A brief history of St Colm’s Missionary College, Edinburgh

Chapel at St Colm’s College, Edinburgh

In 1963 my mother Rosalie Jean Brydon attended St Colm’s Missionary College, Church of Scotland in Edinburgh ahead of working for four years as a midwife in India. (You can read about her Indian adventues in her book Rosalie: In her own words.)

St Colm’s was a hugely important and spiritually forming experience for Mum. She often spoke fondly of her time at Colm’s and throughout her life would attend reunions and keep up with the other missionaries she met there.

Mum was delighted when I started my studies at the Theological Institute of the Scottish Episcopal Church (TISEC) in 1997 which for the first few months was housed at St Colm’s, before it moved to Old Coates House next to St Mary’s Cathedral on Palmerston Place. I got to worship in the same wee chapel that Mum did 34 years before me.

While sorting through some of Mum’s papers recently, I found a booklet written by Jean Fraser, printed in February 1962 giving the reader a brief history of St Colm’s as well as a practical tour through the building.

I thought this information would be better in the public domain for any interested in the history of this predominantly women’s missionary college.

Download PDF

For this section, I took the liberty of reordering some of the information to make the order of subsections consistent with one another.

History of St Colm’s College, Church of Scotland

I. Church of Scotland (pre-union)

1887—Deaconess house and missionary training institute established by direction of the General Assembly, under the care of the Committee on Christian Life and Work, and practical direction of the Deaconess House Board. (The order of deaconesses and Women’s Guild were established by the same Assembly under the inspiration of Dr Charteris.)

Students came from the Church of Scotland and Presbyterian Church in Ireland and served in home, foreign and Jewish mission fields.


1893-1894, 27 George Square, Edinburgh.


  • 1888-1911, Miss Mary Maxwell, DCS
  • 1911-1921, Miss Mary Lamond, DCS
  • 1921-1933, Dr Mary Dodds, OBE, DCS

Practical work

Practical work in connection with The Mission Buildings, 140 Pleasance which later became the Charteris Memorial Church, and from 1894 The Deaconess Hospital, Pleasance (for those who desired general nursing and midwifery training following home or foreign missionary training).

II. Free Church and United Free Church (pre-union)

1894—The Women’s Missionary Training Institute founded by the Committee of the Women’s Missionary Society of the Free Church of Scotland and directed by an independent committee.


  • 1894-1897, 31 George Square, Edinburgh
  • 1897-1909, 16 Atholl Crescent, Edinburgh
  • 1909-[2010], 23 Inverleith Terrace, Edinburgh


Miss Annie Hunter Small

Practical work

Fountainbridge, Free St David’s, after 1909, Stockbridge area, Davidson Church and St Bernard’s South (later St Bernard’s Davidson).

1901—Kindergarten opened (re-opened after move in 1915).

1909—Move to 23 Inverleith Terrace, built for the purpose. Now named Women’s Missionary College. Students come from many continental countries as well as Scotland, Ireland and England.

1910—Delegates to the World Missionary Conference were guests at the college.

1913—Miss Florence Mackenzie, Principal.

Committee reconstituted with representatives of founders, women’s foreign mission and home mission. Training of Church Sisters begins.

1916—Committee further extended to include representatives of all committees employing women agents.

1917—Moubray House, High Street opened for additional experience in home mission work.

1920—Youth committee helps to finance extension to building and new member of staff to develop youth work. House orderlies from continent introduced. Training now being given for foreign mission, home mission, Sunday school and club work.

III. Union of St Ninian’s and St Colm’s, 1929-1934

1929—Union of Church of Scotland and United Free Church leads to scheme for linking the two women’s training institutions as The Church of Scotland Women’s Missionary College with two residences:

The Church of Scotland Institute of Missionary Training and Deaconess House becomes St Ninian’s.

The United Free Church Women’s Missionary College becomes St Colm’s.

A joint education committee deals with appointments, policy and finance. The resident teaching staff of both houses for a staff council.

IV. St Colm’s

1934—Scheme of Unification approved for five years experimentally.

Residence and training centred in the Women’s Missionary College, St Colm’s.

Practical training to include both Stockbridge and Charteris Memorial Church plus other areas if desired.

