When William Chambers was planning his great restoration of St Giles’ in 1871, he decided that the best architect to employ was William Hay. The son of grain merchant in Peterhead, in the north of Scotland, Hay had begun his career there and then moved to Edinburgh before joining in 1846 the prestigious London firm of George Gilbert Scott, leading architect of the Gothic Revival. He was immediately put in charge of building the new Anglican cathedral of St John’s in Newfoundland, recruiting British tradesmen for the task before sailing to Canada with his wife. He later advised on designs for the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Hamilton, Bermuda.
After a brief return to Scotland, he decided in about 1853 to settle in Toronto, where he gained a fine
reputation for designing handsome Gothic Revival buildings. One of his students, Henry Langley, became the most prolific church architect in Ontario. However, on the death of his wife in 1860, Hay abruptly sold his very lucrative practice. He worked briefly in Bermuda again, and in Halifax, before returning to Scotland to establish a successful practice in Edinburgh.
At first people were wary of plans for the Chambers Restoration, but Queen Victoria sent a donation of £200 to the appeal fund and by the time the project was nearing completion, Hay noted that crowds of people even from England and America were flocking in to see what was being done, and he was constantly stopped on the street and questioned by individuals he had never met.
He died in 1888, five years after the completion of the Chambers Restoration, and is commemorated by a memorial plaque in St Giles’.