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Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Greyfriars' Kirkyard, burial place of the great, the good and the completely unknown

Now, let's get a couple of things over with before we get onto the real business.

Firstly, it is true that Greyfriars' Kirkyard is known to many (most?) people principally because of the example of loyalty provided by a small dog called Bobby. In a nutshell:
  • Bobby's master, John Gray, died in 1858;
  • Bobby followed his coffin to the grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard;
  • out of loyalty to his master, he stayed there for the rest of his life;
  • he was fed by the locals after the castle's one o'clock gun, in particular by the owner of the eating place at 6 Greyfriars' Place, ;
  • to save his life, his licence was paid for by the city's Lord Provost; 
  • he died in 1872 at the age of 16; and
  • he was the subject of a well-known Disney film which angers purists because of its inaccuracies but is loved by children the world over. 
Bobby's statue is outside the Kirkyard on George IV Bridge, his master's grave is in the Kirkyard and his own gravestone stands near the entrance.

Right, that's enough of Bobby.

Secondly, it is also true that some visitors, particularly the under-twenties, believe that the Kirkyard is associated with the Harry Potter books.

Well......not really. Yes, there is a memorial to William McGonagall, but he is the poet famous for his inept versifying, and is not in any way related to the fictional Harry Potter's fictional teacher. And yes, a Thomas Riddell is buried at the bottom of the graveyard, but any connection between his name and that of JK Rowling's villain is purely fortuitous.

Oh, and what's that about ghosts? 'Bluidy' Mackenzie creeping from his tomb, joining the various ghouls whom commercial tour guides suggest go wandering around the South Yard in the middle of the night?

Total tosh! Money spinners all, to the last invented story.

So that's that over.

So, what is Greyfriars really famous for? Well, the Kirk, for one, which took a defining role in the struggle to determine a distinctly Scottish religious and political identity. You can read about it in my previous post.


However, the Kirkyard surrounding the church is what draws many people to this corner of the Old Town. It has a benign atmosphere of its own. Here you see it on a sunny August afternoon.


The graves lie all around but, as you can see, this is a favourite place for picnics and just sitting around. Children run around among the gravestones, tourist guides shepherd their charges and all around them lie the dead. Many of the dead inhabitants of this crowded monumental city are famous, among them some of the most notable citizens of Edinburgh, the people who made this great city the wonderful place it is.


Some of the dead made life a great deal happier for other people. Some were just rich. Some were very poor. Most, like the rest of us, were somewhere in between. And many many of them are totally unknown and lie in anonymous graves under every patch of turf and every gravel path. For Greyfriars is a very overcrowded graveyard. People estimate that about 100,000 people are buried here.

Greyfriars Kirkyard was opened in 1562 when Mary Queen of Scots allowed the Town Council to take over the grounds which used to belong to the old friary at the bottom of the hill.  The burial ground at St Giles had filled up and more space was needed.

The monuments of the rich, of course, can take up a great deal of room, so in Greyfriars many of them are attached to the walls, and not just the walls of the kirk itself, but even the walls of the surrounding houses. On the left is a photograph of the back of the sixteenth century house where one of my sons used to live when he was a student. His flat was on the second or third floor, just above this magnificent monument to John Mylne (or Milne), who died in 1667.

The tomb comes complete with a dragon and many symbols of death. Several members of the Mylne family, Master Masons to the Kings of Scotland, were buried here. John Mylne designed the Tron Kirk and Panmure House near Forfar and built part of George Heriot's School. He also represented Edinburgh in Scottish Parliament. The tomb bears the inscription: 'Great Artisan, grave Senator; John Milne'.

The oldest graves in Greyfriars, erected in the early seventeenth century, are here at the back of Greyfriars Place and Candlemakers' Row, at the eastern side of the kirkyard.


These old monuments are covered with rich carvings: emblems of the deceased, coats of arms, marks of their professions (like surgical instruments or builders' tools), and symbols of death.


