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Greyfriars Kirkyard: Touring the Dead Centre of Edinburgh

by robcarr00032

Explore Greyfriars Kirkyard, the Dead Centre of Edinburgh

Welcome, fellow wanderers, to the eerie embrace of Greyfriars Kirkyard, nestled in the heart of Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh. Tucked between George Heriot’s School and the Greyfriars Bobby Pub it is a destination not to be missed for any traveler exploring the city. Now, you might be scratching your head thinking why on earth people would want to explore a cemetery. But let me assure you, what lies buried beneath unveils some of Edinburgh’s most intriguing tales. 

Greyfriars Kirkyard isn’t just your average burial ground; it’s a historical hotspot which was once home to a Franciscan Monastery. However, in 1560, the grounds of the monastery were handed back to Mary Queen of Scots.  Within two years, the land was granted as Edinburgh’s main burial ground because the cemetery at St Giles started to become overcrowded. Since then, it has become the resting place for countless prominent Scots, with nearly an astonishing 100,000 souls interred here. Hence, its no surprise that this sacred place is steeped in stories.  

As visitors tour Greyfriars Kirkyard, they uncover the layers of history beneath the weathered tombstones. Some seek the resting place of Edinburgh’s cherished Skye terrier, Greyfriars Bobby. While curious Harry Potter fans embark on their quest to find the dark lord, Thomas Riddell. Ghost hunters brave the night skies with their lanterns as they seek out the George MacKenzie poltergeist. Others are captivated by the Iron Mortsafes that were used to protect bodies from grave robbers. These are but a few of the memorising tales waiting to be discovered by all who tread upon this sacred ground. Now let us delve deeper into these aspects to unravel their full allure.

Greyfriars Kirkyard

Meet Greyfriars Bobby

The story that steals the heart of so many visitors touring the city. Is the story of Greyfriars Bobby the Skye Terrier who lived in 19th century Edinburgh. He became famous for his remarkable loyalty to his owner, John Gray, a local night watchman in the police.

After two years side by side John Gray tragically developed tuberculosis. Everyday that John suffered in his bed Bobby lay by his side comforting his owner until he eventually passed away in 1858. After the wake, Bobby returned to his owners gave where its believed he spent the next 14 years guarding his master’s grave and mourning his life. Despite attempts to remove him, Bobby always returned, earning the admiration of locals and visitors.

Bobby’s devotion captured the public’s imagination, and highlighted the amazing connection animals can have with their owners. How they can become like family. Visitors to Edinburgh flocked to see the faithful dog, and his fame grew even more after his own death in 1872. There are now two statues in Edinburgh of Bobby. The original was by Lady Burdett-Coutts, the co-founder of the RSPCA. It was erected in his honour outside the cemetry entrance, depicting Bobby faithfully watching over his master’s grave.

People stroke his nose believing that it symbolises the enduring bond between humans and their loyal companions. However, overtime this has damaged the statue and it is generally frowned upon by locals. 

Discover Greyfriars Kirkyard's influence on Harry Potter

As a Harry Potter tour guide and super fan, I couldn’t possibly overlook the significance of the graves which many believe helped inspire J K Rowling in naming some of the Harry Potter characters. Chief among these is the grave of the Dark Lord himself, Tom Riddle, alongside others like McGonagall, Moodie, and Scrimgeour.

Though J.K. Rowling has never officially confirmed these connections, the speculation persists. What we do know is that upon her arrival in Edinburgh in 1993 she had only written the first three chapters of “Harry and the Philosopher’s Stone” yet she has since made this city her home, a testament to the profound impact it had on her creative journey.

Living on Gardener’s Crescent, she would often stroll through the streets of the Old Town, pushing her daughter Jessica in a pram until she drifted off to sleep. “Every time Jessica would fall asleep,” Rowling recalled, “I’d dash to the nearest café and write as much as I could.” The cafe she depended on regularly in the early stages was Nicolson’s Cafe which was co-owned by her sisters husband which is only 400m away from Greyfriars Kirkyard and between here and her home. It seems to be too much of a coincidence, right?

