St. Margaret and Her Chapel

By Ronald Selby Wright

IT'S A VERY small chapel - it doesn't hold more than about twenty people, and it's very old, and it's very lovely.

We have all heard of Macbeth, King of Scots. Well, Macbeth was succeeded by King Malcolm III, who married the Princess Margaret after she found refuge in Scotland when her family was excluded from the English throne by William the Conqueror. Queen Margaret was one of the most lovely Queens there has ever been, and she was loved because she herself loved so much, and did all she could for her subjects. Above all, she loved God; and, loving her people, she wanted them to love God, too. This little chapel, built on the rock of Edinburgh Castle, is called by her name; and to this day, St. Margaret's Chapel seems still to weave the spell of her love and prayers.

St. Margaret Chapel St. Margaret's Chapel, Edinburgh, Scotland.

The chapel stands on the very spot where it has always stood, a place set apart. In days of siege and war, as well as in days of plenty and of peace, people have come here to give God their worship. During these long years Scotland's folk have come into this place: those who were great in power, those who were great in humility, or just ordinary folk like you and me, who are not great in very much. Here they have come: kings and queens, lords and ladies, knights and lairds, soldiers of the sword, and soldiers of the Cross, and that endless stream of strong and simple folk, who have made the name of Scotland honoured and loved and great throughout the world. Not only Scots have come here, but our brothers and sisters from over the Border, though not always as friends in the old days. For example, it was here that Edward I, the Hammer of the Scots, made the Abbot of Holyrood do homage. But now friends come into this shrine in ever increasing numbers, not just from England but from all over the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, from the Commonwealth, and from every country in the world.

Church services were always held in the Castle, and from the time of the Reformation. Elders of the Canongate Kirk were appointed to assist the Ministers and Chaplains to watch over its spiritual welfare. But it is sad to think that after the Reformation the little chapel itself was practically forgotten. As recently as 1845 it was used by the battery of the Castle for storing the gunpowder with which salutes were fired on special occasions. The small round-headed window on the south was built up, and the central window was blocked up and long forgotten, and the building was almost unrecognisable as a chapel. Of the few historical remains of Edinburgh which have escaped the destroying hand of time and conflict, the Chapel of St. Margaret is the oldest and, in many respects, the most interesting.

St. Margaret's Chapel resembles some of the primitive Celtic chapels of both Scotland and Ireland in being small and irregular. Essentially, it is a rectangular structure, with an apsed sanctuary and a nave separated by a chancel arch decorated with chevron mouldings. The chapel is a freestanding building, though various factors such as the complete lack of original masonry along the entire north face, suggest that it may have formed part of a structure such as a house or a tower.

St. Margaret's Chapel
The interior presents much the same appearance as it did in the days of David I who founded the Abbey of the Holy Rood in memory of his mother, Queen Margaret. Allowing for irregularities, the interior is 10 feet (3.05 metres) wide, the sanctuary 10 feet (3.05m) long, the nave 16 feet (4.87m) long, and the whole 28 feet (8.53m) long. The apse has a radius of 5 feet (1.52m), the chancel arch is 5 feet (1.52m) wide, and the chancel wall, like the three surviving outer walls, is 2 feet (0.61m) thick.

The building probably remained intact until the night of 14th March 1314, when the Castle was brilliantly captured by the famous Rannulph, Earl of Moray. In terms of Bruce's policy, Moray at once proceeded to destroy all the buildings in the Castle, with the exception of the little chapel.

When King Robert the Bruce, on his death bed in 1329, spoke of the story of Queen Margaret and her lonely chapel on the desolate Castle rock, he issued orders for its repair and some forty pounds Scots was put aside for that purpose. The chapel in these days, and for many years afterwards, was the "Royal Chapel in the Castle."

On 9th January, 1366, there is mention of the Chaplain officiating within the chapel within the Castle, and there is fairly frequent record of services held within the small building, although another and larger chapel was in use within the Castle.

St. Margaret Chapel The St. Margaret's Altar Cloth, St. Margaret's Chapel, Edinburgh, Scotland.

