The Church Organ
The Blackhall St. Columba's Church organ was built originally for the historic Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh in 1865. It was built by David Hamilton, a distinguished organist and organ builder to the Queen. It is reputed to be one of the first organs to be used in the Church of Scotland, and was referred to as the original "kist fu' o' whistles". The Church was extended in the early 1930s with a choir gallery built, and the organ was acquired from Greyfriars Kirk in 1932 to replace a harmonium. Arthur Ingram installed and rebuilt the 'new' instrument, which was housed in a chamber above the North door and was in full use by 1935.
Built originally as a two-manual, the organ was enlarged to a three-manual in the early 1880s by Brindley and Foster. After its move to St. Columba's, the organ was later overhauled by Rushworth and Dreaper in 1947. The Church temperature was increased, causing irreparable damage which lead to a complete reconstruction of the instrument during the 1970s by Robert Goldsmith. Once again, the temperature and humidity took a negative toll and major repair work was undertaken by Ronald Smith in 1990. At this point a humidifier was installed within the organ chamber to try and improve the situation - a suggestion which had been made 27 years previously by Herrick Bunney (Director of Music at St. Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh).
This eventful history of the organ had involved many different organ builders with different philosophies on design and voicing. The number of modifications carried out at each stage of repair and reconstruction had left the Church with an instrument not particularly full in character. The organ started becoming less and less reliable, with its major faults and idiosyncrasies being concealed by the skill of the organists playing it. Repairs were becoming more expensive and less possible. All the experts who had been consulted agreed that the time had come for drastic action.
In 2002 the Kirk Session appointed a committee to investigate all the options. After considerable research into the various possibilities and their costs, and with the advice of experts, the decision was taken to build a new organ to meet the needs of the congregation.
Sandy Edmonstone, the chosen builder, and Peter Backhouse, the chosen advisor, proposed to build a two-manual instrument suitable for leading regular worship, for recital repertoire and also for tuition purposes. The proposed plan involved cantilevering the organ chamber out by some four feet, thus rectifying the over-crowded condition of the chamber which had caused difficulty and, sometimes, impossibility of carrying out repairs.
With the necessary funds in place and the contract signed in June 2004, work began in earnest in January 2005. New soundboards, chests, swell box, key and stop-actions and console were all to be made and new blowing plants and pipe-work ordered. A new organ case was designed by Derek Watson-Griggs to replace the row of gold pipes that was the organ façade. The organ committee made regular trips to the Forteviot workshop near Perth and the congregation was kept informed through newsletters and Church magazines.
Scaffolding went up in the Church at the front door on Monday 9th January 2006, so that the existing organ could be removed. By Friday, the organ chamber was bare with many of the parts being discarded. Not surprisingly, several people saved some parts as souvenirs - mostly metal pipes, but also a few wooden ones. Some of the existing pipe-work was kept on artistic and economic grounds. Very little trace of the original Hamilton pipe-work was found during the dismantling process, showing just how much the instrument had been modified from the original.
The second week brought in the joiners to install a new heavy-duty floor in the organ chamber. This was done to meet modern health and safety requirements, and so that the new organ case would align with the choir gallery. The organ builder took over next, and over the next six months the organ gradually took shape.
After all the physical work was completed, each of the 1814 pipes had to be "Voiced and Tuned" by the organ builder. This work had to be completed in silence, which was not an easy task with a main road outside, and took many weeks.
The organ was finally finished in July, but as most of the congregation were away on holiday, it was decided to leave the dedication until 10th September.
The dedication of the new organ took place on Sunday 10th September 2006. Before even one note was played, the minister, the Rev Alex Douglas, stood in the doorway under the new organ pipes and dedicated the organ to the glory of God and the enhancement of His worship in music.
Accompanied at the organ by the Director of Music, Angus Tully, the forty-strong choir opened the service with the rousing Introit "Let all the world in every corner sing" by Ralph Vaughan-Williams. Iain Lowrie, convener of the organ committee, then spoke to the children about the building of the organ. The service continued with hymns, three anthems sung by the choir and an organ solo "Reverie" by J Bonnet played by Angus. All the pieces were carefully chosen to demonstrate the scope and versatility of the new instrument, whether played softly or loudly.
The readings, sermon and prayers were all woven into the theme of praising God through music, culminating in the hymn "To God be the glory, great things He has done". After the blessing, the congregation remained standing to sing their thanks for the gift of music in "Now thank we all our God" and Angus led straight into a splendid rendition of the well-known show-piece Widor's "Toccata", for which he received a standing ovation.
Afterwards, a celebration cake was served with tea and coffee in the hall.
After the large attendance at the morning service, it was most encouraging for Alex Douglas to welcome an equally large audience to the Church for the evening recital. Angus Tully introduced the guest organist Dr John Kitchen, Edinburgh University and City Organist.
After playing the overture from Handel's "Ode for St Cecilia's Day", Dr Kitchen came down to the front and introduced the rest of the first half of his recital. This was devoted entirely to baroque music - two voluntaries by English composers Stanley and Boyce, and two chorales by German composers J S Bach and Buxtehude, ending with the "St Anne" fugue in Eb by Bach.
Dr Kitchen then introduced more recent music - a liturgical suite by Atkinson based on Scottish folk melodies, "Master Tallis's testament" by Howells, two hymn preludes on "St Columba" by Stanford and Milford, and finally Boellmann's "Suite Gothique Op 25".
As with the dedication service, the recital was carefully designed to show off the range and capabilities of the new organ. Dr Kitchen expressed his delight at being able to play a part in the celebration of such an important occasion for St Columba's Church, and said that we now possessed one of the finest pipe organs in Edinburgh.
Thanks are due to everyone who contributed to the project, especially to the organ builder Sandy Edmonstone. Long may the Edmonstone instrument play!