Corstorphine Old Parish Church

A Short History

Corstorphine Old Parish Church


A Short History by S H Jackson


The story of the present church stems from the acquisition of the lands of Corstorphine by Adam Forrester from William More of Abercorn in 1347.  Adam Forrester, a very successful and influential burgess of Edinburgh, was twice provost of that city and held several other public offices. The Exchequer Rolls of the period list his many monetary rewards for the skilful exercise of his duties, including that of ‘Custumar’ which made him responsible for levying customs dues.  In recognition of his public service he was knighted in later life.  He possessed other properties and estates including Nether Liberton, Whitburn and Niddry but after acquiring Corstorphine he built a castle and settled there. Sit Adam amassed a large part of his fortune by trading with England.


After he established himself in Corstorphine, Sir Adam sought and obtained the permission of the Abbot and Chapter of Holyrood to build a votice chapel next to the then-existing church of St Mary and to provide funds for the maintenance of three Chaplains. It is not known for how long this old church of St Mary had been in existence and the earliest reference to it is in a Charter of 1128, when it was attached by King David I to the then newly founded Abbey of Holyrood.  Sir Adam died in 1405 shortly after the completion of his chapel in which he would have been buried and although its site has not been positively identified, it would certainly have been within the precincts of the present church, probably in the area of the nave adjoining the south transept.


Following Sir Adam’s death, his widow, Margaret, greatly increased the endowments of the chapel by providing funds for supporting two additional chaplains and two choir boys. His elder son, Sir John, who had succeeded Sir Adam in most of his state appointments, set about the physical enlargement of the chapel to accommodate the bigger establishment and founded, in 1429, the Collegiate Church of St John the Baptist. Confirmation of his foundation was ultimately granted in 1444 by Pope Eugenius and is commemorated in the present chancel by a memorial tablet to the first provost, Nicholas Bannatyne, who guided the development of the Collegiate church until 1473. So the two churches functioned side by side  -  normal parish worship taking place in the old church of St Mary, while the obligations of rendering the daily divine office and stipulated masses were fulfilled in the Collegiate church according to its constitution.

There were many Collegiate churches created in Scotland around this time.  The term ‘collegiate’ signified a constitution whereby a dean or provost presided over a ‘college’ or ‘chapter’ of priests who usually held the adjacent parishes or charges.  These clergy lived in their own manses and had their own laid-down duties regarding the carrying out of the stated daily services.


After the Reformation the College was dissolved and in 1593 parish worship was transferred from the old church of St Mary to the Collegiate building. In the year 1650-51 the building suffered from the occupation by Cromwell’s troops for almost twelve months and although that was only one of several incidents in earlier, turbulent times, the defacement of the effigies and memorials is likely to have taken place then.


Although many alterations and additions have taken place over the centuries much of the original medieval building remains. The tower, the south transept or baptistry, the chancel and the sacristy or vestry have survived relatively unscathed. The entrance porch was probably added about 1646 and may have been built from some of the remnants of the old parish church of St Mary which was demolished at that time. The nave is largely a reconstruction and the north transept which was added in 1646 was enlarged in 1828 when a massive extension and alteration took place by doubling the width of the nave by the area north of the three arches.  The demand for seating at that time necessitated the construction of a gallery which transversed from the north to the south part of the central area.   The chancel was used as a vestibule and the main door was opened out under the east window.  The architect commissioned for this work was William Burn. In 1905 a ‘restoration’ of the building to, a near as possible, its former medieval appearance, took place by re-opening the chancel, removing the gallery and stairways and closing the entrance under the east window. The architect engaged to be in charge was George Henderson.


The main entrance to the church is now by the Porch door.


Entrance Porch


On the left are some carved stones, one of which bears an almost indecipherable inscription which has been translated by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland as follows:


‘Here lies Adam Forstar, son of Sir John Forstar, knight’


Before being identified by the Royal Commission experts, this was thought to be the tombstone of Sir Adam Forrester who died in 1405; it is now considered likely to have marked the resting place of his grandson.  This ‘Adam Forstar’ was perhaps the clerk of the diocese of St Andrews mentioned in 1432 as being of noble race, but illegitimate (CSSR III)*. There can also be seen a small, ancient tombstone, possibly that of a Norman solider and a medieval gargoyle which may at one time have decorated the old church of St Mary.


