EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
Just in time for Halloween - or 'Samhuinn' as it was traditionally known in Scotland - here's a sequel to my earlier blog celebrating five famous burials in Edinburgh... This time I'm looking at five features common to Edinburgh graveyards...
A common device found on many old graves from the 18th- and 19th-centuries is the skull and cross bones emblem, familiar from pirate flags and tattoos. (I often lie to children and tell them these are the graves of pirate kings, which is not entirely true...!)
These decorations - of skulls, bones and skeletons, along with hourglasses and sometimes scythes - are known as memento mori, meaning 'remember you need to die'. Not 'remember you're going to die' (which is not, generally, a happy thought) but a reminder that we needed to pass from this life to move into the afterlife, and all the joys and benefits that came with it.
So contrary to some people's assumption that they are faintly sinister or intimidating - the skulls are often grinning in quite an enticing way - I think the idea is simply a recognition that these people are having a better time than we are... Some of the more elaborate figures, such as the dancing skeleton at the front of the Greyfriars Kirk, seem to be having a full-on party, and appear to suggest the afterlife may be spent in a state of inebriation!
And there is actually a connection between the skull and cross bones on these graves and those on pirate flags - as a pirate you were expected to be in service to your ship or your pirate captain until death, and so they took the same emblems to mean much the same thing - remember you need to die...
A rather unusual feature that is generally only found in Edinburgh's grave yards are these cage structures, sometimes low to the ground as in Greyfriars, but also full-height enclosures such as this one, which you'll find in the Old Calton Burial Ground.
These date from a period when the university of Edinburgh's medical school was leading the world in terms of medical research. The original arrangement of giving the bodies of hanged criminals to the medical school had become problematic when we began hanging far fewer people, and the university experienced a shortage of cadavers for their students to dissect.
Instead the university began offering cash payments for the donation of corpses, and a black market grew up with people trying to sell bodies that weren't theirs to donate - commonly acquired by digging up recently buried corpses from the grave yards.
In order to combat the bodysnatching epidemic, Edinburgh began developing strategic ways to prevent the robberies, and these mort safes - steel cages built into, under and around the grave sites - were very effective at protecting the bodies of the recently deceased. They weren't always terrible attractive, however, and so a second method devised to help protect freshly buried corpses was -
These circular, turreted structures were built into the corners of graveyards in the city, and would be manned overnight by armed guards, who would patrol the burial grounds and help to keep the recently deceased six feet under.
(Only the recently buried were at risk of being stolen, as after a week or so the bodies began to decompose to such an extent that the university wouldn't buy them - they really were only interested in what might be termed 'fresh meat'...)
The issue of protecting bodies came to an end in the 1830s, with the passing of the Anatomy Act, which made it illegal to receive a cash payment for a medical donation - bodies could still be donated, but not for a reward, and so the incentive to dig up corpses was removed, and later graves didn't get such dramatic protection.
Probably the most famous burial in the whole of Edinburgh is that of Greyfriars Bobby, the Skye terrier who became a model of duty and devotion after spending 14 years sleeping on the grave of his former owner. The reality of that story may not be as romantic as the popular versions told, but certainly there is a history of well-loved dogs in Edinburgh - notoriously the city has more statues of dogs than it has of historical women...
Nowhere is this more powerfully demonstrated, perhaps, than at Edinburgh Castle, where a specific dog cemetery was established to accommodate the bodies of military mascots.
It's not possible for visitors to get into the little cemetery area, built into the ruins of an old tower, but you can look down onto it from the top of the castle near St Margaret's Chapel. (There's also a taxidermied mascot who wasn't lucky enough to be buried here in the National War Museum within the castle itself.)
WORDS FROM THE AFTERLIFE
One of the most fantastic features of Edinburgh's burial grounds are the individual stories that can be found on many of the graves. Into the 19th century the rise of what became known as garden graveyards meant that people came to these places not just to mourn, but for more of a social purpose. Picnics would be had amongst the tombstones, and people would spend time reading the stories inscribed on the graves themselves.
Look closely at the graves and you'll find all manner of interesting elements, such as:
My favourite instruction is the postscript on one grave (in the New Calton Burial Ground) instructing:
Explore Edinburgh's graveyards in more detail with my private city walking tours!
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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