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Home  >  Features  >  Looking Back: St Columbas

Looking Back

Friday January 15

Looking Back: The New St Columba's

The new St Columba's Church of Scotland in London was dedicated in December 1955, replacing the previous building destroyed during the blitz. In the following month's Life and Work, Scottish author Augustus Muir gave his impressions.



IT happened, by chance, that I first saw the new St. Columba’s on Saint Andrew’s Day – a day when winter sunlight seemed to be just behind the fine web of mist that touched with magic the London scene. As I walked slowly along the north side of Pont Street and the church came into view, my eye travelled upward over stone fresh from cutting-saw and craftsman’s chisel and I felt at once that the spirit of the new St. Columba’s is gracious and quiet and strong.

You would, I think, agree that there is a fine restraint in those areas of unpierced masonry, and in the upward sweep of the single Romanesque arch over the entrance, and in the square tower that is a bastion at the corner of intersecting roadways. And to the air of these London streets it imparts a Scottish tang. Even the roof on the tower, the so-called “bothy roof,” brings to mind many an old roof on the Fife coast – it has, indeed, the Minister suggested, a touch of Culross about it. And below the Cross of Christ is the cross of St. Andrew, both on the same tree.

Before you, as you enter, you will see, cut in stone, the figure of Saint Columba standing in the coracle that carried him from Ireland to Iona. In the wall at one side is a piece of marble quarried from Columba’s Isle and at the other a stone from St. Andrew’s Cathedral; Scotland is thus compassed in symbol from the west coast to the east.

Within the entrance is preserved the foundation-stone of the old church, a tragic and beloved relic of the building that was destroyed on the night of 10th May, 1941. Above the chiselled seat of Ancaster stone, and beneath the cross held by angelic figures, are these words: My house shall be called a house of prayer.

Before you have lingered long in this entrance hall, you will perceive that St. Columba’s is alive with much business. Here the Deaconness has her office where problems are smoothed out. Across the passage the Minister’s office is large enough to absorb the noise of typewriters, the telephone bell, the metallic clatter of filing-cabinets, and voices that have a note of urgency.

For the Scots community

The Minister took me downstairs. Around us were the rooms, completed over two years ago, where the work of the community has been carried on while the church was being build overhead. There is the Laigh Hall, where nearly a thousand folk can assemble, with its cinema equipment and its stage for dramatic productions.

In a small chapel, for the use of small companies, one cannot fail to be moved by the very lovely atmosphere of devotion.

Upstairs on the gallery level of the church is the Kirk Session Room, its walls lined with Elders’ stalls in waxed oak, the Minister’s own carved with the burning bush and the familiar motto.

Nearby are the two choir vestries and the Minister’s room, above is the Deaconess’s flat. High in the tower is the Columbarium, the resting place of the ashes of the dead, the dark wood of its two hundred niches touched with gold, and in the ceiling is the silver constellation of the Plough and the Pole Star set against the blue of a sky, the whole carefully oriented so that the Pole Star points to Scotland. In the wall has been placed the mosaic panel that was salved from the crypt of the old church, and the floor is of rare Italian marble. There is peace in this hallowed chamber high above the noise of London traffic.

A noble dream

The Minister led the way down into his new church. There was an urgency, almost a tension in the movements of the workmen, the electricians, the craftsmen, who were hurrying to make all ready for the Dedication Service four days later. The noise of their tools, the sound of their feet, detracted not a jot from the impression made upon me by a soaring splendour of stone and lime, the coming true of the dream of a great Christian artist. Has Sir Edward Maufe ever created more finely?

The light pours in upon the pale stone and plaster of columns and walls and ceiling, upon the unstained oak of pews, upon the soft fawn sheen of travertine baptismal font and chancel floor, upon the Ancaster stone of the pulpit and upon the long oak Communion table.

There is much to note, much to think on: but your eye will most surely come to rest upon the rose-window, the work of Moira Forsyth, high on the chancel wall.

There, it seems to shimmer with the blue of Hebridean seas. Within its frame the artist has caught up the whole of creation and the Incarnation itself. This window, made lovingly from segments of glass as pellucid as the glass of medieval craftsmen, will be an inspiration to the thousands who will worship under it.

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