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.
Explore St Cuthbert's kirkyard in more detail with a customised Edinburgh walking tour!
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. Instead I think there's real interest to be found in the lives of the people buried here, or the other unusual features that can be found in graveyards.
So here are five more graves that have stories to tell!
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.
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 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 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.
Explore more of Edinburgh's history (living and dead!) with my private city walking tours!
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...
Search the blog archive...
About Your Tour Guide
Edinburgh Expert Blog
Frequently Asked Questions
Telephone: +44 (0) 131 235 2351
© COPYRIGHT GARETH DAVIES 2014-22