Old Calton Burial Ground

I think you should probably know by now, but just in case you don't, I'm a big lover of exploring graveyards and luckily for me Edinburgh is bursting with them. This one, close to Calton hill with its entrance way built into a tall outside wall and a flight of steps taking you up to the graves is, like all the city centre graveyards, full of the notable and influential in history who have called Edinburgh home. Like many of the other graveyards in the city, its graves and monuments to the dead wouldn't look out of place in any graveyard scene from a scary film. Many of these monuments to the dead so large that they are nearly impossible to see over the top of, creating a fascinating space to explore.

The burial ground was opened in 1718, prior to that the villagers of Calton which was at the western base of Calton hill had been burying their dead at the South Leith parish church but, due to the inconvenience of that, the land where the burial ground now is was bought with an access road from the village to the burial ground built. The burial ground was expanded several times with burials finally stopping in 1869. Not too far away from here is the New Calton burial ground (also worth a visit) which was built as an overspill for the Old Calton burial ground. This new burial ground served as the place of rest for the bodies that had to be exhumed when Waterloo Place was built which cut through the existing graveyard. Interestingly I've since learnt, as a result of doing a bit of research for this post, that there is a tiny part of the graveyard on the opposite side of the road which is accessible via Calton hill (the street). I have walked along that street in the past but clearly never paid close enough attention to notice this. I wonder how many others who walk that street are unaware of this too.

Within the graveyard are the remains of the former Calton jail, once the largest prison in Scotland, Jules Verne described it as resembling a small-scale version of a medieval town and it was often mistaken for the castle by visitors to the city. The prison housed murderers, fraudsters and terrorists alongside petty criminals like pickpockets. It housed both men and women and from 1914 this also included conscientious objectors as well as suffragettes, many of whom went on hunger strike, leading to them being cruelly force fed by prison guards. The remaining turreted building, the Governor's House, was built between 1815 and 1817 and other than this building and some of the jail walls, the rest of the jail was eventually demolished around 1935.

As I mentioned Old Calton Burial Ground is full of the well known dead from Edinburgh's past, including the philosopher David Hume, John Haig of the Haig whisky family and father of Field Marshal Haig and John Playfair, mathematician, scientist and brother of the architect James Playfair and engineer William Playfair. Playfair's grave was originally unmarked and was only given a plaque in 2011. He does however have a monument which stands on Calton hill and can be seen from the graveyard. I got to see that following a walk available on the 'Curious Edinburgh' app which has lots of good themed walks to follow at your leisure around the city.

A particularly interesting monument in the graveyard is this one with a statue of Abraham Lincoln and a freed slave giving thanks at his feet. This is an American Civil War memorial, dedicated in August 1893 to Scots who fought and died in the war, and is known as the Scottish-American Soldiers monument. It is the only monument to the American Civil War outside of the United States, was the first statue of a US President outside of its borders and is still the only statue of Lincoln in Scotland. The monument was erected at American expense in honour of a small group of Scots, all of whom fought for the Union in the war, to whom it felt indebted, wishing their graves to be marked despite their later poverty. One of this group, William Duff, is buried underneath it and the rest buried nearby.

Especially prominent in the burial ground is the Martyrs' monument (the tall obelisk in the photo above) which commemorates five political reformists from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It was erected in 1844 and dedicated to Thomas Muir, Thomas Fyshe Palmer, William Skirving, Maurice Margarot and Joseph Gerrald. These five men, two from Scotland and three from England, were imprisoned for campaigning for parliamentary reform, inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution. They were charged with sedition and sentenced to terms of penal transportation in New South Wales. Of the five only two served their full sentences and were released. Palmer stayed in New South Wales and founded a beer brewing operation, dying en route to England whilst on a trading voyage. Margarot left the colony when his sentence was complete and was the only one of the martyrs to return to the UK. Muir escaped in the early part of 1796 and stowed away on an American ship, he eventually made his way to revolutionary France where he subsequently died. The other two both died in 1796, Gerrald of tuberculosis and Skirving of either dysentery or an overdose of laudanum.

The burial ground is definitely worth a visit and being only a shortish walk from Princes Street and close to Calton hill it's very easy to visit. Whether you're looking for a particular grave or monument or just hunting out the fascinating imagery adorning the graves here it's an interesting place to spend some time.

If you too have an interest in graveyards Edinburgh, as I've said, it is the perfect place to get your fix, whilst there are others I'm still yet to write about I have written previously about both St Cuthbert's church graveyard and Greyfriars kirkyard, follow the links to read more.


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