Tower and Gallery


A spiral stair leads from the tower vault to the gallery above and beyond that to the bell chamber.  Before this gallery was opened out in 1905, the chamber had served several purposes, including that of the Kirk Session prison. Indeed the Session minutes record in 1649 that a certain Betie Watson being held there on a charge of witchcraft, hanged herself from the bell rope rather than face her trial by ordeal. The bell was cast in 1728 after one donated in 1577 by Sir James Forrester had ‘rent in the steeple’ (in the words of the Minutes).


On the face of the gallery is a memorial to the Rev. James Fergusson the minister whose inspiration initiated the restoration of the building in 1905, while those of the parish killed in the First World War are commemorated on panels on the sides of the archway.


South Transept


The early medieval stone font in the Baptistry which came from Gogar church was installed in 1955. The bowl is roughly hewn and originally would likely have been lined with metal. Gogar church lies a mile or so the west of Corstorphine but is no longer used for public worship, its congregation having united with Corstorphine Old Parish many years ago. The large south window is by Gordon Webster and replaced, in 1970, a nineteenth-century memorial window.  The theme is Baptism and the Holy Spirit emanating from the enthroned Christ.

Beneath this window is a recessed tomb bearing an effigy of an armoured knight. The figure is finely carved and although popularly believed to be that of Sir Adam Forrester who died in 1405, it could well be that of a succeeding member of that family, as the armour is of a design and fashion attributed by experts to a period some thirty years later. The heraldic panels beneath the tomb appear to relate more to Sir John Forrester, his elder son, whose tomb is in the chancel.


Adjacent to the tomb is a credence table (small table for holding the bread, wine and vessels of the Eucharist) and a recess which was previously the site of an altar into which a sculptured panel by Isobel Reid has been set and above which has been placed a tapestry by Dovecot Tapestries, Corstorphine, from a cartoon by Sax Shaw.


On the opposite wall is a six-ringed stone which at one time covered the burial vault of the Watsons of Saughton which lies beneath the floor in front of the transept. This memorial slab is dated 1620 and has a long Roman-lettered inscription from Ezekiel, Chapter 37 I the Authorised Version. The Watson family were influential landowners of Saughton House and estate in the parish of Corstorphine for approximately three centuries from 1537.


Pulpit and Nave


The pulpit was carved in 1905 from Riga oak and is a copy of the pulpit in Lutterworth Parish church, Leicestershire, where John Wycliffe preached. The hourglass on the wall behind is seventeenth century, although one of the glass bulbs is not original. The carved heads were copied from Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ and were the work of the sculptor Byrnie Rhynd at the 1905 restoration. The stone pillar lectern was designed by George Henderson as were the timber furnishings.




The Readers Chair at the chancel arch was made from the oak taken from the now demolished Provost’s house of 1505, which stood on the site of the present High St Hall. On the wall behind the chair is a monumental stone inscribed to the memory of Alexander Tod in 1489, he was brother-in-law of Sir Archibald Forrester, the fifth of the line.


On the west wall adjacent to the Priest’s Door, behind the curtain, are seen commemorative dates the earliest of which, 1429, likely referring to the foundation of the Collegiate church and that of 1455 probably relating to the completion of the chancel. The significance of the date, 1769 is unknown. The first two dates are believed to be the earliest recorded in Arabic characters in the Lothians.

On the east wall adjacent to the Priest’s Door there is another stone, this one commemorating Robert Heriot, a chaplain of Gogar who was much favoured by the Forresters. He died in 1443. The chalice carved on this stone was used as the model for the silver communion cups, made in the early seventeen hundreds, which are currently in use.


At the east side of the Priest’s Door is an ancient unidentified stone with a floriated calvary cross. Next to it is a recessed sediliar with basket arches and miniature rib-vaults inside. It has seating for three priests and alongside there is a piscine (fish) and credence table.


On the east wall of the chancel there is a the memorial tablet to Nicholas Bannatyne, the first Provost of the Collegiate Church in 1429 and on the same wall, at the other side of the great window is a tablet in memory of George Henderson already referred to as the architect in charge of the 1905 restoration.


The effigies in the recessed tombs on the north wall are thought to be, on the left, next to the chancel arch, those of Sir John Forrester, the founder of the Collegiate church and one of his wives. Sir John achieved great prominence in his lifetime, acting as depute chamberlain of the whole kingdom, under the Earl of Buchan and playing an important part in the release of King James I from the English in 1424. In recognition of his services that monarch appointed him Master of his Household and on the death of the Earl of Buchan he was made Lord High Chamberlain in 1425.

