Continuing my occasional series looking at some of the particular features of Edinburgh's graveyards and burial grounds (part I, part II, part III) - this entry focuses on one grave in particular. It's known locally as the grave of the three Roberts - but I'm going to make the case for why I think that's numerically inaccurate, and why at least one more Robert should be associated with it...
The grave is in the Canongate Kirkyard, one of the five major burial grounds within Edinburgh's UNESCO World Heritage Site. You'll find it to the left hand side of the Canongate kirk, under a cherry tree, and with roses growing in front of it.
Here's the story of its three (or more) Roberts...
THE FIRST ROBERT
The first Robert associated with the grave is the one actually buried in it. Robert Fergusson was a young poet, born in Edinburgh on 5 September 1750. He was educated at St Andrews University and by 1768, at the age of 18, was back in Edinburgh and responsible for looking after his mother, following the death of his father.
Mixing with the social classes of Edinburgh at that time, Fergusson found favour with actor and theatre manager William Woods who gave him regular access to the Edinburgh's theatres, and the attendant community of writers and poets who plied their trade in the Old Town.
Fergusson began contributing satirical poems to the Weekly Review, and acquired a reputation for his use of Scots, the language of Scotland which had fallen out of favour during the middle of the eighteenth century. By 1773 he had published his first collection, in an edition of 500 copies which rapidly sold out.
During 1774 Fergusson fell into a melancholic state, experiencing what we might today recognise as symptoms of severe depression, and his writing became similarly maudlin. Whether it was merely fear or a premonition, he began to obsess about the prospect of dying in an asylum, after hearing about (and writing a poem for) the poet John Cunningham who had died in a Newcastle hospital in 1773.
Perhaps Fergusson turned to alcohol as a means of alleviating the symptoms or the experience of his illness, as he was believed to have got drunk one evening and fallen down one of the staircases of Edinburgh's Old Town. In the process he suffered a brain injury which saw him taken to Darien House, which was the official name of the city's asylum... The building stood near where the Bedlam Theatre building is today - the name of the theatre taken from the Bethlehem Hospitals for the insane, which gives us the meaning of bedlam (for disordered or chaotic).
It was at the asylum that Fergusson died, on 16 October 1774. He was just 24 years old.
THE SECOND ROBERT
The second Robert associated with the grave is Robert Burns, who at the time that Fergusson was writing was beginning to write poetry himself. He was writing in English originally, but was inspired by Fergusson's writing to experiment in Scots - the language had a different meter, a different rhythm, more musicality...
Robert Burns would later become celebrated as the national poet of Scotland, and is today one of the most iconic Scots figures with global recognition of his work. There are more statues of Robert Burns around the world than any other writer except William Shakespeare.
After Fergusson's death Burns was always keen to ensure that people knew he was only a poet because of Fergusson's influence. He never tried to deny the impact Fergusson's writing had had on his own, and modern scholars have even suggested that Fergusson may have developed into a better poet even than Burns - what Fergusson was writing in his twenties was at least as good as what Burns was writing by the time he died.
So if he had lived, today we might have been celebrating Robert Fergusson as Scotland's national poet, instead of Robert Burns...
Thirteen years after Fergusson's death Burns commissioned a stone to mark the site of Fergusson's burial, which had originally been an unmarked grave in the Canongate kirkyard, and he wrote the four line epitaph on the grave stone itself.
THE THIRD ROBERT
The third Robert associated with the grave is Robert Louis Stevenson, another writer who was born in Edinburgh and used the city as inspiration for much of his own writing.
Born in 1850, a full century after Fergusson, Stevenson grew up in the New Town and would have been reading Fergusson's poems with the hindsight of knowing about the full panoply of writers and artists who had been influenced by Fergusson's use of Scots language.
Stevenson especially felt kinship with Fergusson's experiences of physical and mental illness, and in a letter sent in April 1891 he wrote:
"Ah! what bonds we have – born in the same city; both sickly, […] wearing shoe-leather on the same ancient stones, under the same pends, down the same closes [...] Command me to do [...] so that another monument (after Burns’s) be set up to my unhappy predecessor on the causey of Auld Reekie. You will never know, nor will any man, how deep this feeling is: I believe Fergusson lives in me."
Sadly Stevenson would die before he was able to make the memorial to Fergusson, his namesake predecessor with whom he felt such a strong connection. But a plaque at the grave today describes Stevenson's intentions, helping to give the grave its moniker - the grave of the three Roberts.
However, at least two other Roberts linked to the grave deserve mention, too!
THE FOURTH ROBERT
The fourth Robert is the architect Robert Burn (father of William Burn), who was commissioned by Robert Burns to create the original grave stone for Fergusson's burial site.
