The Tron Kirk is a former principal parish church in Edinburgh, Scotland. It is a well-known landmark on the Royal Mile. It was built in the 17th century and closed as a church in 1952. Having stood empty for over fifty years, it was used as a tourist information centre for several years in the mid 2000's and, more recently, was the site of the Edinburgh World Heritage Exhibition and John Kay’s book and gift shop.
The name comes from the weighing beam ("tron" in Scots), serving the public market on the Royal Mile, which stood outside until around 1800.
It is the only Scottish church where five consecutive ministers each served at least once as Moderator of the General Assembly (eight if including second charge ministers).
Archaeological investigations, including excavations and 3D surveys, in 1974, 1983 and 2006 shed light on the area before the construction of the church in the 1630s. The results evidenced that the area was occupied by tenements before the church was built. It appears that they were built during the 15th and 16th centuries and wiped out all traces of earlier medieval settlements. Documentary research undertaken at the same time was able to provide a picture of the occupants of the buildings all the way back to the late 15th century. The church was built over:
The church floor was removed in 1974 to allow the excavation of the entire floor area. This was retained as a piece of publicly visible urban archaeology until the building was refloored in 2004. The public could view the remnants of the basements, the paved closes, and drainage channels in a Pompeii style, viewing from a walkway around the inner perimeter.
The foundation stone was laid on 4 March 1637.
The church was formally opened and dedicated to Christ by the citizens of Edinburgh in 1641, and known as "Christ's Kirk at the Tron". It was built for the North-West parish, one of the four parishes of Edinburgh after the Scottish Reformation of 1560. Prior to the erection of this new church, parishioners of the North-West parish worshipped in St. Giles' Cathedral. An English traveller, visiting the Tron in 1705, recorded his impression in his diary:—"The Nobility generally resort to the Tron Church, which is the principally (sic) and the Lord High Commissioner has a Throne erected in it, in a very spatious Gallery, on his right hand sits the Lord Chancellor, and on his left the Lord Provost of Edenborough." There were special grants of pews made by the Edinburgh Town Council to noblemen, Senators of the College of Justice, citizens of Edinburgh Old Town, Principals and Professors of the University. A full list of seat-holders has been preserved for 1650, the year of the battle of Dunbar, and for 1745, when Bonnie Prince Charlie was in Edinburgh.
Upon the entrance of the Prince to Edinburgh, he intimated that ministers should have full liberty to continue their duties on the following day—Sunday—the only requirement being that no names should be mentioned in the prayers for the royal family. The service at the Tron was taken by the Reverend Neil McVicar of St. Cuthbert's, the two Presbyterian ministers at the Tron having quietly left the city. The church was packed and he prayed as usual for King George by name and then added—"and as for this young man who has come among us seeking an earthly crown, we beseech Thee that he may obtain what is far better, a heavenly one!" When this was reported to Prince Charles, he is said to have laughed and expressed himself highly pleased at the courage and charity of the minister.
The church and congregation were of a scale which required a "second charge" for additional services:
The second charge at Tron was abolished in 1860 due to the Annuity Tax Act.
The memoirist Elisabeth West worshipped here when William Erskine was the minister and he died in May 1692. Erskine's replacement was George Meldrum and he advised her to keep a record and her diary is an insight into the Tron's history.
In 1697, Thomas Aikenhead, an 18-year-old student, became the last person in Scotland to be executed for the crime of blasphemy after a fellow student reported that he had blasphemed against God outside the Tron Kirk. Aikenhead was prosecuted for saying "I wish I were in that place Ezra calls hell so I could warm myself" as he walked by the kirk on his way back from a night of drinking with some classmates.
The baptisms and marriages of many Edinburgh luminaries took place in the Tron, one being the marriage of the famous jurist John Lauder, Lord Fountainhall on 21 January 1669, to Janet (1652–1686), daughter of Sir Andrew Ramsay, Lord Abbotshall, 1st Baronet, and the first Lord Provost of Edinburgh, and a Senator of the College of Justice (d.1688).
On 25 April 1694 Helen (d. 9 January 1714), daughter of George Ogilvy, 2nd Lord Banff (d.1668) by his spouse Agnes, daughter of Alexander 1st Lord Falconer, of Halkerstoun, married Sir Robert Lauder of Beilmouth in the Tron.
Rev John Drysdale, who married Mary Adam, daughter of the famous architect William Adam, was a Minister of the Tron Kirk from 1766 to 1788 and was also twice Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, though now he is chiefly remembered for his friendship with Adam Smith, the economist.
The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland met in the Tron from 1830 to 1840—the period of the "Ten Years' Conflict".
The Tron, as it is commonly called, was ordered to be built by King Charles I when he decided that St Giles' was to become the cathedral for the new see of Edinburgh. The land was purchased by the parish from Dr. William Scott, MD, for £1000 Scots. It was erected between 1636 and 1647 to a design by John Mylne, Royal master mason. The design mixed Palladian and Gothic elements and was inspired by contemporary Dutch architecture. The full Chamberlain's Accounts for this project are extant. The width of the building was reduced when both side aisles were removed in 1785 to accommodate the South Bridge and Blair Street leading to Hunter Square. In 1828 a new spire (designed by R & R Dickson) was constructed to replace the original, destroyed in the Great Edinburgh Fire of November 1824. The Tron closed as a church in 1952 and was acquired by the City of Edinburgh Council, the congregation moving to a new church in the Moredun area of the city.
The church was subsequently left to decay, and the interiors were eventually gutted. In 1974 archaeological excavations took place under the church which revealed foundations of 16th-century buildings from a long-vanished close, Marlins Wynd, named after a stonemason Walter Merlioun who lived there in 1500.
Traditionally the Tron was a place of gathering to celebrate New Year, mainly because of its chiming clock, high on the spire, and visible (and audible) over a wide area.
The Tron's position as the traditional focus of Edinburgh's Hogmanay celebrations has been greatly diminished in recent years, due to the expansion of the City Council's organised Hogmanay Street Party in the city centre.
However, it was announced in November 2012 that this historic venue would re-stake its claim to the city's hogmanay celebrations, with a Festival of the Extraordinary planned to include live music, film screenings and, amongst other things, a mixology masterclass.
The Tron is also used as a venue during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, when it has been operated by Just The Tonic and Freestival as a music, comedy and cabaret venue and cafe.
Between 2018 and early 2020, the Tron Kirk hosted an exhibition which showcased the Edinburgh Old and New Towns UNESCO World Heritage Site, as well as Scotland’s five other World Heritage Sites.
The exhibition aimed to capture the essence of the World Heritage Site in Edinburgh through the voices and opinions of local people. The story was told in a series of videos, quotes, and specially commissioned portraits from the Scottish photographer Alicia Bruce.
In Summer 2019, two retail outlets opened within the exhibition: John Kay's Shop, a gift shop specialising in Scottish gifts and books, historic prints and maps; and the Scottish Textiles Showcase.
In May 2021, the City of Edinburgh Council and the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust (SHBT) announced plans to restore the building and give it "a new and meaningful lease of life". The SHBT is to conduct a feasibility study. Once funding has been secured, the SHBT will be granted a 125-year lease on the building.