On the tomb to the right are the effigies of what appears to be the second Sir John Forrester, son of the founder, and one of his wives. This Sir John was a soldier and took part with the Earls of Douglas in their struggles with the Chancellor Crichton and Sir Alexander Livingston. In 1466 he led the troops which besieged and demolished Brankston Castle.  The stone effigy represents a man of great physical stature and the heraldic shields below, of Forrester and Wigmer his wife, appear to be in situ, which cannot be said for those of the two other tombs. Indeed, in the case of the founder’s tomb, and the tomb in the south transept, it is apparent that there has been a re-arrangement of situation. All eight heraldic panels of these two tombs are appropriate to Sir John Forrester, the founder, and his two wives, Sinclair of Orkney and Stewart of Dalswinton.


These could have been combined to surround a free-standing tomb and the most probable site of such a tomb would have been at the entrance to the present chancel. Again, as has been pointed out, the orientation of the animals at the feet of the effigies in the chancel suggests they were designed to lie on the south side of the church – not on the north side as they are at present situated. So doubts must remain over the earlier assumption that the effigies lie in their original positions. However, the placing in their present situations is likely to have been at a very early stage in the history of the church – most likely during the building of the final phase – as there is no evidence of damage or wear of any significance on their far sides. Until such time that documentary evidence comes to hand speculation must continue over the nature of the structural development and internal changes that have taken place over the years. Perhaps we shall never know for certain the true sequence of those events.


The Sacristy


The sacristy, off the chancel, is now used as the vestry and has, at its east window, an ancient ‘mensa’ or alter slab, damaged at the corners but in situ, on which five consecration crosses are still visible.  Alongside is a rather rough but well-preserved piscine which drains through to the outside wall.  Projecting corbels indicate the level of the floors of the two upper chambers, the first of which would likely have served as living quarters for the priests on duty and the second chamber as a treasury or store.


The eighteenth-century pewter on the north window ledge is interesting, as are also the massive padlocks, which, if all tales be true, came from the old castle of Corstorphine, long since demolished.


The wooden chest is seventeenth century and could have been the poor box of the period.  The communion token attached to its lid was discovered in a crevice in the box during its restoration and is dated 1680. Other well-preserved early examples of communion tokens are also on display.



North Transept


As already stated this area was created in 1828 when additional seating was required.  The memorial to those of the congregation who died in the 1939-45 war is on the stone pillar to the right of the Hamilton organ.




With the exception of the 1970 south transept window already referred to, all the stained glass was installed in 1904-05. The large window in the north transept depicting the ‘Works of Mercy’ is by Ballantine and Gardiner. The great east window in the chancel, the ‘Supper at Emmaus’ is by Ballantine & Son, as are the remainder, with the exception of one in the south-east nave, ‘Consider the Lilies’ and one in the south-east chancel. ‘The Good Shepherd and the Lamb of God’ which are by Nathaniel Bryson.




On the exterior of the church, above the porch door, are two inset heraldic shields bearing the arms of Forrester and Wigmer; the same arms are inset above the window of the south transept. The perpendicular tracery of the south window of the baptistry and the east window of the chancel is rare in Scotland. Although the tracery is mostly original the mullions have been restored.  The buttresses have numerous set-offs and now have finials of cubic stones, one of which are askew and might have been an original mass-dial or sundial. It is thought that the buttresses would have been pinnacled to the eaves originally.


Above the great east window of the chancel is a niche containing a lamp. In medieval times this light guided travellers along the side of the loch and through the marshes to Corstorphine, probably to the Hospice there or perhaps, simply, home. The tradition is continued and a lamp still shines in the same niche from dusk to dawn!


The Corstorphine Trust has in its possession as custodian many historical documents, copy charters, writings and sketches relating to this church. These may be inspected at the Trust’s  premises any Saturday morning between 10am and 12 noon or by separate arrangements. The present address is the Dower House, Corstorphine High Street, Corstorphine. or



Corstorphine Old Parish Church is a building of national interest and historic importance. It has existed for over five and half centuries and although its upkeep is onerous, the congregation is resolved to ensure the survival of this pat of our heritage. Any financial assistance the reader may provide towards this end will be gratefully received.









Page last updated: Monday 11th November 2019 9:17 AM
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