Sir Daniel Wilson brought the building to the country's notice in 1845. An effort at restoration, which was supported by Queen Victoria, was carried out under his supervision in 1853 when the five small windows were filled in with stained glass, later replaced as we have them now by the beautiful windows by Dr Douglas Strachan. But it was not until 1929, by the vision, action, and generosity of Sir David Russell, that a start was made to restore it, not only to its former glory, but to something of its former use. After much negotiation by Sir David with the Secretary of State for Scotland, the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister, and with the support of the Ministry of Works and Dr Charles L. Warr and Dr George F. MacLeod (later Lord MacLeod of Fuinary), on the 16th March, 1934, the restored and refurnished chapel was dedicated.

In 1942 the St. Margaret's Chapel Guild was started under the patronage of Her Royal Highness The Princess Margaret and the enthusiastic leadership of Lady Russell, and on her death in 1958, she was succeeded by her daughter, Mrs Margaret Anne Macaulay, as convener of the Guild.

The threefold purpose of the Guild was (a) to arrange that those with the name Margaret should supply and place flowers in the Chapel of St. Margaret in Edinburgh Castle each week of the year, (b) to keep the life and principles of St. Margaret of Scotland before Scottish women and girls as an example of good and Christian womanhood, and (c) to encourage the use of the Chapel as often as possible for public and private devotions.

In 1962 a beautiful silver chalice was presented by the Guild to the Chapel in memory of Sir David and Lady Russell, the work of an Edinburgh silversmith, and himself an Elder of the Canongate, Mr William Kirk.

St. Margaret's Chapel
In 1993, to commemorate the ninth hundred anniversary of the death of St. Margaret, the Government Agency, Historic Scotland, renovated the chapel; and the Guild refurbished it with specially commissioned furnishings: ten bench seats (each with limewood roundels on the ends, with one roundel on each seat bearing a carved symbol associated with St. Margaret: photographs of these roundels appear throughout the book), an alms-chest and table, a flower stand, and a St. Margaret's Gospel Book display case, all made in oak by Piers Kettlewell, Cabinetmaker; together with a richly embroidered altar cloth, depicting in texture, colour, and symbol the life and work of St. Margaret, designed and worked by Hannah Frew Paterson MBE. On St. Margaret's Day, 16th November 1993, in the presence of Her Royal Highness The Princess Margaret, Patron of St. Margaret's Chapel Guild, a Service of Dedication of the Enriched Chapel was conducted by The Reverend Charles Robertson, Minister of Canongate and President of St. Margaret's Chapel Guild, and The Right Reverend Mario Joseph Conti, Bishop of Aberdeen.

St. Margaret Chapel Back of the Centre Panel - To balance the Cross on the front of the panel, St. Margaret's coat-of-arms is placed on the back with a repeat of the family section at the lower edge.

And so now this old chapel has been restored to something of its former beauty, and each week the Margarets of Scotland are responsible for the flowers in it throughout the year. The first of the Guild to do this, by gracious permission of another much-loved Scottish Queen, now Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, was The Princess Margaret; and Margarets of the Guild now follow the Princess in making this offering to the greatest glory of God and to the beautifying of this chapel built so long ago.

This holy place, which crowns the Castle of Scotland's Capital, is open for all to visit. In the turmoil of our modern life, whether amid the turbulence of strife, or the restlessness of peace, people come here; and here receive even for a moment something of that real peace; and the peace of God which passes all understanding; and here the gracious words of Him who is the Prince of Peace can be heard again. "I tell you not to be anxious...Consider how the lilies grow in the fields; they do not work, they do not spin; yet even Solomon in all his splendour was not attired like one of these...Set your mind on God's kingdom and his justice before everything else, and all the rest will come to you as well."

So in that spirit, will you come in imagination out of the world into a few minutes of God's peace, and go back again to whatever work you have to do, renewed and refreshed, feeling that it was good to have been here.

(From St. Margaret Queen of Scotland and Her Chapel, St. Margaret's Chapel Guild)

Queen Margaret of Scotland Girls' Schools Association 2006.
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