Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Edinburgh and The Lothians
Chapter XV - The Graveyards of Edinburgh

Edinburgh CastleMEDITATIONS among tombs are not, according to the experience of mankind, heartsome or delightful. Perhaps Edinburgh affords an exception to the rule, perhaps not, but the question is irrelevant. In this city of the past and the distant the graveyard occupies a predominant place. If you study Auld Reekie to any purpose you will be often in the visible presence of her dead. The very names of their resting-places form a long list. Of pre-Reformation burying-grounds there is little to be said. Holyrood is still the privilege of the few. The stone that marks the conjectural grave of Knox in the Parliament Close reminds us that the greatest of old-time Edinburgh cemeteries was between St Giles and the Cowgate—" Where now the studious lawyers have their bowers." Knox, as some would say, the greatest of Scotsmen, was almost the last of those buried here. A few years later and he had lain in Greyfriars, given by Queen Mary in 1566 as at some convenient distance from the town. And in going to it you pass the site of St Ninian’s in the Cowgate, and ere you enter you catch a glimpse of the old College buildings to the left, and that is Kirk o’ Field. And once there were graveyards round these two chapels, so that all that is keenest and highest in Edinburgh of to-day lives and works over the bones of its earlier citizens. But turn to the right and walk through Greyfriars. What strikes you most? Probably the view of the Castle rising steep and sheer from the Grassmarket. You are in a crowded place; the tombs push and jostle one another, stone is packed on stone. You see how high the ground rises above the adjacent Candlemaker Row. Once it stood level or below it. Centuries of mortality have packed it thus upwards, and here lie the leaders of their race by right of birth or right of brain. Hence those ponderous domes and temples, the sonorous Latin of those interminable inscriptions. A notice at the gate gives you a list of great men that lie there. Before all here is the graveyard of the Covenant. On the flat gravestones by the entry copies were spread, and crowds thronged to sign, some with blood drawn from their own veins, with tears on their hard, stern cheeks, and invoking in passionate voice the name of their God. Standing there to-day you compute by visible signs the price they were to pay for it. At the foot you could almost throw a stone to the place where the martyrs of the Covenant were to glorify God in the Grassmarket. To the south-west, in a spur of the churchyard, those taken after the Pentland Rising of 1666 were confined in the open air for over a year. In another part is the Martyrs’ Memorial, which tells, in rude verse, of their sufferings, and heartily execrates "the Prelatists abjured," who wrought their earthly ruin. To add the emphasis of contrast, there on the south side is the classical temple, the splendid tomb of Sir George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh, "the Bluidy Advocate Mackenzie," in Scott’s phrase, or, to use the plainer but not less graphic words of one of the persecuted, "that excommunicate tyrant, George Mackenzie, the advocate." You may be sure, had the signatories seen all before them as plain as you see all behind you, they would have signed with equal ardour, with the same stern devotion to their ideals. They earned the reward of fearless, resolute men, they gained their ends, their cause triumphed, their faith was established at the Revolution. There was a wreath on the Martyrs’ Monument the last time I passed there, and if there was none on Mackenzie’s at least it had lately been refurbished; thus "that noble wit of Scotland," as Dryden called him, is not left altogether to popular hate. And in this age of universal tolerance no one now shouts through the grating in half-frightened derision the famous couplet:

"Bluidy Mackenzie come out if ye dar,
Lift the sneck and draw the bar."

You realize the stem, crude realism of old Scots religion as you stroll through Greyfriars; the skull and crossbones were, perhaps, merely conventional, as the figure with the inverted torch (at least a more beautiful symbol) among the Greeks, but an elaborate, full-sized skeleton grins at you from the walls of the church, and not far off a long inscription urges on you the shortness of life, the wrath of God, the enormity of punishment, the exceeding small number of the elect, and other such seasonable and heartening reflections. You would not find modem sculpture or words after this fashion in contemporary epitaphs; the fashion of thought has shifted. Dean Stanley, in this very Greyfriars, eloquently descanted on the virtues of peace, love and toleration. "Greyfriars," he said, "like his own Westminster, was the burial-place of reconciled enmities." Ah, not even in death did those old Scots forgive and forget, and if those that now fill their places seem to do both is it not that they are careless and their ideals other and more material if not lower? Scott discovered, though he scarcely realized, that Covenanter was far better literary stuff than Cavalier, and if kailyard novelists have worked the mine till the ore be of the thinnest, yet it has kept alive the memory of a tradition. But the years before the Covenant and the years long after are hinted at here at every turn. Those heavy iron gratings you see over some of the graves were to save the bodies from the resurrectionists. Greyfriars gives another piquant and altogether different contrast. Mean houses surround the churchyard, mean clothes hang out to dry at the windows—tattered ensigns not of the illustrious dead but of the baser sort of the living. R. L. S. has pictured the scene in words too well known for quotation.

