Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh, Scotland

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!

GPS: 55.94714, -3.19286


4 thoughts on “Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh, Scotland

  1. I have to say it: that is the most grim place you’ve ever brought us to. I love your photos and stories and no matter where you go, there is always something appealing to see. Not here. I know the fashion for memento mori was very du jour in the 17th century but that stuff is way beyond anything I’ve every seen. Without wanting to descend into the realms of Woo, all of it gives me the creeps.
    Having said all that, a friend who went to Uni in Edinburgh used to regularly cut through here on her way home, and on one particularly drunken night she even rolled herself up in her cloak (yes, nothing like dressing to fit the ambience, but this was the 1970s) and slept there with no ill effects. I’ve never appreciated her courage – or maybe her drunkenness – till now!

    • thank you Es, indeed its a grim place, still could do with someone picking up the rubbish! I really don’t think i’d sleep there but strangely enough peered into one mausoleum to see evidence that a poor homeless soul had been sleeping there at some stage, not even sure how they got in. A very extreme place in which to try and get some rest, it just adds to the sad poignancy of the place.

  2. “Many notable Scots are buried in the graveyard such as the poet William McGonagall (father of Sir Walter Scott)” Afraid that is not true, They had nothing to do with each other. Walter Scott’s fathers resting place is an overgrown patch just at the archway going through the Flodden wall on the right hand side and he was also called Walter.

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