Nestled in a corner of one of Edinburgh's suburbs is a small plot of paved and planted space dominated by a grinning skull and crossbones decoration. It is a hidden gem of Bruntsfield, this mausoleum of a local man named John Livingston, who owned and lived in the nearby property nearly 400 years ago.
At that time, in the 1630s, the area of Greenhill was a true outlying estate, well beyond the city limits, in a region known as the Burgh Muir. (The former name of the area survives in the name of the local secondary school, Boroughmuir.) This was an expansive area of land used for grazing cattle and under common/public ownership. John Livingston - an apothecary or chemist - bought a piece of land here and built his family home upon it, but was only to enjoy it for a short period of time, before his death in 1645.
Around this time, the Black Death was sweeping across Europe, and had taken hold in Edinburgh, one of the many times that plague ravaged the city. The virulent nature of the plague meant that one of the surest ways of protecting the population was to remove those diagnosed with the illness and quarantine them in less populous areas, to prevent the spread of the disease. Burgh Muir was one area to which people diagnosed with the plague were evacuated from the city, and where they were buried on death.
It has been suggested by some that the dips and depressions in the Bruntsfield Links are the evidence of plague pits, where diseased corpses were interred, although this is not the case. The undulations of this popular parkland were created during quarrying of the area for stone - the plague pits of the Burgh Muir were further out, nearer the areas of Grange and Morningside today.
John Livingston contracted plague - possibly spread by those souls moved out of the city - and after his death, aged 53, was buried at a mausoleum built on his estate. The land and house was later redeveloped by Livingston's son, and in time the Bruntsfield and Greenhill area became a popular suburb of the growing capital.
Today Livingston's burial plot is preserved just off Chamberlain Road, through a small gateway which leads into the enclosed area of the mausoleum, paved in stone and with plants decorating the surrounding edges. The gravestone itself bears an extended epitaph, and the cheery Latin inscription: Mors patet; Hora Latet - 'Death is sure; the hour obscure'.
In 2004 Livingston's mausoleum became the focus of an extended legal dispute between Edinburgh Council and the new owners of the adjacent residence, over who had ownership (and maintenance rights) over the land. The new owners had understood the plot to be included in their land, and had moved to close it off from public access, while the Keeper of the Registers of Scotland claimed that burial plot remained the responsibility of the council.
After much legal analysis of old title deeds, it was confirmed that John Livingston's mausoleum must remain accessible to the public, and with appropriate public maintenance from the city council.
As such, it remains a curious (and peaceful) space just off the busy access road between Holy Corner and the Grange, and a popular spot for those locals who know of its existence.
Explore Edinburgh's hidden corners in more detail with my Up-Close and Personal walking tours of the city!
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth Davies, an adopted native of Edinburgh since 1998...