Board of management reconstituted to represent all committees contributing to the college.

The college would report to the General Assembly [of the Church of Scotland] through the Committee on Christian Life and Social Work.

1939—Miss Helen Macnicol, missionary in Poona [India] becomes Principal.

1942—Constitution approved by the General Assembly, confirming general policy of 1934.

1949—Church Sisters and deaconesses amalgamated in Order of Deaconesses.

1951—Dr Olive Wyon success Miss Macnicol as Principal. Education curriculum reorganised.

1954—the Rev. Frank Ryrie appointed as first full-time male member of staff. 24 Inverleith Terrace purchased as men’s residence.

1955—Miss Celia M Calder, Principal. Dead of Miss Calder. Miss Jean M Fraser, Principal.

1960—New constitution approved by General Assembly. Name of college now officially St Colm’s College, Church of Scotland.

College reports to General Assembly directly and no longer through Committee on Social Service.

The following section guides the visitor to St Colm’s through the building at 23 Inverleith Terrace.

A tour of St Colm’s

Aerial view of the former St Colm’s College building (source: Google Maps)

Foundation stone

The Foundation Stone gives the dates 17 October 1908 and 18 October 1909 of the beginning and completion of the college building which we remember at commemoration each year.

The dove was the symbol ot the United Free Church, the burning bush represents the presbyterian tradition.


The building was designed as a missionary college in the light of the experience of living first at 31 George Square (1894-97), now Masson Hall, and then at 16 Atholl Crescent (1897-1909), a former finishing school for young ladies.

Miss Small wrote, “We knew when we built it what was required for our purposes and built accordingly” thanks to the help of the friend and architect Mr Gordon Wright. The cost was about £5,000.

The original building went as far back as the kitchen and had a flat roof where the west top corridor now is. The (present) lecture room and upwards and the west top corridor were built in 1920 by funds raised by Miss May McKerrow of the Youth Committee to provide for additional youthwork.

Twenty-four Inverleith Terrace was acquired in 1954 for men students, their wives and children, for whom training had been begun experimentally in 1950.


The garden was laid out by Miss Geddes, a pioneer woman landscape gardener in Scotland, who also laid out the zoo gardens. Trees were planted on the occasion of the college opening in 1909 by members of the committee, the staff, house staff and students. The lawn, originally a tennis court, was later used for croquet and the new tennis court made. In the south west corner of the lawn, under a weeping willow tree, the College dog, Sam, was buried in 1915 alongside two canaries and a budgerigar.

The summer house was given by students working in India.

The house

Many friends, former students and staff contributed the furnishing of the house and Miss Small used “the happy phrase of a friend” in describing the result as a home of “austere comfort”. The woodwork is said to be from a salvaged shipload of mahogany.

The hall

The letterbox outside the front door with the words “Nisi dominus frusta” (Except the Lord build the house they labour in vain that build it) was carved and presented by Miss Mary Warrack.

The mahogany table and chairs in the hall came from the house of Mrs Cleghorn, one of the founders.

The picture of the sheep was the gift of delegates to the World Missionary Conference 1910, who stayed in the house. Their names are on the brass plate.

The picture of Christ and the children was given by students from the Continent.

The electric clock was the gift of Miss Lusk when she left in 1961.

The dinner gong was presented by the women of the Dean Church.

The Cairns Room

The Cairns Room is called after the Rev. Dr W T Cairns, DD, minister of Davidson Church, Eyre Place (later united with South St Bernard’s as St Bernard’s-Davidson). Dr Cairns was chairman of the college board for many years. His sister was secretary of the house committee when the college was opened.

The pictures are of pioneers of home and foreign missions:

  • Dr Chalmers of the Disruption, a churchman, champion of the freedom of the church in all that concerns here immediate life and service; a Christian patriot, champion of social order which should give to every man, woman and child born within it a true chance for a true life.
  • Dr Alexander Duff, founder of higher education in India and in particular of the Scottish Church College in Calcutta.
  • Dr William Laws, missionary pioneer in Livingstonia and moderator of the United Free Church when he laid the foundation stone of the college.


The library served also as a lecture room until the closing of the kindergarten in 1954.

