The Tron Kirk will celebrate it’s 370th anniversary in 2017.
EDINBURGH’S historic Tron Kirk dates from an age when New York was known as New Amsterdam, the Ming Dynasty still ruled over China and pre-Darien scheme Scotland had a substantial number of years remaining as an independent nation. Since its foundations were laid in the 1640s the structure has had to endure massive alterations, a great fire, demolition and face a number of threats to its existence.
The founding of the Tron Kirk was ordered by King Charles I after the bishopric designation of Edinburgh’s High Kirk, St. Giles in the royal charter of 1633. The North-West parish congregation displaced by St. Giles’s changing status required a new home and work began on the Tron Kirk in 1636, following demolition of several multi-floored medieval tenements on Marlin’s Wynd between the High Street and the Cowgate.
It was designed by John Mylne, a Royal Master Mason and it was completed in 1647 with the church’s design displaying a blend of Gothic and Classical features including a signature Dutch style steeple, reminiscent of Old St. Ninian’s Church in Leith.
The Tron’s name derives from the nearby weigh tron, a merchant weighing beam which existed on this part of Edinburgh’s High Street at this time.
The kirk remained largely unchanged until the 1780s when the works to create South Bridge, Hunter Square and Blair Street called for the shortening of the building’s east and south aisles. The western edge of the kirk was removed in order to restore symmetry. The creation of the new streets also saw the kirk open on all sides for the first time due to the removal of the tenements which had previously hemmed it in place on the High Street (see picture).
But the next pivotal event for the church would render it almost unrecognisable.
The Great Fire of Edinburgh 1824
On November 16th 1824, 151 long years after the Great Bronze Bell was installed in the Tron Kirk at Edinburgh, the steeple caught fire and burned. During this fire, the Great Bronze Bell partially melted in the intense heat of the conflagration; and, eventually fell to the ground along with the charred remains of the steeple.
The Great Fire of 1824 ravaged Scotland’s capital. Ten lives were lost and hundreds of families made homeless due to the inferno. Over £200,000 worth of damage was inflicted on the south side of Edinburgh’s High Street which included the toppling of the Tron Kirk’s famous Dutch-influenced steeple.
The mixture of lead and wood in the tower’s framework acted as the perfect kindling, ultimately forcing its complete removal in the aftermath of the fire. Fortunately, the interior of the kirk, including its fine hammer beam roof, managed to escape the flames.
The Formation of the very first Municipal Fire Department
It is of particular historical interest to note that prior to the Tron Kirk Steeple Fire of 1824, there were no municipal fire departments in existence anywhere in the world. This fire marked the very beginning of full-time municipal Fire Departments, as until the year 1824, private fire brigades were formed by insurance companies and these private fire brigades would only fight fires that occurred in the buildings of the insurance companies' clients. These buildings were duly identified by fire insurance marks.
In 1824, following the Tron Kirk Steeple Fire, the people of Edinburgh organised the first municipal fire brigade in the world; The Edinburgh Fire Engine Establishment, led by James Braidwood, who's statue is mounted in Parliament Square, just behind Mercat Cross, some 500 metres from the Tron Kirk.
Later, London followed with its own municipal fire department in 1832; The London Fire Engine Establishment which they asked the same James Braidwood to head up, but it also sealed his fate and he was later to be killed in a fire in London's Tooley Street.
The Redesigned Steeple
The current Tron Kirk steeple, which was a totally new design, was created in 1828. The new significantly taller spire was constructed entirely from stone – presumably to prevent it from falling victim to fire ever again.
In the years that followed, the Tron Kirk became the traditional gathering place for Edinburgh citizens during the city’s Hogmanay celebrations, a role that lasted until 1993 when Princes Street took over New Year’s Eve duties as reveller numbers exploded.
Since the congregation departed in 1952 for a new church in Moredun, the threat of extinction has loomed heavy on the Tron Kirk. Plans to remove the church in its entirety were raised more than once during the 20th century in a bid to improve traffic flow around the busy junction of the Bridges and the Royal Mile. Thankfully those plans never came to fruition and instead a restoration programme commenced in 1974.
However, the restoration work on the floor and foundations of the church uncovered something unexpected. Remnants of 16th century shops and dwellings on historic Marlin’s Close were visible and the site quickly became of considerable archaeological interest.
In recent years the category A-listed Tron Kirk appears to have staved off the threat of destruction. It enjoyed a spell as a tourist information centre during the 2000s and has embarked on a new lease of life as an entertainment complex and venue for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Jazz & Blues Festival and the PBH Free Fringe in recent years. At present, it is host to Edinburgh’s Royal Mile Market – allowing all to explore the beauty and history of the building while meeting local artists and makers.
With thanks to; David McLean, (pub. The Scotsman Newspaper, 3/6/2013) and Ron Husted, (www.iowabagpiper.com, 4/8/2016)