At that time, Robert Burn was starting out as an architect, and it's not clear why Burns chose him over the many other stonemasons and artisan builders in the city at that time - nor is it apparent why it took Burn two years to produce the grave stones that Burns had commissioned!
Later Burn would produce the Nelson Monument at the top of Calton Hill, visible from Fergusson's grave, and possibly he considered producing a few stones for a dead poet to be a bit beneath him.
Regardless, when Robert Burns received the bill for it he sat on it for two years, before writing a letter suggesting that as it had taken two years for Burn to produce the stones, and as he had spent two years withholding payment for the work, perhaps they could consider the matter settled...!
THE FIFTH ROBERT
Yet another Robert has a link to Fergusson's grave. Because the stone which stands today is not the original stone - it is a replacement which was installed in 1850.
The renovation of the original stone was organised by a local man named Robert Gilfillan. Like Burns he was also a member of the Freemasons, and was a songwriter, as well as contributing various writings to local magazines like Blackwoods.
Gilfillan led the collection of public funds to pay for the replacement stone on Fergusson's grave, and died just a few months after the work was undertaken, in December 1850. (It's worth noting that the stone from 1850 records Robert Fergusson's date of birth incorrectly - he was born in 1750, not 1751 as the stone indicates.)
So there you have it! Edinburgh's grave of the three Roberts, which actually has at least five Roberts associated with it...
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Of the five major graveyards in the centre of Edinburgh, there is one which regularly gets visited on my tours as a shortcut or thoroughfare between other parts of the city, but rarely features as a site or location in its own right.
St Cuthbert's kirkyard in the New Town is on the oldest continually used site of worship in the whole city. St Cuthbert himself is believed to have settled a small chapel on this site back in the seventh century - and has a number of features and graves that are worth examining.
The church itself is where the crime writer Agatha Christie married her second husband, in 1930. Having been divorced from her first husband, Christie's second marriage was a runaway affair, with the couple eloping northwards from England to Edinburgh, where the service was conducted without friends or family, and just two strangers brought off the street to act as witnesses to the ceremony.
Christie at that time was 40, and the man she was marrying, Max Mallowan, was 26 - a fourteen-year age gap which was considered scandalous by some at that time. There is some speculation that they both lied about their ages on the marriage licence in order to reduce the age difference to a more socially acceptable level. (Mallowan was an archaeologist, which led some to suggest - rather unkindly - that the reason he'd married Christie was that the older she got, the more interesting he would find her...!)
Burials at the graveyard include John Napier, the mathematician who discovered logarithms and invented a device for easily calculating large sums - and a precursor to the pocket calculator - which became known as 'Napier's Bones' because the instruments were originally carved from bone or ivory.
Napier's family home was at Merchiston, near Bruntsfield to the south of the city centre, and the estate property is today one of the campuses of Napier University, one of Edinburgh's four universities.
You can also find the grave of Jessie MacDonald, granddaughter of Flora MacDonald who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie - the Young Pretender of the Jacobite Uprisings - escape Scotland after his defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.
Buried on the eastern wall of the graveyard is Henry Raeburn, one of Scotland's foremost portrait painters in the eighteenth century, whose estate property at Stockbridge gives that suburb the name of its main street, Raeburn Place.
During the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries graverobbing became a significant issue in Edinburgh's burial grounds, thanks in part to the efforts of people like William Burke and William Hare, who become notorious for selling illegally acquired corpses to the University of Edinburgh's medical school.
As part of the efforts to stem the bodysnatching epidemic, watch towers were built in several of the city's graveyards, including at St Cuthbert's. The cream-coloured sandstone structure stands adjacent to Lothian Road at the western side of the graveyard, and from here armed guards would have been able to patrol the grounds to ward off would-be grave robbers.
Today the watch tower serves as a quirky office space which is rented out to local businesses.
Also buried in the graveyards is George Meikle Kemp, the self-taught architect whose major gift to the city fo Edinburgh was the 'gothic rocket' of the Scott Monument, in Princes Street Gardens.
Kemp died before the monument was completed - his body was discovered floating in the canal to the west of the city - and his son oversaw the completion of the monument. Kemp's grave can be found in the central portion of St Cuthbert's kirkyard.
You'll also find a small memorial mounted on the western side of the church building itself, bearing the initials RTM. Robert Tait Mackenzie was a Canadian doctor and artist who created the memorial known as The Call - 1914, which commemorates the Scots soldiers who were killed or injured during the First World War.
The monument itself can be found nearby in Princes Street Gardens, and Mackenzie originally wanted to be buried in front of the memorial after his death. Unfortunately, Edinburgh Council's restrictions on the use of public spaces for the disposal or interment of human remains made such a request impossible, so instead Mackenzie's heart was buried in St Cuthbert's kirkyard, with a small decorative plaque commemorating his life.