The pencil sketch is of Miss Annie Hunter Small, principal of the college from its foundation in 1894 until 1913.

The cupboard with the glass door contains college records from the beginning.

Below the Islam section there are leather-bound volumes of early travels in India with fine engravings.

Dining room

The pictures around the walls were originally done in 1907 by a student, Gertrude Briggs (London Missionary Society, China) to illustrate The Pilgrim’s Progress for the district kitchen meeting. They are crayoned on brown frieze paper. “The drawings were in the form of a roll, and as night by inight a new picture was added, it proved a great help to the women in making Christian’s journey more real to them.”

In 1914 an exhibition of the pictures of Mr John Duncan, RA was held in the college. Following this, the artist lent the college a picture of “Christ by the Sea of Galilee” which used to hang on the stairs and is now in store in the loft. It was bought for the college by Mrs Alexander Whyte. The picture of St Bride of the Isles, also by John Duncan, was presented by Miss Warrack in 1916. It is the water colour cartoon for an oil painting in the National Gallery.

The kindergarten was held here from 1915 until the extension was built in 1920.

Lecture room

The lecture room was used as a kindergarten from 1920-54. Hence the low pegs and nursery pictures in the lobby.

Common room

The common room, which was planned, largely furnished and lovingly arranged by Mrs Freeland Barbour, is associated especially with the names of our founders, Miss Rainy and Mrs Cleghorn, to whom the Japanese cabinet belonged.

The present piano was given by Mr Guthrie, elder of Stockbridge Church and grandson of the philanthropist whose statue is in Princes Street Gardens. It succeeded another which had belonged to Mrs Cleghorn and had been in the Prince Consort’s private sitting room at Holyrood Palace on the occasion of his last visit.

The present pictures were bought from student funds 1954-1955 and replace Dawn, Sir Galahad, The Knight in Armour and The Young Ruler. The round table was the gift of Miss Mackenzie’s mother, Lady Russell. The radiogram was purchased by students in 1961 with a gift from a former member of staff.

Student rooms

Miss Small writes, “It was advertised that the donor of the cost of furnishing any student’s room should have the privilege of naming it. There was a generous response with somewhat disconcerting result that names are to be found above doors which carry to us no association whatsoever.” However, she gives details of some of them:

Room 5. Catherine Little was given as a home mission room by women of the United Free Church in memory of a worker of the Scottish Episcopal Church.

Room 6. Jessie Horsburgh was given by a dear old country gentleman in memory of his wife. “To his wife’s memory – and he only wished that she had been more interested in missions – he gave this room. And, as his wife was a wee woman, he would like to think that the students inhabiting her would be wee women too.”

  • Room 8, Iona was provided by money raised by students for the chapel fund.
  • Room 9, St Bridgid was given by the Irish students.
  • Room 10, Queen Margaret “represents the ideal women of Scotland.”
  • Room 11, Redland Green was given by baptists in honour of Mrs Campagnac, a baptist missionary.
  • Room 12, Wellsgreen and room 21 Courthill both “represent the love of one friend for another.”
  • Room 15, St Hilda, the English room, is named after the abbess Hilda of Whitby.
  • Room 16, Agnes Henderson was given in honour of a medical missionary, with the hope that any medical students should have her room.
  • Office and rooms 27a, 30 and 34, the close association of the Girls’ Auxiliary (later Girls’ Association) with the college is shown by the office and room numbers 27a, 30 and 34, all called after prebyterial girls’ auxiliaries.


Funds to build the chapel were raised by past and present students by their own gifts, by gifts from friends and by singing – programmes of music, largely Indian, collected and arranged by Miss Small.

Iona earth and sand were sprinkled beneath the stone floor of the chapel and laid in the foundation stone to “express our allegiance to the spirit of the missionary who is our spiritual father”.

Other articles placed in the cavity of the foundation stone were:

  • docurnents placed by the committee;
  • an attar of roses phial symbolising the alabaster cruse of Mary;
  • copies of college literature and a group photo;
  • a sheet of paper with the signatures of staff and students at that time.

The stained glass window was given by Miss Small in memory of her father, a missionary in Poona [now Pune], India. It is the only piece of stained glass known to have been made by the Edinburgh artist William Hole, famous for his Bible illustrations (copies in the Cairns Room cupboard). It depicts the risen Christ crowned with the thorns and the laurel.