Skulls and crossbones remind passersby of the state to which they too will come.













One of the most elaborate monuments was erected by William Aytoun in 1636 in memory of his parents. The family owned the Ravelston Estate where Mary Erskine's School now stands.



























Towards the bottom of the hill, just by the Burial Yett (gate) through which prisoners were led down to the Grassmarket to be executed and the coffins of ordinary citizens were brought up to the Kirk, stands one of Greyfriars' most significant monuments: the Martyrs' Monument. The original stone, erected in 1706, is now in Huntly House Museum, down the Canongate. The current monument is a 'new' one, built in 1771.


The Monument is a memorial to 100 noblemen, gentlemen, ministers and other noble martyrs for Jesus Christ, Covenanters who were executed following the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, many in the Grassmarket nearby. The first to be killed was the Marquis of Argyll, in 1661, to whom there is also a memorial in St Giles, the High Kirk of Edinburgh.

The martyrs suffered as a result of their protests against the attempts made by Charles 1, King of both England and Scotland, to impose on Scotland the system of bishops and prayer book used in England.

The last martyr to die was James Renwick in 1688, two years before the Revolution Settlement of 1690, when the Church of Scotland, which follows a form of Presbyterianism, was recognised as the national church.

Over on the other side of the Kirk, in what is now called the South Yard, 1200 Covenanters were brought after being taken prisoner after the Battle of Bothwell Brig in 1679. They were kept in the open for five months with minimal food except what sympathisers brought them. At that time the land would have been an open field, rather than part of the Kirkyard itself. It was basically an open-air concentration camp. Here you can see the entrance to the South Yard as it is today. It is kept locked, but someone from the Kirk will take you round it if you are interested.










As I've written in other posts, some prisoners died of exposure, a few were hanged, others were released after agreeing not to rebel again and 250 put on a ship to be transported to the West Indies. Many drowned when the ship was wrecked off Orkney. The remainder were put on a replacement ship. Their ancestors, having arrived as forced labourers, still live in the Caribbean today.


Also buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard is the man who sent so many of them to their fates: Sir George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh, who died in 1691. Mackenzie was the King's Advocate. Schoolboys from Heriot's Hospital (now George Heriot's School) used to dare each other to shout through the door of his monument. His tomb looks rather sad these days, overgrown with weeds.


However, Greyfriars Kirkyard has many more memorials to notables who made very different, and very positive, contributions to Scottish culture, history, education and life.


Here in Greyfriars are buried a number of famous writers in addition to William McGonagall (mentioned above), for example, Duncan Ban MacIntyre (Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir), the Gaelic poet, who died in 1812.


MacIntyre was illiterate and sold illicit whisky in the Lawnmarket to support himself. He fought against the Jacobites in 1745, something I was quite surprised to learn, but then, many Gaels did. Greyfriars is the Gaelic church of Edinburgh, holding a non-denominational service in Gaelic at 12 o'clock every Sunday.











MacIntyre's monument is beautiful, carved with life-affirming symbols of Highland life.

George Buchanan, the great scholar, poet and dramatist who died in 1582, is buried in Greyfriars. He was tutor to Mary Queen of Scots but joined the side of Reform and campaigned against her. He believed in resistance against 'royal usurpation'. He was appointed tutor to her son, the future James VI/I, by his guardians. He died poor and his actual grave is unmarked, but he has an impressive memorial in the Kirkyard and a beautiful window in the Kirk itself.












Allan Ramsay's memorial is on the western wall of the church. Ramsay was a well-known poet whose Gentle Shepherd is his best known work. Once a wigmaker on the High Street, he is also credited with having opened the first circulating library from his book shop. He died in 1758.

Greyfriars Kirk has a close connection to the University, hence the large number of academics buried or commemorated here.

