History of the Cathedral

St Mary's is the Cathedral Church of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh


The original See of St Andrews was founded before 900; erected into a Metropolitan See by a Bull of Pope Sixtus IV on 17th August 1472 and was vacant for 307 years from the execution at Stirling of John Hamilton, eighth Archbishop, on 6th April 1571 until the restoration of the hierarchy in 1878. It is with the ancient primatial See of St Andrews that our present Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh has continuity.

However, the story of the Mother Church of the Archdiocese - St Mary's - begins during the days of the Vicars Apostolic prior to the restoration of the hierarchy in 1878. Bishop Hay, Vicar Apostolic for the Lowland District, chose the site of St Mary's in 1801, but it was Bishop Cameron who actually opened the Chapel of St Mary's - designed by the prominent ecclesiastical architect, James Gillespie Graham - in 1814, with the first Masses being celebrated in August of that year. Under the successors of Bishop Cameron the church was considerably embellished and in 1878 on the restoration of the Scottish hierarchy it became the pro-cathedral of the new Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh. At the request of Archbishop William Smith it was named the Metropolitan Cathedral on 5th July 1886 with all the rights and privileges appertaining to such a Church. It was also on this date that the Cathedral Chapter was established.

When St Mary's was built, however, it was merely a rectangular building with a shallow apse masked by a perpendicular Gothic facade, conveying the impression of a nave with flanking aisles, an example of "finest Gothic, with pinnacles according to the antique, which produced a fine effect on those who admire the style adopted". In 1841 Bishop Gillis enlarged the sanctuary and had a new pulpit placed in the Cathedral. In 1866 Bishop Strain, at the time Vicar Apostolic of the Eastern District of Scotland, had a cloister chapel built, where the Lady Aisle now is. It was Canon Donlevy, administrator of the Cathedral at the end of the nineteenth century who endeavoured to give the Cathedral a dignity worthy of its name. 


Canon Donleavy was responsible for major changes, some of which were made necessary by the fire in the neighbouring Theatre Royal in 1892. It was he who had the side walls of the church made into arches, with aisles of considerable size on either side, designed by John Biggar. The new aisle on the Lady Aisle side replaced the separate cloister chapel although the original saucer-shaped roof was left unaltered at the time for lack of funds. However, the shallow sanctuary was extended backwards by three bays of arches. To achieve this the priests' house in Chapel Lane was demolished and a house at 61 York Place was acquired and became connected to the Cathedral by a tunnel built under Chapel Lane. The opening of the new sanctuary took place in 1896. Seven years later Canon Donlevy was buried in the vault in front of the Lady Aisle, the only non-episcopal burial in the Cathedral. In the sanctuary vault are buried all the Vicars Apostolic of the Eastern District and the Archbishops of St Andrews and Edinburgh, with the exception of Bishop Hay - buried at Fetternear - and Bishop Gillis - buried in Gillis Centre Chapel.

Monsignor Stuart contributed much to the continuing improvement of the Cathedral fabric. The floor was altered to its present concrete and terrazzo form. Likewise, he was responsible for the paneling of the Lady Aisle, which became the setting for the Stations of the Cross, made by Mayer of Munich, as a memorial to the men of the parish who died in the First World War. After the death of Monsignor Stuart the congregation installed a new High Altar in his memory. The sanctuary was extended to the full width of the nave and a magnificent baldacchino built over the altar. In 1932 Reid & Forbes raised the roof of the Cathedral to the present height. All visitors will notice the fine decorative carving on the nave roof. There are angels with outstretched wings in vivid colours, carved by Scott Morton, spanning the spaces between the clerestory and others, lower down, support the various trusses. Their breasts bear shields surrounded by the coats of arms in heraldic colours, first of St Andrew, St Cuthbert, St Margaret and St David, then of the Vicars Apostolic, Cameron, Paterson, Carruthers and Gillis; then of the Archbishops Strain, W.Smith, A.McDonald, J.A.Smith, A.J.McDonald. The last coat of arms on the Lady Aisle side is that of Pope Pius XI. 


The 1970s saw the next stage of structural changes. The tenements which shielded the front of the Cathedral were demolished, affording an open vista. The porch and baptistery were removed and replaced by a more spacious porch (T. Harley Haddow) on part of the old Theatre Royal site. These alterations meant that the original facade of the Cathedral was revealed in all its splendour for the first time this century. In accordance with the reform of the liturgy of the Second Vatican Council the sanctuary was remodelled. A marble fore-altar was acquired from the former Catholic Apostolic Church at Bellevue, the High Altar was dismantled and some of the marble was used to make a podium for the tabernacle directly under the baldacchino. A baptismal font placed on the side of the sanctuary, was acquired from a church, now the headquarters of the Bible Society of Scotland. Subsequent to these and other alterations the Cathedral was solemnly dedicated on the 18th April 1978.

