The remarkably impressive gothic grave monuments of Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh had been calling to me for a while, so I thought it was about time I paid this cemetery a visit and took a trip to Scotland together with my friend Aisha. While Edinburgh itself is a city filled with gorgeous gothic architecture and it has a rather dark history with countless ghost stories, Greyfriars Kirkyard itself did not disappoint me either. Get ready for a photo-packed cemetery review that will make your gloomy soul rejoice in happiness!
Although Greyfriars Kirkyard is opened 24/7(!) we went there during the busiest time, on a Saturday afternoon. As a result of this the entrance area was crowded with people, clustered into big groups of tourists with tour guides. I always try to avoid photographing other visitors at cemeteries and have maintained this during my visit here for the most part. However, I do want to stress this fact right away, as it was one of the biggest surprises to me during my visit.
You see, I am used to cemeteries being pretty much devoid of living people. I visit (and have reviewed) many less popular cemeteries, where hardly anyone was present except for a few visitors who came to remember their loved ones. What’s more, when I meet new people and tell them about this blog and my cemetery research, the most common reaction is that they find this rather strange, or peculiar to say the least… So now imagine me walking into a graveyard that’s actually crowded with like-minded visitors! It was incredible to see it being filled with people who were genuinely interested in its history and beauty, and visited it because it actually seemed like a fun thing to do.
Greyfriars Kirkyard is in fact one of the biggest tourist attractions in Edinburgh. Many of the bigger cemeteries around the world – like Père Lachaise in Paris, or Hollywood Forever in Los Angeles – are known to be tourist hotspots and organize events and cemetery tours to encourage these type of visits. I had just never experiences it in this way for myself until now.
To have a graveyard being used as a public space that serves the community – both the locals and sightseers, was a breath of fresh air to me. Beside the guided tour groups many visitors were exploring the cemetery grounds by themselves, taking pictures, reading the headstones and marvelling at the gorgeous stone sculptures. Some people just sat down in the grass to take the surroundings in and relax, or even lay down to read a book in the shade. Cemetery picnics! It was all happening right there.
While I am usually disappointed with myself for not making enough photos of a certain grave, this time I am disappointed for not having taken a shot of the crowds of people at Greyfriars. I just went into my automatic mode of avoiding other people in my shots. However, I did capture this fine gentleman you see above.
After entering the cemetery and wandering about for a bit, his grave was the first that really caught my attention. It is the mausoleum of John Bayne of Pitcairlie who, a ‘writer to the signet’ or a lawyer, who died in 1681. His sandstone sculpture may have deteriorated quite a bit, but his eyes still held my gaze firmly.
Now, on to the grave monuments that Greyfriars is most well-known for. These exquisite stone sculptures form entire walls along the sides of the cemetery. It’s not hard to imagine why these graves were the backdrop for many artists back in the 1840s, such as painter David Octavius Hill and photographer Robert Adamson.
Same spot, different day – in fact, about 175 years later.
The cemetery continues to inspire artists to this day. J. K. Rowling started writing the first Harry Potter book in a cozy little cafe named ‘The Elephant House’, just a few steps away from Greyfriars Kirkyard. A couple of the most notorious characters from her story were named after the names she found on gravestones here, like Tom Riddle – Lord Voldemort.
I didn’t photograph Tom’s gave, but I did try to perform a little magic on top of another.
Here’s a bit of history: Greyfriars Kirkyard was built on the site of a Franciscan monastery, hence the name “Kirkyard”, meaning “churchyard”. After the Scottish reformation of 1560, the monastery grounds were granted to the town council to be used as a burial site in 1562.
In 1638, the National Covenant was signed at Greyfriars Kirk. The National Covenant declared the right of ordinary people to exercise their God-given consciences in matters of faith and life, an oath to maintain the reformed religion and reject the superstition of the Catholic Church.