In addition, as Rowling’s popularity soared following the release of her first book, and an interview was undertaken of her in Nicolson’s Cafe. In a bid to stay away from unwanted attention and curious fans she started going to other cafes including the Elephant House Cafe. Here she was able to find peace at the window where she could not only see the Edinburgh Castle but also Greyfriars Kirkyard.

Want to learn more about Greyfriars Kirkyard through a fun and interactive small group walking tour?

Join our Harry Potter and History Tour Today

The Grave Robbers

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Edinburgh witnessed a significant medical revolution. The Edinburgh Town Council and surgeons recognised the importance of cadavers for medical progress. Initially, bodies of executed criminals or deceased prisoners were supplied to the College of Surgeons for dissection. However, with the demand for bodies outstripping supply, a black market emerged. Professors offered substantial sums (up to £10 per body) to fulfill the need, especially for students. This sum was life-changing, particularly for the lower class, highlighting the desperation driving the trade. Thus, the era of Bodysnatchers or Grave Robbers was born. These shadowy figures lurked in graveyard shadows, waiting for a burial and an empty graveyard before unearthing bodies for sale to medical science. Greyfriars Kirkyard, being one of the nearest graveyards to the medical school, played a pivotal role in this grim trade.

As grave robbing escalated, local communities grew increasingly fearful of their loved ones’ fate. To combat this, measures were taken, with Greyfriars showing prime examples. A watchtower was erected at the graveyard’s entrance, serving as a deterrent. Those who could afford it invested in Iron Mortsafes, structures designed to protect graves from robbers. Those with a bit more bees and honey reinforced Mausoleums with iron bars and gated access, accessible only by key, providing physical defense against intrusion. However, this protection was a luxury inaccessible to the lower class, leaving their loved ones vulnerable to the grave robbing threat.

The Convenantors Prison

Scotland went through political and religious instability during the Protestant Reformation. Until it came to a head between 1661 through to 1688, a period known as “The Killing Time”. Royalty saw the followers of the Protestant Prebysterian religion as treasonus, rebellious and brain washing the nation. So they went into many different wars with them. One in particular that relates to Greyfriars Kirkyard was The Battle of Bothwell Brig. 

The red coated government soldiers took around 1,200 Covenanters as prisoners of war, marched them 40 miles back to Edinburgh and locked them in what we now call the Covenanters Prison. It is here you can feel the weight of history a devastating reminder of the struggle so many people have had for religious freedom.

Many think that you can’t access the Covenantors prison. But you can! The City of the Dead give you the opportunity to embrace the thrill of the unknown as you wander through this historic cemetery at NIGHT.  Bringing out the restless spirits including the poltergeist of George “Bluidy” MacKenzie. 

Covenanters Prison

Visiting Greyfriars Kirkyard

Today we have shared a few of the gems hidden inside of the Greyfriars Kirkyard grounds however, there is so much more! You can discover the fascinating Flodden Wall, the resting place of the founder of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and the legacy of the Adam Family to name but a few.

Whether you tour Greyfriars Kirkyard as a Harry Potter fan, a history buff, or simply a curious traveler, Greyfriars Kirkyard offers an unforgettable journey through Edinburgh’s past. I absolutely love this location and buzzing that I have been able to share this with you. There really is something for everyone! If you want to take your experience to the next level and learn more then I can absolutely recommend taking a walking tour. Edinburgh is host to many high quality tour guides who do an incredible job in bringing the locations and stories to life. 

Thanks for reading along I really hope you have found this blog informative and enjoyable. If you have don’t hesitate to like, share, or drop us a comment. I look forward to sharing more intriguing Scotland content with you. Your support means the world to us! See you at the next one.

Want to learn more about Greyfriars Kirkyard through a fun and interactive small group walking tour?

Join our Harry Potter and History Tour Today

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