Canongate Kirk is the late 17th-century church attached to Holyroodhouse Palace, Queen Elizabeth’s traditional residence in Edinburgh. Located at the heart of historic Edinburgh on the “royal mile,” the small, ornate church is run by the Church of Scotland but is full of souvenirs of its royal history.
Royal wedding put Canongate Kirk into the spotlight, but its history is much longer
In July, 2011, Canongate Kirk was the venue for Zara Phillips’ marriage to Mike Tindall, which thrust the church into the limelight. But the church is unusual both for its architecture and for its long-standing ties with Royal history.
Canongate Kirk, or Kirk of the Canongate, was founded in 1688. It’s the official church of the Order of the Thistle, Scotland’s highest and oldest chivalric order. Investitures and the Thistle ceremony take place here in even-numbered years; James VII of England and II of Scotland was the one to set up that arrangement.
Canongate Kirk architectural details reflect years of royal history
Further royal associations are readily apparent from the coat of arms on top; originally they were meant to be James’ but, by the time the church was finished in 1690, William of Orange had succeeded, so they were amended. There have been antlers above the door since 1824; the initials and coat of arms of Thomas Moodie, the church’s original benefactor, are also incorporated.
Originally, the kirk was a dark place, but a fire in 1863 resulted in a later reorganization. In 1950, the galleries were removed, which let in more light. The interior is painted blue and white, and a variety of banners, or “Colours,” hang inside. But this is otherwise a very simple, quiet building, a working and functional church where weddings, funerals and regular services take place.
Church of the Canongate rose like a phoenix from a fire, lets in light
Canongate Kirk’s churchyard is, unusually, maintained not by the church but by the City of Edinburgh. It is the final resting place for more than just a few famous names: Adam Smith who, in the 1700s, penned “The Wealth of Nations” is there; so are Agnes McLehose, Robbie Burns’ “Clarinda,” is there, philosopher Dugald Stewart, and poet Robert Fergusson.
Fergusson was too poor to afford his own grave, so Robbie Burns paid for his namesake architect (Robert Burns) to create one. That second Burns also designed the Nelson monument that you can see from the church.
Canongate Kirk’s churchyard is full of famous bones and famous history
The churchyard tells other stories, too. Members of the MacLeod family who supported Bonnie Prince Charlie are buried here. So is John Irving, botanist Charles Alston who played more than a small role in the shaping of Holyrood House’s garden, and historian Robert Keith. The history section of the kirk’s website has a guide to graves in the churchyard.
If you’re in Edinburgh, walk down the Royal Mile and realize that almost every building along its length is listed. Canongate Kirk is a grade A listed building, in part because its architectural style was imported from the Netherlands, but also because of its historical associations, churchyard and royal ties. Taken in the context of the narrow street where is stands, Canongate is one of the centerpieces of Old Town Edinburgh.
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Sources: Canongate Kirk, Historic Scotland, Lonely Planet, Frommer’s
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