Greyfriars Kirkyard

Edinburgh is full of churches or kirks as they tend to be known in Scotland and in turn is full of interesting kirkyards, one of them being the fascinating Greyfriars Kirkyard. If you're interested in history graveyards are great places to explore (I've written previously about another kirkyard in Edinburgh, St Cuthbert's church) and this particular kirkyard just like all the other old ones in Edinburgh has its part to play in telling us about the history of the city.

Greyfriars takes its name from a Franciscan friary (the friars wore grey robes) that stood on the site until it was dissolved in 1559 the kirkyard was founded in 1561. The church is famous as the location for the presentation and signing of the National Covenant in front of the pulpit in 1638, this was a crucial development in a turbulent time in Scotland's history revolving around religious and civil freedom. For centuries the divine right of the monarchy's rule was the established norm but reformers, although loyal to the monarch, could not accept the idea of his or her divine authority to govern. The Covenant was the resulting declaration of the rights of ordinary people to exercise their God given consciences in the matters of faith and life.

The story that is likely to be most familiar to the kirkyard's many visitors though is that of Greyfriars Bobby. The little dog who faithfully held a fourteen year vigil at the grave of his master, a policeman named John Gray who died and was buried in the kirkyard when Bobby was just two years old. There is an alternate version of events, that being that as stray dogs were common in Victorian graveyards and visitors would often feed them, popular sentiment led to the belief that they were waiting for a buried master or mistress. This led to visits from interested locals and tourists as well as the inevitable commercial opportunities this also presented for some caretakers and vergers. Whatever the truth though of Bobby's story it did result in a statue being paid for and erected just outside the kirkyard in 1873.

Although Bobby has a gravestone in the kirkyard it's obviously a far more recent addition than all of those surrounding it. The stone was erected in 1981 by The Dog Aid Society of Scotland close to the site of Bobby's unmarked grave. As you can see from my photos Bobby always has plenty of sticks left for him to fetch by kind visitors and occasionally other things too such as toys or tins of dog food. 💖 

Greyfriars Bobby

Greyfriars Bobby's master's grave

If you've visited Edinburgh you're likely well aware of the city's connections with J K Rowling and Harry Potter and for fans of the books Greyfriars Kirkyard is a place that should definitely be on your list to visit. Though we may not know for definite a look at the names on some of the graves will soon have you wondering if J K Rowling also took a walk or two here at some point. With a bit of hunting you can find the gravestone of a Thomas Riddell as well as one for a William McGonagall, inspiration for the Professor perhaps, even if this McGonagall was labelled in his lifetime as one of the worst poets in Scotland. There is also a Moody there and a rumour that the whole kirkyard was the inspiration for the graveyard at Godric's Hollow, the resting place of Harry's parents in the books. 

Inspiration for 'he who must not be named' perhaps

Maybe you've heard of the famous Edinburgh body snatchers Burke and Hare, though actually they didn't body snatch at all much preferring simply just to murder people to sell for dissection to Dr Robert Knox a lecturer on anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. Whilst they were perhaps the most famous, even if strictly not body snatchers, they certainly weren't the only individuals involved in this 'trade'. Resurrectionists, as they were known, had supplied the schools of anatomy in Scotland since the early 18th century. Medical students needed to learn about anatomy through the dissection of corpses but as supplies were limited the stealing of freshly buried bodies became a common practice. Families therefore took all sorts of preventative measures to ensure their loved one was not one of those taken and in Greyfriars kirkyard you can still see evidence of this with the use of the mortsafe.

As you can probably see from the photos below a mortsafe was typically made of iron or a combination of iron and stone in various designs and placed over the coffin. They were typically left there for about six weeks, just enough time to ensure the body was sufficiently decayed, before being removed and used elsewhere. Whilst it may be a slightly gruesome part of the city's history it's still an important one and this, along with the watchtowers in some of the other old graveyards around Edinburgh, only go to show just how big a problem body snatching was.

The kirkyard has many notable residents buried there, just like the majority of Edinburgh's old graveyards do. One of these is the infamous Sir George MacKenzie, better known as 'Bluidy MacKenzie'. MacKenzie was a lawyer, Lord Advocate, essayist and legal writer. Whilst he was Lord Advocate he was the minister responsible for implementing the policy of Charles II in Scotland against the Presbyterian Covenanters who I mentioned above and he had 1200 Covenanters imprisoned in a field near Greyfriars Kirkyard after the Battle of Bothwell Bridge in 1679. Some of them were ultimately executed and many others died of maltreatment, it was his cruel treatment of them that earned him his less than complementary nickname.

It is also rumoured that Greyfriars kirkyard is haunted by his poltergeist, with his ghost said to have inflicted bruising, bites and cuts on visitors to the kirkyard. If you look closely at the photo of his mausoleum below, can you see the padlock on the doors? This is to stop the curious from entering as, if you believe the rumours, MacKenzie is not keen on having visitors. The story goes that on a stormy night in 1998 a homeless man broke into the mausoleum looking for shelter. It was whilst he was trying to break into one of the coffins that the floor gave way and he fell into a pit below which contained the bodies of plague victims. Terrified he fled the scene scaring another passer-by as he did and from then on more and more stories began to circulate of people getting hurt when in the vicinity of the mausoleum. In the end, whether it's true or not, the council decided to take action and sealed it up to stop people getting inside. What do you think?
'Bluidy MacKenzie's mausoleum in the kirkyard

Within the graveyard there is also evidence of one of the former city walls of Edinburgh, the Flodden wall. There have been several city walls around Edinburgh at various times, the Flodden wall was erected in the 16th century after the Scots' defeat at the Battle of Flodden in 1513. The wall had a number of gates, known as ports within it, the most important of these was the Netherbow Port on the Royal Mile. This provided crucial access from the Canongate which at that time was a separate burgh. It was also the only one to take the form of a fortified gateway. 

Following the Scots defeat at Flodden an English invasion was widely expected and so the construction of what became known as the Flodden wall was begun. The wall also presented an opportunity to control smuggling into the burgh which resulted in it being extended to take in the Grassmarket and Cowgate areas too. At the time of its completion it enclosed an area of roughly 140 acres and remained the limit of the burgh until the 18th century. The earlier walls built before the Flodden wall either no longer exist or, if they do, very little is left, it's likely too that parts of them may have been incorporated into later buildings. Of the Flodden wall some sections can still be seen near the Grassmarket, Pleasance, Drummond Street and in Greyfriars kirkyard where it has since been covered in 16th and 17th century gravestones. Those parts of the walls that do remain are protected as scheduled monuments and the walls are also a part of the Old Town World Heritage site.

I've always loved exploring graveyards for the history that they can tell us about a place. Greyfriars kirkyard definitely has it all with its gruesome and maybe slightly spooky side, its endearing animal story, links to modern literature and the obvious historical interest of the site. Whatever you're interested in its somewhere that should definitely be on your visit list in the city.


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