Home to the only intact pre-Reformation-stained glass in Scotland, the Magdalen Chapel on Edinburgh’s Cowgate was funded by silk-merchant Michael Macquhane and his widow Janet Rynd to serve as both a chapel and a hospital for seven poor men who should “continually pour forth prayers to Almighty God”. After completion in 1542, the by then widowed Janet Rynd invited the Incorporation of Hammermen to use the Chapel as their guild hall, so the building was already multi-purpose. With the coming of the Reformation, some hold the view that the first General Assembly of the Church of Scotland was held here in 1560, when the call was launched for every child whether boy or girl to have an education.

Deacon’s Chair

A relic of the long-disappeared hospital is the large carved panel exhibiting the crest of the founders surmounted by the crown and hammer, insignia of the Hammermen’s craft. In the 1620s the Hammermen arranged for the erection of the Tower with a steeple enhanced by the mounting of a bell that is still in working order. In the Covenanting period the Chapel was used for Conventicles, and the bodies of several martyrs were taken there after execution in the Grassmarket to be dressed in their grave-clothes. In 1725 the present platform on the east side was erected, including the insignia of the Hammermen.
Edinburgh’s first Baptist and Methodist congregations were founded here. The Reform Act of 1832 put an end to exclusive trading, and in 1858 the Hammermen sold the Chapel to the Scottish Reformation Society who planned to use it as a base for outreach among Roman Catholics in the Cowgate. Also dedicated to the care of people who had arrived in Edinburgh from Ireland to escape the potato famine, the Edinburgh Medical Missionary Society founded in 1841 moved in next door, using the Chapel for worship and Sunday schools. As well as training evangelical Protestant Christians for medical work, they operated a Dispensary for local people which lasted until 1952.   
From 1966 the new Heriot-Watt University had the Chapel as its Chaplaincy Centre, and following restoration in 1992/3 it became the headquarters of the Scottish Reformation Society, which had been founded in 1851, following a public meeting the previous year in the Music Rooms in George Street Edinburgh to protest against the re-establishment of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Scotland for the first time since the Reformation in 1560.
The principal glory is the stained-glass window-shields which represent the coat of arms of Mary of Guise, the Lion Rampant and those of the founder and his wife. Inscribed panels contain in letters of gold records of benefaction in the form of gifts and legacies. The Deacon’s Chair that seated the presiding official of the Hammermen was created in 1708 and restored in 2000, and the chandelier dates from 1813. Stone figures show a bedeman (a man employed in praying) holding out his hand to ask a hammerman to relieve his poverty. The flat surface which covers the grave of Janet Rynd is covered with an inscribed screen. A semi-circular one round the platform bears eight shields representing the eight trades united in the Hammermen. There are plaques commemorating medical missionaries who died at a young age, and the portraits are of nineteenth-century Protestant leaders the Rev James Begg and Professor J R Wylie, the latter being founder of the Protestant Institute, which was based on George IV Bridge in the building that now houses Vittoria’s restaurant and retains carvings in the stonework that relate to the Reformation.
The Edinburgh Branch is most grateful to the Scottish Reformation Society for hosting our AGM and to the Society’s Vice-Chairman Allan McCulloch for telling us about the Chapel’s fascinating history.