Along the rocky path are the rose of England, the shamrock of Irelend and the thistle of Scotland – representing the first students. The mountains of Africa and the temples of Asia represent the world to which the gospel must be preached.

The words chosen as the college motto by Miss Small and the first students are above and below: “He calleth His own by name and leadeth them out. When He hath put forth all His own. He goeth before them. They follow Him for they know His voice.” (Adapted from John 10.) Below is the memorial to Miss Small herself.


The founders commemorated are described by Miss Small:

“Miss Rainy was our true founder, our college wa her dream. Miss Rainy was a sister to Principal Rainy of New College [University of Edinburgh].”

Mrs Cleghorn, “daughter and wife of famous lawyers … cared above all things for the bringing of the Kingdom of Christ … When a suggestion was made for any advance, she regarded the thing as done, since it must be done.”

Mr Stevenson served as secretary of the college “lovingly and untiringly from its foundation until his death in 1916. Dr J Hood Wilson and the Rev R G Balfour were first and second chairmen of the college committee. Their portraits and that of Dr George Steven, minister of South St Bernard’s and long-etanding friend
of the college, are kept among the pictures in the telephone room.

Memorial tablet

The memorial tablet commemorates the first students who died. This roll of honour is continued in the oak triptych on the back wall which carved, inscribed and presented by the Rev. Harry Moir in 1930, who succeeded Dr Steven at South St Bernard’s. When those pages were full, the memorial book was begun and the back windowsill case made in 1961. The names have been inscribed by Miss Peggy Kilgour, DCS who also made the book.


The furniture was designed and made in the factory of the father of Miss Hammer. The design of the celtic knot comes from the ruined chapel at Glencarse. The stall chairs were given by Miss Florence Mackenzie, principal 1913-39.

Marble relief

The marble relief of Jesus and St John was given by Miss Grace Warrack and brought from Florence. Miss Warrack’s sister Mary gave the baptismal font (kept in a Cairns Room cupboard).


The organ was Miss Small’s own and replaces one given by the United Free Girls’ Auxilliary, which is now in the library.


The symbols on the beam of the apse and in the light pendeents represent the Greek abbreviation of Jesus Christ: IHS XR.


The bookstand is in memory of Dr George Robson, a chairman of the college committee.

Brass lectern

The brass lectern was given by students in Africa.


The first bible was given by Mother Emma, head of St Andrew’s House, an Anglican community in Portsmouth and a close friend of Miss Small. The inscription, in Mother Emma’s handwriting, was by Dr [Randall Thomas] Davidson, later [96th] Archbishop of Canterbury [in 1903].

The Revised Version now in use was given by Miss Kate Hammer on her retirement in 1931. The memorial to her is the intercessions board outside the chapel door. She was on the staff from 1898 till 1931.

Chapel gong

The chapel gong, from a Burmese temple, came from the women of St James’ United Free Church.

Communion vessels

The communion vessels were given by Dr J H Oldham, who was secretary of the World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh 1910, and an additional platter by Miss Wyld, member of staff 1910-16.

(The chapel was originally intended to be “choir style”, with two rows of chairs on each side, facing each other. Miss Small gives a vivid and amusing account of how this scheme came to grief.)

In 1958 amd 1959, to commemorate Miss Small’s 100th birthday anniversary and the jubilee of the chapel, students, past and present, raised funds to redecorate the chapel and themselves stripped the varnish from the chairs.

Quotations are from Memories of Fifty Years, now out of print. Information is taken from this and from House Guild Letters and Reminiscences. Any additions or corrections will be welcome.

Jean Fraser, February 1962

Cover – Sibyl E Clarke

Published by

Gareth Saunders

I’m Gareth J M Saunders, 52 years old, 6′ 4″, father of 3 boys (including twins). Enneagram type FOUR and introvert (INFP), I am a non-stipendiary priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church, I sing with the NYCGB alumni choir, play guitar, play mahjong, write, draw and laugh… Scrum master at Safeguard Global; latterly at Sky and Vision/Cegedim. Former web architect and agile project manager at the University of St Andrews and previously warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.