If you take cemeteries in turn you will next get to the Canongate, and again you find a crowded yard, and stately tombs, and historic names, and houses abutting on the sacred soil. As background you have on the north the Calton Jail, that mock or imitation Castle, but right in the foreground is the new or present and strikingly beautiful High School. The officer will show you the grave of Adam Smith. The inscription puts the Theory of the Moral Sentiment before the Wealth of Nations, but I won’t discuss the why and the wherefore. On my last visit we moralized together over the neglected state of the tomb; you make out the inscription with some difficulty. It is but a plain gravestone against the wall towards the Canongate. At that very time there was an election on hand and the pros and cons of the doctrine of Free Trade identified with his name were in the mouths of all men, and the tomb was sinking into neglected ruin. Adam Smith and his friend David Hume, perhaps, have talked it over in the shades with a gentle, cynical smile, for surely the description of the perfectly wise man which Smith gave to his dead friend was true of both. I followed the attendant to another tomb, and it was in much better condition, for the cult of Bums at any rate is not dead in the land, and this was the stone and the verse that he gave to Fergusson. The attendant, however, had other reasons. He called my attention to the superior character of the stone itself and the careful cutting of the letters. Perhaps Bums’ generous action roused the very craftsmen to a touch of shame. Why had they left this tribute to a native to be paid by a stranger, not rich, and from the other end of Scotland? Robert Fergusson is of Edinburgh clay every bit, though fashioned to the shape of genius. I have spoken of Hume as the friend of Smith. If you choose to climb the Calton Hill you will find a burial-place on its lower slopes, and there is a round tomb, simple yet imposing, that would not be out of place on the Appian Way. The inscription is merely, "David Hume, born 26th April 1711, died 25th August 1766. Erected in memory of him, 1768." You notice just above is a cross and a pious inscription. Do not be surprised or shocked, they belong to another member of the family. Around are other classical or semiclassical monuments. It is again the story of crowded space and eminent names and costly funeral furniture. Hume is the one very great man buried here, but there are no wreaths. Often as I have visited it I have never found another pilgrim! Among the numerous public monuments of Edinburgh there is none to this mighty thinker. The populace of the day took a certain interest in his interment, but it was not of a flattering kind. They visited the cemetery afterwards, expecting to find a rifled sepulchre. Satan, it was confidently believed, would come, or had come, in person to remove the body of his very own. Not without a certain horror the citizens for years watched the figure of an elderly gentleman with broad face and benevolent smile and a somewhat corpulent habit of body though his life was simplicity itself. Day by day he trod their streets, as familiar as the Tron Kirk or the Crown of St Giles As the years went by the step became less active and the corpulency more accentuated, but there was always the same placid smile, with a depth of humour and irony which none probed. True, he was hand-in-hand with Principal Robertson and "Jupiter" Carlyle and John Home and Hugh Blair and a dozen other moderates; but then they were moderates and so almost as bad as he was, and their comfortable theory, that his scepticism was only a very far-fetched and ill-considered pleasantry, was not, be it said to the credit of ordinary Edinburgh intelligence, universally accepted. Meanwhile he was known as the author of some philosophic essays which had no popular vogue, which indeed have never been popular from his day to this, but were to act with deadly effect on the master minds of Europe. To awaken Kant from his "dogmatic slumber," to set a whole series of philosophies a-going, to give certain phases of faith the rudest shock they had ever sustained, not to mention the composition of the standard history of England, was no mean achievement. His work was done, and when his expected hour came he went quietly away. The citizens of Edinburgh are wise in their generation. A marble bust, say in Princes Street Gardens, would spoil all proportion. Hume with brave Dr Livingstone and respectable Adam Black and kindly Dean Ramsay! The giant among mediocrities! The result were positively indecent.

I will not prolong my meditations among the tombs, yet I cannot leave unmentioned "the crowded yard. There at the west of Princes Street," the graveyard of St Cuthbert’s. You have another fine view of the Castle, and right above you is the sally port, with its memories of St Margaret and Dundee and Gordon. A true city graveyard this! Tramways grind along the Lothian Road on one side, the traffic of Princes Street hustles by on another, and a main line of railway burrows beneath the graves of the dead, and engines shriek and whistle within their very precincts, as if to waken the untold generations that in other times climbed the Kirk Brae, which you can try to pick out amidst miles of streets, and sat under godly and learned divines who held forth in St Cuthbert’s Kirk, and who finally went to sleep with their flock in this huge yard. You have hardly the patience, amidst all the din and rattle, to pick out De Quincey’s resting-place and reflect that the alien wanderer is the best-remembered citizen of this abode of the dead.

I will not drag you further, O reader! to the burial ground of Buccleuch Parish Church, or to Warriston Cemetery, or the Dean Cemetery, or the Grange Cemetery, though many a name in those places is still a household word in Scotland, ay, and far beyond it, because I feel that in the end too grievous is the weight of mortality!

Return to Edinburgh and The Lothians index page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus