For a long time the only features to be found on the slopes of Calton Hill were the old Bridewell prison (later the Calton Jail, where St Andrews House stands today) and the Old Calton Burial Ground, a graveyard overlooking the medieval city. But as the New Town project expanded and developed in the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries, the land on this exposed ridge of rock was bought up for the development of grand private housing; Royal Terrace and Regent Terrace were among the development of properties in the early 1800s.
The developers of these grand houses were aware, however, that there was no ready access from these properties to the centre of the city - the only access was a circuitous route around the northern side of Calton Hill, joining onto the main road into the city from the port of Leith and into the New Town from there. This was not an especially convenient arrangement for the high status families who were being enticed to come and live in these exclusive properties.
So an application was made to construct a major access road across the steep ravine to the west of Calton Hill, to connect straight onto Princes Street and the heart of the New Town. The only obstacle to the development was the Calton Burial Ground, which occupied the hillside on this side of the rock.
Permission was granted to construct a roadway through the land where the graveyard sat, with provision made for the developers to exhume all the bodies in the strip of land where the road would run, leaving the graveyard intact on either side of the new access way. These bodies, exhumed in the name of progress, were to be granted reburial in a new burial ground, to be located on the south-eastern side of Calton Hill.
And thus in 1817 the New Calton Burial Ground was established, a forerunner to the popular Victorian style of graveyards which would later flourish as gardens for people to spend leisure time rather than sombre spaces of mourning and solitude.
Approximately 300 exhumed bodies were reburied a few hundred yards from their original resting place, and for three years no new burials were permitted. In 1821 the burial ground was opened for new burials, and remained in use until closed in the 1870s.
Notable burials in the graveyard include the family plot of the Stevenson family, known as the Lighthouse Stevensons, an dynasty of engineers who constructed lighthouses around the coasts of Scotland, and whose offspring Robert Louis Stevenson is still considered one of Scotland's greatest literary figures.
I am also fond of pointing out the grave of an English doctor who was unfortunately drowned in the Firth of Forth - the body of water to the north of the city - but who even more unfortunately went into eternity with a spelling mistake on his tomb... The stone describes him as being drowned 'in the Frith of Forth'!
In one corner of the graveyard is a watchtower, built in the 1820s, to help guard against the epidemic of bodysnatching which had become a major problem in the city - freshly buried corpses were covertly dug up and sold to the University of Edinburgh's medical school for dissection, and providing armed guards to the burial grounds was just one strategy developed to prevent such things.
In recent years the graveyard has been developed and maintained to attract visitors, and amusingly dubbed 'tombs with a view' because of the graveyard's picturesque views across to Holyrood Palace and Arthur's Seat.
Explore more of Edinburgh's graveyards with my private city walking tours!
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