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Edinburgh's graveyards are always a popular feature on my tours, but I tend to steer clear of the ghosts and ghouls whose stories generally populate visits to such spaces. I previously wrote about my Grave Concerns featuring five Edinburgh graves, and then some curious features of Edinburgh graveyards in Grave Concerns II - and now here are five more graves that have stories to tell! (Grave Concerns IV explores one particular grave, the grave of the three Roberts...)
David Octavius Hill
Hill was an early pioneer of photography, and in the 1840s along with Robert Adamson he created some of the earliest surviving photographic images in the world, many of them views of Edinburgh, from their studio on Calton Hill.
Some of these images feature in my walking tours, and they provide an invaluable insight into what Edinburgh was like in the middle of the nineteenth century, and show just how much (or how little) parts of it have changed.
Hill's second wife was Amelia Robertson Paton, herself an artist and sculptor who exhibited work at the Royal Academy, and who carved several of the decorative figures on the iconic Scott Monument in Princes Street Gardens.
When Hill died in 1870, Amelia Hill produced a bronze likeness of her husband's head to stand over his grave, as it still does today. Amelia was buried alongside her husband, under her sculpture of him, in the Dean Cemetery, to the north west of the city centre.
George Buchanan was one of Scotland's greatest thinkers and academics during the sixteenth century, at a crucial time in the nation's history.
Having been born in Stirlingshire in 1506, as a teenager Buchanan studied abroad at the University of Paris and he held professorial positions in a number of European universities before returning to Scotland in 1537.
King James V of Scotland employed Buchanan as a private tutor to his son James, and later would teach the king's daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots.
Buchanan was a Catholic but also supported the rise of Protestantism across Europe, and in 1567 he was appointed moderator of the General Assembly of the post-Reformation Church of Scotland. He became the personal tutor to Mary's son, soon to be James VI of Scotland, and is held responsible for the boy's devout adoption of the Protestant faith, as well as his fierce obsession with the supernatural and witchcraft.
Buchanan died in Edinburgh in 1582 and was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard. The stone and decorative panel above his grave today is a later replacement of the original stone.
Not all of Edinburgh's burials are in the city graveyards - to the south of the city in the residential area of Bruntsfield is the grave of John Livingston, a seventeenth-century apothecary or chemist who died of the plague - known as the Black Death - in 1645.
It's likely that Livingston caught the disease from the patients he treated. Many of the city's plague victims were buried in communal graves beyond the city boundary, in the area today known as Morningside, in order to try to stop the spread of the disease through the city's population.
Shortly before his death Livingston had bought an expansive property set in an area of its own land between Bruntsfield and Morningside, a glorious rural setting between the city and the countryside where he planned to retire and live a life of comfort. Unfortunately he only lived at the property for nine years before contracting the plague, and was buried as per his wishes in the grounds of the property.
Over time that property was divided up and sold and turned into a popular residential district, and Livingston's grave remained a contentious feature of the local area even until fairly recently.
William Hey Hodgson
Never heard of William Hey Hodgson? That's okay, there's probably no reason why you should know his name! The story with this grave doesn't relate to the person buried so much as the circumstances of the death and burial.
Hodgson was a doctor from northern England, who was probably in Scotland on holiday or for work. What we do know is that - according to his grave in the New Calton Burial Ground - he was "unfortunately drowned in the Firth of Forth by the upsetting of a boat".
I was amused by this initially as I thought it seemed like an unnecessary level of detail - unless it was clarifying that he wasn't drowned as a result of being held under against his will! But on closer inspection I found another detail (which is the whole reason I point this stone out to visitors)...
The Firth of Forth is the body of water which boundaries Edinburgh to the north, the tidal estuary of the river Forth as it flows into the North Sea. But on Hodgson's grave, the text actually described him being "unfortunately drowned" in the Frith of Forth - the misspelling almost as unfortunate as the accident itself.
Poor William Hey Hodgson - not just unfortunately drowned, but spending the whole afterlife with a spelling mistake on his grave!
Lyon had arrived in Edinburgh from Prussia (now part of Germany) in the 1780s, and was a Jewish dentist and chiropodist who practiced from his rooms on the Canongate, on the Royal Mile.
In 1795 Lyon bought a plot of ground to use as his family's mausoleum - at that time the city had no Jewish burial ground, and Lyon's plot was the first recorded Jewish burial in the city. It cost him £17, which was a significant sum of money in the late eighteenth century.
It was also notable for being on the top of Calton Hill! The council were entertaining ideas of turning the hill into a necropolis, and Lyon was the first person to agree a bill of sale for a plot of land. Shortly thereafter the council's plans changed, and an observatory was built instead - but Lyon's ownership of his piece of land was legally binding, and on his death Lyon was buried in his subterranean mausoleum, along with his wife.