Before the Papal Visit of 1982 the Sacred Heart Chapel was changed to that of St Andrew and part of the altar was excavated to provide repositories for two of the relics of St Andrew. One relic of St Andrew came to the Cathedral in 1879 and the other was given by Pope Paul VI to Cardinal Gray in 1969. A prominent feature of the Cathedral interior is the painting surmounting the Sanctuary Arch, of the Coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary as Queen of Heaven, the work of the Belgian artist, Louis Beyart.

During Monsignor Gemmell’s time as administrator some changes were made to the Cathedral. The new parish centre was built on the former car park and opened in 2005, and the magnificent 4,000-piped Matthew Copley organ was installed in 2008.

Liturgical Ceremonies

Over the years, St Mary's has witnessed many impressive liturgical ceremonies. On 7th February 1828, Bishop Cameron, the founder of St Mary's, died and was buried in the vaults of the Cathedral, the first time since the Reformation that a Catholic funeral of a prelate was publicly performed in Scotland. In 1830, St Mary's was the main place of worship for the deposed King Charles X of France and his family. His son the Comte de Chambord was confirmed in the Cathedral that year and a magnificent monstrance was presented commemorating this event.

At the funeral of Bishop Paterson, who died on 30 October 1831 the presiding prelate was Cardinal de Latil, Archbishop of Rheims. He was the first Cardinal since Cardinal Beaton before the Reformation to assist at High Mass in Scotland. On Sunday July 22 1838 Bishop Gillis was consecrated at St Mary's. He later presided at the funeral rites celebrated for John Menzies of Pitfodels, one of the greatest benefactors of the Church in Scotland.

The Chapter of Canons of the Cathedral was established in 1886 and since that time regularly celebrates the liturgy in the Cathedral. Down through the years the Cathedral has witnessed the solemn consecrations and funerals of the various Vicars Apostolic and Archbishops.

However, there have been other liturgical events of great significance. One of these was the solemn reception of Gordon Joseph Cardinal Gray on his return from the consistory in Rome when he received the red hat of a Cardinal. Also unforgettable was the reception of Cardinal Glemp, Archbishop of Warsaw and Primate of Poland in 1985.

The Most Reverend Keith Patrick O'Brien was ordained to the episcopate and consecrated Archbishop on 5th August 1985, then Cardinal in October 2003, resigning in 2013.

The present Archbishop, The Most Reverend Leo William Cushley, was nominated 8th Archbishop and Metropolitan of St Andrews & Edinburgh by Pope Francis on 24 July 2013 and consecrated by His Eminence James Michael Cardinal Harvey on 21 September 2013, the feast of St Matthew the Apostle.

Each year the Cathedral is also the setting for the Mass to mark the Edinburgh International Festival. Likewise of great significance is the annual 'Red Mass'- the votive Mass of the Holy Spirit celebrated to implore God's blessing and gift of wisdom on the deliberations of the legal profession in Scotland. All these celebrations are supported by the Cathedral altar servers and the Choir.

Without doubt, the liturgical highlight of the Cathedral's life was the visit of Pope John Paul II on 31 May 1982. During his pastoral visit to Scotland he addressed a large congregation of priests, female and male religious in the Cathedral and prayed at the shrine of St Andrew. The Cathedral celebrated its bicentenary in 2014 under Monsignor Regan with new interior lighting and with the publication of St Mary’s Cathedral 1814-2014: Most Beloved Gate of Heaven by Darren Tierney. Now that it is no longer necessary to hide away as in 1801, the new setting provided by the redevelopment of the St James Centre (2020) will open the Cathedral up to St Andrew Square and the busy streets beyond.

Cathedral Archives

The Cathedral Archives contain baptism and marriage records dating from 1774, along with some funeral records and other items relating to the history of the Cathedral. Open access is not permitted and enquiries should be made to the Office, when searches will be undertaken on your behalf and a small charge will be made.

St Mary's Metropolitan Cathedral, Edinburgh
A History, 1814 - 2014

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St Mary's Cathedral's 200 year history is captured in St Mary's Metropolitan Cathedral, Edinburgh A History, 1814 - 2014.

The book, originally titled Most Beloved Gate of Heaven, was written for the Cathedral's bicentennial in 2014 by Darren Tierney, a historian who specialises in Scottish church history. The book is an excellent account of the building and its leaders in its first 200 years, with Catholic social history providing the context of events.

The book was reprinted in 2018 and given a new title, front cover and a brand new index.

Copies cost £12. Fill out this form to order a copy to be picked up after Mass at the weekend. Please order by 5pm on the Friday before the weekend you wish to collect the book.