Among these scholars are fascinating characters like Robert Sibbald, a founder member of the Royal College of Physicians, for whom there is a plaque on the south wall. He also helped to found the Royal Botanic Garden, where he grew medicinal herbs. He supported the Jacobites and thoroughly disliked the abstemious lives of Presbyterians. According to the Kirkyard guide, he ordered a large quantity of wine to be buried in his tomb, only to be drunk when the Stuarts were restored to the throne. One assumes that members of the Royal College of Physicians did just that when his tomb was renovated in 1952.


Famous figures of the Scottish Enlightenment such as Colin Maclaurin are buried here. Maclaurin was a great mathematician much respected by Sir Isaac Newton who recommended him for his post at Edinburgh University.

And, of course, the geologist and polymath, James Hutton, who died in 1797 is also here. He appears in a number of posts on this blog, particularly this one about Salisbury Crags. Hutton is buried in the South Yard. He is said to have had the same influence on geology as David Hume on philosophy (Old Calton graveyard) and Adam Smith on economics (Canongate Kirkyard). See previous posts for more about their burial places.

It is hardly surprising that so many of the dead inhabitants of Greyfriars have a connection with education. Scotland has always been famous for the opportunities it has given to young people from modest or poor backgrounds to gain an education and make a success of their lives. Dare one say it is still the same today? I certainly would.

A number of famous educationalists, or benefactors of education, are buried in Greyfriars. Among them is John Watson, founder of the school which bore his name, who died in 1762. The school no longer exists as it was merged with the Merchant Company schools. You can see its impressive building, however, in Dean Village, where it became the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

Greyfriars has a particular connection with the three well-known Edinburgh 'hospitals' for the poor and those of modest means: George Heriot's, The Mary Erskine School for Girls (previously The Merchant Maidens Hospital) and George Watson's. Children from all three schools used to attend Greyfriars Kirk every Sunday. The schools still exist but are now predominantly attended by children of the privileged and well heeled. However, their founders must surely be numbered among the 'good' citizens of Edinburgh.

Here is the plaque to George Watson, a wealthy accountant who invested funds in the Merchant Company to found a Hospital for 'the maintenance and education for the offspring of decayed merchants'. He instructed that his donations should be used for children at George Heriot's and Mary Erskine's as well as the school which bears his name. Other beneficiaries were pupils who bore the name Watson or Davidson (the name of the aunt who arranged for him to be educated after he was orphaned). He died in 1723.

Mary Erskine, who died in 1707, has been rather well served by the Merchant Maidens of the twentieth century: The Pupil Guild. Her tomb is right at the end of the South Yard, a lovely avenue of tombs leading up to the Telfer Wall. James Hutton is also buried here. The Wall is a seventeenth century extension to the Flodden Wall, which marks the limits of the city. It also runs along the boundary of George Heriot's School. Mary Erskine's second husband was a pharmacist on the High Street and she lived in one of the closes off the street.When she died she left money to found the Merchant Maiden School, which later adopted her name.

The gloriously Ruritanian building of George Heriot's School, founded in 1659, can be viewed from the Kirkyard. George Heriot, also known as Jinglin' Geordie, was goldsmith,  jeweller and, ultimately, banker to Queen Anne of Denmark, wife of King James VI/I. He moved to England following the Union of the Crowns. He had various business interests and owned the land on which Royal Park Crescent is built.

When George Heriot died in 1624, he left a large sum to Edinburgh City for the founding of  a hospital for the free education of the 'puir, faitherless bairns' of deceased burgesses. It was the first large building to be built outside the city walls. Heriot is buried at St Martin's in the Fields. Oliver Cromwell occupied George Heriot's before the orphans even arrived, as witnessed by the bullet holes in the walls of the quadrangle. Heriot's statue, by Robert Mylne, the King's Master Masonstands in a niche, bearing an inscription which translates as: 'This statue shows my body, this building shows my soul'

George Heriot's School retains strong links with Greyfriars Kirk. The picture above shows the gate which joins them. The one below shows the school, glimpsed through the arch of the Flodden Wall, built to protect the city from the English after the disastrous defeat of James V at Flodden Field in 1513.



