Greyfriars Kirkyard is an infamous 16th century graveyard situated in the grounds of the former Franciscan Friary and latter day Greyfriars Kirk. The name refers to the vestments the Friars wore prior to the Scottish reformation of 1560, when the monastery was destroyed and the grounds passed into the ownership of Mary Queen of Scots. Queen Mary subsequently granted it to the town council to use as a graveyard as the one at St Giles’ Cathedral had become too crowded, and it seems a tad pungent. Edinburgh Council Records for the 23rd of April 1561 state that the kirkyard was developed, ‘Because it is thoct gude that their be na buriall within the Kirk, and that the kirkzaird is nocht of sufficient rowme for bureing of the deid, and for esdrewing of the savour and inconvenientis that may follow thairupon in the heit of somer, it would be providit that ane buriall place be maid farrer from the myddis of the town, sic as in the Greyfreir zaird and the somyn biggit and maid close’.
Greyfriars Kirkyard has become synonymous with body-snatchers, Bobby the loyal dog and strong poltergeist activity. It is true that the kirkyard does have a dark and bloody history mainly due to the religious persecutions carried out in the 17th century by King appointed Lord Advocate Sir George MacKenzie against the rebel Presbyterian Covenanters. In June 1679 the King’s forces massacred many of the last Covenanters at the battle at Bothwell Brig and the several thousand captured were brought to a corner of the graveyard and imprisoned there in unbelievably harsh conditions. Over the winter of 1679 many of the covenanters froze to death, were tortured, killed and the remaining men subjected to deportation to Barbados. Sir George MacKenzie who subsequently became known as ‘Bluidy MacKenzie’ for his part in the deaths of 18,000 of his countrymen died in 1691 and was buried in a mausoleum only a stones throw from where the prison stood. This mausoleum undoubtedly has a very foreboding and dark character to it even without paying reference to the countless tales of poltergeist activity attributed to the tomb.
Many notable Scots are buried in the graveyard such as the poet William McGonagall (father of Sir Walter Scott), James Craig, the architect of the New Town, chemist Joseph Black, and philanthropist Mary Erskine to name just a few. One of the most famous non-human burials of all time, the grave of ‘Greyfriars Bobby’ is situated near the church. The story goes that Bobby, a Skye Terrier kept a 14 year vigil on his master’s grave, a man named John Gray and was buried beside him when he eventually died. The church that stands in the grounds of Greyfriars was the first church built in post-Reformation Edinburgh, work began on it in 1602 but it given the climate at the time it was not fully completed until 1620. There are many gates and vaults enclosed in iron frames to prevent the grim practice of the resurrectionists or ‘sack-em-ups‘, the infamous graverobbers.
A visit to Greyfriars is highly recommended, the graves and mausoleums are beautifully decorated with unusual designs and memento mori, don’t rest too long at MacKenzie’s tomb though!
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