With five old graveyards to explore within the city centre, the cemeteries and burial grounds of the city provide a wonderfully palpable connection to Edinburgh's past.
On the Canongate section of the Royal Mile stands the Canongate Kirk, and with it a graveyard bursting with interest. Here are just four of its famous burials...
Living in the nearby Panmure House, Adam Smith is one of the major figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, best known for his seminal work An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations - often shortened to simply The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776.
This book provided the first theories and descriptions of international trade policies, and Smith is rightly celebrated around the world as the father of modern economics (or father of capitalism, depending on your perspective).
On his death, Smith was buried in the graveyard just a stone's throw from his former home, and visitors with an interest in Smith and his writing can pay homage at the man's grave - where coins from around the world (literally the wealth of nations!) are often left - and at the recently restored Panmure House where he lived, now part of the Edinburgh Business School.
A friend and secretary to Mary Queen of Scots, Riccio was an Italian man who was not well liked in the court at Holyrood. It was felt that Mary maybe used him a little to closely for advice and support, and as a fellow Catholic he enjoyed a level of intimacy with Mary that others didn't.
In 1566, whilst Mary and Riccio were dining in her private chambers, a mob of men burst into the room and stabbed Riccio to death. It was one of the most brutal and bloody events of Mary's life, which was already not short on drama and tragedy, and in many ways was the inciting incident which led to Mary's eventual abdication and imprisonment.
The grave records this as being the 'traditional' site of Riccio's burial, but many consider this a highly unlikely circumstance - with no alternative contenders for the grave's occupancy, it remains something of a mystery!
Agnes was a married women who struck up a relationship with the writer Robert Burns, with whom she conducted a long correspondence. Both wrote their letters under pen names, to protect their modesty if the letters should ever be discovered or made public - she used the named Clarinda, and Burns took the name Sylvander. In this way they conducted a purely non-physical relationship, but one that affected the poet sufficiently that when Agnes left Edinburgh to join her husband in the West Indies, Burns was moved to write Ae Fond Kiss, one of his most romantic poems.
Agnes later returned to Edinburgh and is buried in the Canongate Kirkyard.
Another connection to Robert Burns is Robert Fergusson, a young poet who was writing poetry in Scots, the dialect of Scotland, at a time when it was deeply unfashionable to do so.
It was Fergusson who encouraged Burns to break away from writing in English and to adopt his 'mither tongue' in his writing. When Fergusson died at the tragically young age of just 24, Burns was moved to commemorate his friend by commissioning the original grave stone in the Canongate Kirkyard where Fergusson was buried.
Thus it was that Burns was set on the path of becoming Scotland's national poet!
Probably the most famous of Edinburgh's old graveyards, Greyfriars Kirkyard boasts views across the Old Town to Edinburgh Castle, as well as one of the most popular graves for visitors to seek out.
The graveyard is home to one of the city's best known residents, a dog called Greyfriars Bobby, whose legend which was immortalised in the 1960s when Disney made a film of Bobby's story. The popular tale tells how Bobby spent 14 years sleeping every night on the grave of his master, night watchman John Gray, earning him the reputation as man's most faithful friend. The reality of the situation is less romantic, but arguably more interesting! Join me for a tour to hear the alternative/real history of Greyfriars Bobby...
The graveyard also draws pilgrims seeking out inspirations for the Harry Potter stories, and within the graveyard you will find the grave of Professor McGonagall's namesake, Scotland's 'worst poet' William McGonagall, as well as the grave of 'Tom Riddle'... You'll also enjoy views to George Heriot's School, a building which is believed to have partially inspired the Hogwart's Academy from the Potter universe.
Other features of the area include the Covenanter's Prison, where scores of men, woman and children were held during the 'Killing Time' of the late seventeenth century, when religious martyrs protested against the new king Charles I, many of whom lost their lives along with many more who suffered for their beliefs. The tomb of George Mackenzie - known as 'Bluidy Mackenzie' for his persecution of these Covenanters - is reputed to be haunted by a lively poltergeist, and is accessible to the brave on some of the city's ghost tours...
