The best collection of seventeenth century monuments in Scotland
Greyfriars Kirkyard is the graveyard surrounding Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh’s Old Town. It stands on land granted to the town council by Mary Queen of Scots in 1562 following a decision that the “burial ground situated on Edinburgh’s High Street had become so overcrowded and fetid with burials as to cause unbearable smells to permeate through the Kirk (St Giles) in the summer months…”
Monuments and tombs in Greyfriars Kirkyard
While it’s only an estimate there are thought to be around 238 monuments, 112 tombs and over 300 wall plaques along with numerous other sculpted pieces. The Buildings of Scotland an authoritative architectural guide suggests that Greyfriars “boasts the best collection of 17th century monuments in Scotland.”
Who is Buried at Greyfriars Kirkyard?
Among the many burials that took place at Greyfriars are some of Edinburgh’s most prominent citizens:
- George Mackenzie lawyer and the Lord Advocate during the rule of Charles II. Brutal persecutor of the Covenanters – he was “Bluidy Mackenzie.”
- Archibald Campbell, 9th Earl of Argyll (1629-1685)
- George Buchanan, historian (d.1582)
- William McGonagall, poet (1825-1902)
- James Craig, designer of Edinburgh’s New Town (1739-1795)
- Captain John Porteous, soldier (1695-1736
- Joseph Black, chemist and eminent Enlightenment figure (1728-1799)
- William Adam (1689-1748) and his son John (1721- 1792, both notable architects
- John Grey the master of the little dog Greyfriars Bobby who is buried nearby.
Greyfriars, the most haunted graveyard
Whether Greyfriars Kirkyard is realy haunted or not is an ongoing debate.
But it’s not hard to see why some people might think it was, for even a short walk around the site reveals headless figures rising from the grave, skeletons, skulls and crossbones and other symbols of death. For some the carvings are a little disconcerting, particularly on a late winter’s afternoon as the light starts to fade.
In Edinburgh Picturesque Notes, Robert Louis Stevenson’s wrote, “We Scotch stand…highest among nations in the matter of grimly illustrating death. The classic examples of this art are in Greyfriars.”
Greyfriars Kirkyard will be forever associated with the plight of over a thousand Covenanter prisoners housed, following the Battle of Bothwell Bridge in 1679, in terrible conditions on the southern side of the Kirkyard. Over a hundred men never left their prison and are buried together in a trench, a site marked by a monument erected in 1771.
On a practical note the Edinburgh Graveyard Project: Documentary Survey for Greyfriars Kirkyard explains that by the beginning of the 18th century, space in the Kirkyard was becoming harder to find. As Edinburgh expanded and the population grew, records show that by the end of the century there were between 1100 and 1200 interments annually.
These pressures prompted a further expansion to the west of the site, behind Heriot’s Hospital, now George Heriot’s School. By 1860 such was the overcrowding the town council recommended the Kirkyard’s closure. Despite this a small number of burials continued into the 20th century.
Despite the number of luminaries who now rest here, perhaps the best-known resident in the Kirkyard is Greyfriars Bobby the little dog who stood guard over his master’s grave for 14 long years. It’s an endearing story which Walt Disney turned into a movie in 1961.
Greyfriars Kirk was later built on land owned by the Franciscan Convent in the nearby Grassmarket. It was the first church to be built in Edinburgh following the Reformation and opened its doors on Christmas Day 1620. In 1638 the National Covenant was signed in Greyfriars Kirk and today the church has a Church of Scotland congregation who worship in the Presbyterian tradition.