Greyfriars Kirkyard is filled with family mausoleums recording deaths over several generations: for example, the family of William Adam the famous architect who built Hopetoun House on the Firth of Forth, the House of Dun in Angus, Haddo House in Aberdeenshire and Duff House in Banff. He also constructed the first building of George Watson's Hospital (now College) and Robert Gordon's Hospital (now College) in Aberdeen. He is the father of Robert Adam who developed the 'Adam style', and two other architect sons. 

Another family memorial belongs to the family of Walter Scott, the famous novelist. In The Heart of Midlothian, Scott writes about the Porteous riots. John Porteous is not among the great or the good and although he may be little known now, it was not always so. However, it is in Greyfriars that he is buried. 

The story goes as follows. In 1736, three smugglers were condemned to death. The sentence of one was commuted to transportation, one escaped and the third was hanged in the Grassmarket. His body was cut down, much to the fury of the mob, who liked to watch these events to the end. Captain Porteous was instructed by the Lord Provost of Edinburgh to arm the City Guard. The mob stoned the guard whom Porteous then ordered to fire above the heads of the crowd. This they did, wounding people watching from the windows of the surrounding tenements. Violence got worse and Porteous ordered his men to fire on the crowd. Six people died.
Porteous was tried, convicted of murder and imprisoned in the Tolbooth near St Giles to await execution in the Grassmarket. The site of the old Tolbooth is marked by a heart - the 'heart of Midlothian' - on which the citizens of Edinburgh customarily spit. 
The government in London deferred the execution following appeal. The ordinary people, however, were furious about this and planned to murder the Captain. A mob of 4,000 made its way to the Tolbooth, forced their way in and dragged Porteous to the Grassmarket, where they proceeded to hang him in the most horrific manner.
The Westminster government were very concerned about these disturbances. Various theories circulated: it was a Jacobite plot, a Presbyterian plot and so on, but the perpetrators of the murder were never brought to justice. Porteous' memorial reads: 'All passion spent'.
In the Kirkyard repose the memories of many such violent acts.
This modest stone marks the burial place of James Douglas, Earl of Morton, Regent of Scotland during the minority of the future King James VI/I. Morton was a Reformer and supported the alliance with England. He was implicated in the death of Rizzio, musician and secretary to Mary Queen of Scots, and knew in advance about the murder of Darnley, her husband. In 1581, he was executed by the Maiden, a form of guillotine which he himself had, ironically, introduced into Scotland. His body was smuggled into Greyfriars to be buried while his head adorned the spikes of the Netherbow Port.
As you may have grasped by now, terrible things happened in the city streets around Greyfriars. Terrible things also happened in its own Kirkyard. Greyfriars was just down the street from the hospital and body snatching was common from the mid-seventeenth century onwards. Quite a number of the graves are surmounted or surrounded by iron spikes to prevent bodies being dug up for use in anatomical studies. Here is an example of a mort-safe, an effective method of protecting new burials from the Resurrectionists.
So, in Greyfriars impressions deceive. The Kirkyard was not always as tranquil as it seems today. But wander down there yourself, saunter along the gravel paths and read the crumbling inscriptions. This is a city, a quiet city of the dead. 


You may also be interested in the following posts:

Greyfriars' Kirk: asserting Scotland's religious and political identity

A walk around Parliament Square and St Giles: Power to the Princes, the Prelates or the People?

What were the Scots doing in Barbados and how did they get there?

Following the Radical Road on a sunny Sunday evening

When you visit the Kirkyard, you may find it helpful to pick up a numbered plan and/or a guide to the the graves from the bookshop inside the Kirk. Another helpful and interesting publication is The Edinburgh Graveyard Guide, by Michael TRB Turnbull, published by the Scottish Cultural Press.


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