The Lamp of Lothian

Category: Parish Records, East Lothian Last Updated: Saturday, 23 August 2014 Written by Nathan Zipfel

The Lamp of Lothian

The greatest treasure of the town of Haddington is said to be its church, St. Mary's. The earliest reference to a church in the royal burgh dates from the year AD 1139. In addition to the parish church there were monastic establishments, all of which suffered during the onslaught of Edward III's army in 1355: an event referred to as the Burnt Candlemas. (Candlemas being 2 Feb., one of the four "quarter days.")  The light of the Gospel, however, was not extinguished. Within two to three decades, the building was begun anew; its period of construction extending for half a century or more.

The title "Lamp of Lothian" referred originally to the choir of the Franciscan Friary, a few hundred yards down the river Tyne. It has since passed to the present building which has now been restored "for the solace of the whole community."

The Siege of Haddington" (1547-1549) caused great destruction to St. Mary's. Only the nave survived; the tower, transepts and choir being left roofless. Traces of cannon fire may still be seen.

At the instigation of John Knox, born in Giffordgate (just across the river), the Haddington town council had the church building repaired in 1561 "frae steeple to the west end." A barrier wall was built and the enclosed nave served as the parish church for over 400 years.

 Few improvements were made during those four centuries, notably the heightening of the galleries by some six feet in 1811. The outline of the original arches can be easily seen today. The rib vaulting of the aisles was replaced by plaster.

By 1892 further changes had taken place during the ministry of the Rev. Robert Nimmo SMITH, who dreamed of a beautiful sanctuary and restored transept. The floor was lowered and red pine blocks laid. Plaster was removed from the walls, and two new galleries, east and west, were built. A new organ was installed in the east gallery. Pulpit, baptismal font, lectern, communion table, and several stained glass windows were furnished as the result of generous donations. Only the mullions of the great east window and of the south window were restored, leaving the choir and the transepts open to the skies.

During the 1920's a concrete raft was sunk in the choir. This undoubtedly preserved the pillars from further subsidence and indirectly laid the foundations for modern day restoration.  This last and greatest restoration took place in the early 1970's. It came about as the culmination of co-operation between the Kirk Session and the newly formed Lamp of Lothian Collegiate Trust, whose intention to build a center for renewal in Haddington found early expression in the conversion of the Poldrate Mill and cottages into youth and community purpose buildings.

The restoration of the church was the largest challenge. People rose to it locally and even further afield. Miss Hilda Nimmo SMITH gave a generous benefaction. The Kirk Session sold four silver communion cups crafted during the reign of Charles I. The Duchess of Hamilton initiated an appeal for funds to restore St. Mary's and for the upkeep of the neighbouring Lamp of Lothian buildings, all for community healing and renewal through the arts and creative activity. Through her untiring efforts, the success of the appeal was assured.

 Today it stands as the largest parish church in Scotland: 197 feet long). The restored areas, completed in 1973, are roofed in fibreglass, unique in church restoration. There are many historical points of interest in the church building and church grounds. Records of early pilgrimages from St. Mary's, Haddington, to St. James of Compostela, Spain are evidenced by a large scallop shell.

A magnificent tomb belonging to the MAITLAND family is housed in the Chapel of the Three Kings. (You may find familiar family names engraved in the headstones of the kirkyard outside.) Finally, in the St. Columba Aisle you will find the following:

This is the house of prayer
May God be known to you here
This is the house of Christ's people
May you find his welcoming here

Heaven and earth are met in this place
May the sense of that lighten your burdens
Quiet your fears, encourage your faith
And then send you home to serve him well
And make his Church a praise to his name

(From St. Mary's Collegiate Church, Haddington, East Lothian)

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