.”

The time capsule is being made in the workshop of the Grassmarket Community Project and will include items relevant to the coronavirus pandemic, as well as messages addressed to the future congregation.

These have been written by well-wishers such as the Rt Rev Dr Fair, the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland; Frank Ross, the Lord Provost of Edinburgh; and current members of the church.

Neighbouring organisations from the Southside of the city including ecumenical partners, other faith groups, the National Museum of Scotland and Edinburgh University have also been invited to contribute.

The congregation had organised an ambitious programme of events throughout 2020 including a festival of science and faith featuring speakers such as Professor Dame Sue Black, pictured left, but were unable to hold them due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The festival has now been rescheduled for October 2021 to be themed around the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP26, and is being supported by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Church of Scotland’s Society, Religion and Technology project.

Greyfriars continues to serve its neighbours through the Grassmarket Community Project, a social enterprise that provides a vital lifeline to those experiencing issues around addiction, poverty, homelessness and mental health.

Gillian Couper, who is both a member of the congregation and a project manager there, spoke of her hopes for the future: “Over the years 17 congregations have united to become the present Kirk, the rich and diverse history of these provide inspiration for us today.

“Greyfriars is a place for hospitality and friendship, with a passion for social enterprise and community action.

“I hope that we can continue to work alongside many different groups to help ensure the local community continues to provide a welcome and somewhere everyone can belong.”

Volunteers will be live-streaming the Kirk service for the first time on the Greyfriars Facebook page this Christmas Day at 10.30am. However, it’s possible this arrangement will be reviewed in light of new restrictions.

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