A decade later the Covenanters were defeated by Oliver Cromwell who fought for the English Parliament, and in 1679 after another anti-government rebellion of the Covenanters, 1200 of them were imprisoned at Greyfriars Kirkyard. This part of the cemetery is known as the “Covenanters’ Prison”. Of the 1200 prisoners, only 257 came out alive.
The Covenanter’s Prison is not accessible for the public, though there are a couple guided tours that will take you inside and tell you more about its history. I only peeked through the gate for a bit. This part of the cemetery is where the vaulted tombs with stone walls and iron railings became popular in the eighteenth century, when grave-robbing became a serious business.
The anatomists of the Edinburgh College of Surgeons had a shortage of bodies for their medical research, so they asked the help of the so-called ‘ressurectionists’, who would exhume corpses at night from burial grounds to supply the anatomists with fresh cadavers. Story goes that some medical students actually worked as a ressurrectionist during the late hours…
Another solution for protecting your body from being snatched from the grave was a mortsafe. These heavy iron constructions were usually placed over the coffins for six weeks, until the body inside was sufficiently decayed and the mortsafe could be placed over another grave.
OK, back to the story of the Covenanters for a bit. Here we have the mausoleum of Sir George Mackenzie. As Lord Advocate, Mackenzie was responsible for imprisoning the 1200 Covenanters in the Covenant’s Prison, and their resulting deaths. The way he treated the Covenanters gained him the nickname “Bluidy” Mackenzie. He died in 1691 and was buried in this mausoleum, only a few feet away from the Covenant’s Prison.
George Mackenzie’s mausoleum is often said to be the most haunted spot at Greyfriars Kirkyard. Even today, people that go on guided cemetery tours have reported being physically attacked by an unseen force. But what happened in 1998 is even more interesting:
A homeless man broke into the mausoleum, looking for valuable objects. He opened several caskets until he got to the casket of MacKensie himself. While trying to pry it open, the floor underneath his feet gave way, and he fell down into a lower chamber. Inside were the remains of plague victims, unceremoniously dumped there during plague days as a quick way to dispose of bodies. The homeless man got out as fast as he got and ran away screaming.
Ever since this event, passerby’s have reported paranormal occurrences.
In 2000, exorcist Colin Grant performed an exorcism ceremony at Greyfriars Kirkyard. It is said he “was overcome by the sensation of being surrounded by hundreds of tormented souls and evil spirits trying to break through to the mortal realm.” A couple weeks after the exorcism, Colin died of a heart attack.
And in 2014, two fearless or just foolish boys aged 15 and 17 broke into the tomb. They stole a skull from one of the caskets and started playing with it on the grass field in front of the mausoleum until the police arrived.
I’m all for cemetery picnics and celebrations, but playing football with a skull does seem to go a bit too far…
On a more positive note – I didn’t sense any kind of negative presence during my entire visit to Greyfriars.
Another famous grave, but for much more positive reasons, is that of Greyfriars Bobby.
Bobby was a dog! But not just any dog. Bobby was the dog of police officer John Grey, who died and was buried at Greyfriars in 1858. Since the burial of John, Bobby kept visiting his master’s grave, spending most of his time there for the next 14 years. Bobby died in 1872, laying on the grave of John, and was buried near the main entrance of Greyfriars Kirkyard.
A few feet outside the cemetery gates a statue for Bobby was erected a year after his death. If the story is true, or a well thought out myth, no one can say for certain.
But to this day, countless people still come to pay tribute to this loyal dog, and leave sticks and treats at his grave.
To throw in at least a bit of paranormal activity: Aisha seemed to communicate with the spirits quite well.
Greyfriars Kirkyars, just as the city of Edinburgh itself, is so incredibly rich in history that I could write thousands and thousands of words on other stories related to the people who are buried here. But this piece has already gotten way longer than I thought it would, so I will leave you with this. Greyfriars is most definitely a fabulous graveyard to visit and discover for yourself.
And through all of the darkness of times past, it seems to me it has emerged into the radiant brightness of the present, reminding us of its history, but most importantly; urging us to move forward, into the light.