The existing Greyfriars Kirk dates back to 1602, and burials have taken place here since shortly before that time, with some of those resting here including James Craig, the famed designer of Edinburgh's New Town (who died a pauper), James Hutton, the 'father of modern geology', and John Porteous, who gave his name to the riots in 1736 which led to an overhaul of the system of public executions in the city.
You may also find the curious 'mort safes', devices designed to prevent body snatching from recent burials during the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries...
Take a tour with me to explore the city's graveyards (and more!) in greater detail...
Some of Edinburgh's most popular and peaceful areas are its historic graveyards, of which there are five in the city centre. They all have public access and offer some wonderful insights into the city's history, the people who have lived here and shaped Edinburgh as we see it today, as well as delivering some the best views and perspectives on the city itself.
On the side of Calton Hill, above Waverley Station, is the Old Calton Burial Ground. Originally relatively inaccessible from the Old Town, the route up to this gaveyard followed a set of steps which still exist today, leading from Calton Road right up the side of Calton Hill to Regent Road. The steps, called Jacob's Ladder, still offer some of the best angles from which to see St Andrew House, the site of the old Calton Jail, but no longer lead directly to the graveyard itself.
In the nineteenth century, the main thoroughfare of Waterloo Place was planned to connect the grand houses of Regent Terrace to Princes Street, and was run straight through the site of the old burial ground, requiring the transposition of several hundred bodies to the New Calton Burial Ground, a little further along the hillside.
One of the highlights of the Old Calton Burial Ground is Robert Adam's mausoleum of philosopher David Hume, bearing just his name, date of birth, and date of death. A modest tomb to a great figure of the Scottish Enlightenment.
The most prominent structure in the graveyard is the Martyrs' Monument, a needle-like structure built to commemorate five men who dreamed of a democratic political system at the end of the eighteenth century. Fearing that what had happened in France, with the overthrow of the monarchy and the government, sometime earlier, the men were arrested and put on trial for sedition, and punished with transportation and 14 years labour in a penal colony in Australia. Only one of them survived long enough to return to his homeland after his sentence, and in the 1840s the monument was erected in their honour.
Most intriguing of all is the statue of former American president, Abraham Lincoln, in the graveyard. He stands atop a memorial to the Scottish soldiers who fought alongside him in the American Civil War, and it remains the only Civil War memorial outside of North America. The statue of Lincoln was the first statue of an American president to be built outside the US when it was erected in 1893.
Other burials in the graveyard include Sir John Steell, who produced several of the iconic statues in the city, and Robert Burn, who designed the nearby Nelson Monument on top of Calton Hill.
Explore the city's graveyards in more detail with my private Edinburgh walking tours!
Take a stroll through the Canongate Kirkyard, on the Royal Mile, and you'll find any number of literary associations with those buried there.
Robert Fergusson, the young poet who inspired Robert Burns, is memorialised not just with a statue at the entrance to the churchyard, but has his grave here too. Agnes Maclehose, who gave her pseudonym to the nearby Clarinda's Tearoom, was also associated with Burns - she was his muse, for whom he wrote Ae Fond Kiss, and other poems. Figures associated with the writer Walter Scott are buried here, as well - but their stories are all for another day.
At this time of year, the story that seems most appropriate is also one of the least expected ones, and the one I most enjoy telling!
In 1822, when George IV visited Edinburgh as part of his grand tour of Scotland (under the organisational care of Walter Scott, no less) he attended a large party at the Assembly Rooms, on George Street in the New Town. Here he danced and ate until he was satiated, with food produced by a local caterer and grain merchant, Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie.
When Scroggie died, in 1836, he was buried with a rather grand tomb in the Canongate Kirkyard, which described him, not inaccurately, as a 'meal man' - one who worked with corn and grain and other 'meal' products.
Barely five years later, the writer Charles Dickens was visiting Edinburgh, and took a short walk through the graveyard at the Canongate Kirk (as, indeed, visitors still do!). There, perhaps in the evening gloom, he misread the grave stone of Ebenezer Scroggie, and thought it described the person buried under it as a 'mean man'...
Curious as to what life such a mean man might have lived in order to get such a grand grave, Dickens borrowed the man's name and made him Ebenezer Scrooge, in his Christmas story A Christmas Carol.
