St Cuthbert's Church Graveyard - Edinburgh

If you follow this blog via my Facebook page you'll know that I recently went up to Edinburgh, somewhere I've been to many times before but somewhere I shall be spending a lot more time in in the near future. My husband landed himself a role based there and as a result has been up there since the start of June. The only reason I'm still in Kent (along with George our cat) is because just before he got his role I got myself one, luckily only a short term contract, in London. As I'd already committed to my new role and it was only a short term one we decided I'd stay in Kent until early September when I'll be finished and I'll then go up to Edinburgh too.

Luckily my role gives me long weekends as it's only part time which is just perfect for visits to Edinburgh. So I can board the train on a Friday lunchtime (I prefer that to flying up) ready to start the long weekend! The journey up by train is one I always enjoy, passing through the different towns and cities on the way north before the railway line finally hits the beautiful coast on the border between England and Scotland and runs alongside it taking you through the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed (quite Instagramable and Snapchatable from the train if the weather is good) and on into Scotland. If you've never travelled that way into Scotland I'd really recommend it and it's only approximately four and a half hours from London so not unbearable.


Travelling up at lunchtime means I arrive around the time my husband finishes work and in time for a relaxed Friday evening. On this weekend, as at that stage my husband was still based in a hotel there was no point arriving too early and after a nice Friday evening and chilled Saturday morning we were ready for a stroll around the city in the afternoon. Anyone who knows me, knows I enjoy exploring graveyards. I managed to indulge myself with this interest several times whilst we lived in Singapore and now we're back in the UK there's plenty dotted all over to wander around. As I said on Saturday afternoon after lunch we were walking around the city and stumbled upon St Cuthbert's church in the shadow of Edinburgh castle with this lovely looking graveyard just begging to be explored.


The present church of St Cuthbert's was dedicated in 1894 and built in an Italian Renaissance style. It is apparently quite beautiful inside but on this particular Saturday was closed to visitors, one to return to possibly. According to tradition St Cuthbert built the first church on this site in the 7th century but the first documented reference to a church is in a Charter of King David I in 1127 giving all the land below the castle to the church. The Charter refers to it as, 'the Church of St Cuthbert, hard by the castle of Edinburgh', and having read some more about the church, at different times in its history it's been Celtic, Roman, Episcopalian and Presbyterian, it is also believed that there have been seven churches on its site. This being partly due to its closeness to Edinburgh castle and it having been caught in cannon crossfire between opposing armies at different times, suffering severe damage or being destroyed as a result. Each time though it's been rebuilt so has obviously always been regarded as an important church, perhaps because at one time its parish encompassed most of the present day city.


As I mentioned above we couldn't get into the church that day but the churchyard gates were open and us and several other people were able to enjoy a wander around the graves. Graves in Scotland (although I'm no expert) are quite different to the graves I can see here in Kent and other parts of the UK. I guess it's the stone they are made from which gives them that brownish tinge. The graves in this graveyard seem huge in comparison to the average gravestone that I'm used to, impressive memorials to lost loved ones. In one of the photos below you can see how the grave stones are placed right next to one another almost like a wall.

The graveyard in the shadow of Edinburgh castle

The first reference to a graveyard here is recorded as being in 1595 where a small hill to the south of the church was used. It was described as being a lonely spot, particularly at night. Subsequently over a century later it was recorded that this lonely spot meant it was perfect for grave robbers to dig up bodies for surgeons and anatomists. From this small hill, also known as 'bairns' knowe' (children's hill) as children were often buried there the graveyard was further developed. Until 1597 the graveyard was open to the countryside and animals would graze there but it was eventually enclosed with a wall. Grave robbers were still a problem though to the extent that in 1738 the walls around the churchyard were raised to eight feet. A watch tower was later also constructed in the graveyard in 1827 to try and deal with this problem. Burials eventually ceased in the graveyard in 1875, apart from in exceptional circumstances. This was not before first being ordered to close in 1863 by the Medical Officer of Health when it was considered 'completely full' and eventually being taken to court in 1873 for 'permitting a nuisance to exist under the Public Health Act 1867, being offensive and injurious to health'. In 1874 they were ordered by the council to close but only did so a year later after numerous appeals.

Huge gravestones so close to one another they are almost like a wall

An aspect of the graveyard that interested me, and that I only noticed when we saw the train leaving the station, was that a tunnel had been built underneath it for trains going into Edinburgh's Waverley train station. I've since learned that this tunnel was built in 1841, understandably as a result of this many graves had to be moved, not something I'm unfamiliar with having lived in Singapore and having read about (and visited a couple) the many graveyards that were and continue to be moved to make way for modern developments. Gravestones dating from between 1834 and 1841 in this area have sadly been totally lost or destroyed. Not surprising there are now no graves in that area.

Interesting feature - the railway tunnel was built right underneath the graveyard

As you might hope in a city with so many well known residents through history there are quite a few well known people from a variety of fields buried in the churchyard, though we did not find any of the graves on our visit. Some of the notable individuals buried there include, John Napier, the inventor of logarithms, Thomas Bonar, the co-founder of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, George Meikle Kemp, designer of the Scott Monument, the artist Alexander Nasmyth and the author Thomas De Quincey amongst many more. The oldest surviving gravestone dates back to 1606 and is that of the Rev. Robert Pont.

I confess that whilst we were walking around the graveyard enjoying the relative calm I had no idea how interesting a church I'd stumbled upon. Regardless though the walk made for a nice little detour and it seems like this is somewhere I should try and return to again at some stage.

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