The entrance to the burial is hidden from view, overgrown with grass and kept (deliberately) concealed from public access, but it is on the northern edge of the summit of the hill, just beyond the wall of the observatory.
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I try to celebrate some of Edinburgh's notable and significant figures on my tours of the city, but sometimes it's hard to put a positive spin on historical events...
The story of Burke and Hare is a popular one with many of the companies who specialise in tales of death and suffering, and I occasionally tell it too - even if these men were not exactly heroes, they left their mark on the city and ought to be noted if not celebrated!
First of all, Williams Burke and Hare are often described as grave robbers, and whilst it's not for me to try to paint them in a more positive light, in their defence they never robbed a grave in their lives. What they ought be described as is serial killers, who sought to profit from a curious set of circumstances in which, as Walter Scott put it:
"a wretch who is not worth
The context to the story is that Edinburgh's medical school was one of Europe's foremost centres of investigation for the study of the human body, study done chiefly through anatomical dissections of bodies of people who had died in the workhouses, in the prisons and hospitals, or at the end of the executioner's rope. Such was the reputation of the university that by the nineteenth century their demand for cadavers outpaced the supply, and the university had started offering cash for the provision of corpses for their medical students.
Donating the body of a loved one saved on the cost of a burial (which could be prohibitively expensive) and could earn the family donating it up to £10 in cash. At a time when £14 per year was considered a good salary for a domestic servant, and with many of Edinburgh's residents living in destitution, this cash incentive had led to the rise of body snatchers stealing corpses from the graveyards in order to turn a profit. In places like Greyfriars Kirkyard you can find the mortsafes developed to help protect bodies from being dug up.
Hence Burke and Hare's inaccurate reputation as grave robbers. In reality, having both worked as labourers on the Union Canal, built to connect Glasgow and Edinburgh between 1817 and 1822, neither of these men wanted to do any more digging. Instead they went straight to source for their supply of fresh meat.
Their first victim was a resident at William Hare's lodging house on Tanner's Close, a lane which ran off the West Port, at the western end of the Grassmarket.
An old soldier who had been staying with Hare and his wife died in his sleep in November 1826, owing the couple £3 in rent. Instead of allowing the body to be given a burial, Hare suggested they take it to the medical school, and see if they could claw back the money owed to them. To their delight, the university paid £7 for the old soldier's corpse, and suddenly William Hare was £4 up on the deal...
Over the next year Burke and Hare would go on to murder 16 people, in order to sell their bodies to the medical school. The victims were quite diverse in profile, a combination of men and women, both visitors to the city and local people, at least one child, and ranging in age from 12 years to old age.
The typical method of killing that they utilised was to lure their victims with the offer of alcohol, get them drunk enough to subdue them, and then suffocate them using a method which became known as 'Burking' - one of the men would kneel astride the victim's chest, restricting their movement and pinning their arms to their sides, while the other put a hand over the nose and mouth to cut off the air supply. The bodies would then be transported in a barrel or a chest to the medical school, where they would exchange the body for cash.
Their last victim was killed on 31 October 1828, and following a brief police investigation, both Burke and Hare and their respective wives were arrested four days later.
William Hare agreed to turn kings evidence against his friend William Burke, providing testimony that would convict him in exchange for leniency in his own case. He could not be compelled to provide evidence against his own wife, so instead it was William Burke and his wife Helen who stood trial for one single murder - the only death for which it was felt they had sufficient evidence available to secure a conviction - and the case came to trial at the Parliament Hall on Christmas Eve 1828.
The Scottish legal system at that time held that once a case was started, it should continue without interruption until a verdict is given, and so the Burke murder trial ran through Christmas Eve, and into the early hours of Christmas Day.
Witnesses - including James Braidwood, who had established the world's first fire service - provided little in the way of what we would think of as forensic evidence, but nevertheless at 8.30am on Christmas Day the jury retired to consider its verdict, returning less than an hour later to pronounce William Burke guilty, but find his wife not proven of any involvement in the murder.
Burke's sentence was to be publicly hanged, and thereafter for his body to be donated to the medical school for dissection - a peculiarly apt form of poetic justice, perhaps!
And so it was that on 28 January 1829, William Burke was hanged on the square outside St Giles' Cathedral, attracting a crowd in excess of 25,000 people. Thereafter his corpse was taken to the medical school at the Old College, where it was dissected by the head of the university's anatomy school, Professor Alexander Monro. Burke's skeleton was kept and preserved as an anatomical teaching aid, and can be viewed today at the University of Edinburgh's anatomical museum.
Barely three years later the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1832 formalised the process by which bodies could be provided for anatomical dissection, and made it illegal for cash payments to be made for medical donations.
As the incentive to dig up bodies had now been removed, the epidemic of grave robbings came to an end, and Edinburgh's graveyards once again became places where loved ones could rest in peace.
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