As well as gifting the world the phrase 'Bah humbug!' for those disinclined to festivities, and, of course, the synonymous figure of Scrooge himself, Dickens also almost overnight made the name Ebenezer unfashionable - what had once been a reatively popular Scottish children's name became less common. No more would mothers stand at their open doors calling down the treet, 'Ebenezer, come awa' hame, yer tea's ready!'
Perhaps most intriguingly, it may have been Dickens who helped to cement one othe most enduring stereotypes of Scottish character and identity - the trait of financial frugality! To those original readers of the book, Scrooge would have been self-evidently a tight-fisted Scotsman, working over Christmas Day - as most Scots did, even up until the 1960s; while the English were celebrating Christmas Day and Boxing Day, our midwinter holiday was Hogmanay, to celebrate the new year.
Unfortunately the grave of Scroggie/Scrooge was one of the casualties of efforts to clean up and improve the city's graveyards in the mid-twentieth century, so although you can no longer visit the grave of Scrooge himself, it's no less satisfying to know that he's buried here!
Explore Edinburgh's many other historical and literary associations with my private walking tours of the city.
The dark side of human nature has helped spawn a whole sub-section of Edinburgh visitor attractions, a genre which might charitably be bracketed as 'death-sploitation' - whether it's the underground city, the sites of execution, the history of witchcraft or the real life criminal underworld of Edinburgh, there is an attraction which is geared towards scaring, spooking and generally unsettling you.
We are fortunate, however, to also have access to a variety of sites which tap into some of the above experiences without costing a penny: Edinburgh's graveyards. Scattered across the city, many of the old graveyards of Edinburgh are still open for public access, and (unless you're taking a specific tour through or into the mausoleums themselves) they are completely free.
Here are some of the centrally located graveyards which can be visited on my private walking tours of the city...
St. Cuthbert's Churchyard
Just off Lothian Road is not only the oldest site of worship in the city, dating from the 7th century, but also the resting place of John Napier, Henry Raeburn and George Meikle Kemp, designer of the city's Scott Monument, among many notable other figures. Also features a good example of the watchtowers built in graveyards across the city to help prevent grave robbers...
Most famous as the resting place of Greyfriars Bobby, the dog which earned its status as one of the city's most famous (and cutest) cultural icons. Greyfriars is also one of my favourite places from which to view the different heights and levels of the Old Town, as well as being the final home of some of the city's greatest historical figures, including James Craig, designer of the New Town, Mary Erskine, James Hutton, Allan Ramsay, John Porteous and many more besides. Also the site of the Covenanters' Prison and the mausoleum of 'Bloody' George Mackenzie, reputed to be one of the most haunted sites in the city.
Old Calton Burial Ground
Just a short stroll from the east end of Princes Street, here you'll find the tomb of philosopher David Hume, as well as a monument to Abraham Lincoln, commemorating to the Scottish soldiers who died in the American Civil War, alleged to be the first statue of an American president to be built outside of the US. You'll also find the Martyrs' Monument, an obelisk to the men who were punished for daring to suggest a democratic system which afforded the ordinary man a vote.
New Calton Burial Ground
Further along the edge of Calton Hill is the newer burial plot, used once the pre-existing graveyard was full. From here you can enjoy unparalleled views south across the bottom of the Royal Mile, across towards Holyrood Park and Arthur's Seat. As well as a large watchtower, the graveyard also hosts the Stevenson family plot, the famous lighthouse engineering family (also the family of Robert Louis Stevenson, who isn't buried here).
A short distance from the bottom of the Royal Mile, the Canongate Kirk is a beautiful building with royal associations and an extensive graveyard, from which the views up to Calton Hill are picturesque.
Favourite figures buried here include Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, and Robert Fergusson, the young poet who inspired Robert Burns, as well as another figure associated with Burns, Agnes Macklehose, for whom he wrote the poem Ae Fond Kiss.
Any and all of these graveyards can feature in a private walking tour of the city - contact me for more information!
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth, an adopted native of Edinburgh, with over 20 years experience of living and working in the city...
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