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 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...
© COPYRIGHT GARETH DAVIES 2014-21