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Explore Scotland | Unearthing Edinburgh's Past

The cobbly streets of Edinburgh's old town are full of stories as windy and knobbly as the streets themselves. Unravel the Secrets of Edinburgh's dark past by entering the City's dead centre: Greyfriars Kirkyard

The Scots love a good yarn. Their gift of the gab is matched only by their imagination and a good dose of gory, gothic history. It's difficult to be sure on the actual facts of history as they blur and bend over time, but most Scottish story-tellers will say the point is less about whether it's actually true than that it's a good story.

Stepping off the train at Edinburgh's Waverley station you step into a world of myth-making magic. It's a scene of cobbles, closes and that castle. A mammoth structure pitched impenetrably on a hill overlooking everything.

The city is divided in two by the railway tracks. The eclectic, medieval Old Town, and the New Town, with its ordered Georgian avenues and squares. They are the antipathy of each other. The New Town is as fresh and light as the Old Town is gothic and dark. On the New side of town were powdered wigs and ballrooms. On the Old, the witches and cobwebbed halls of Hogwarts. Literally. The school is over there, a stone's throw from the gravesites of Professor McGonagall, Mad-Eye Moodie and Voldemort.

And the witches, but I'll get to them later.

"Hogwarts" George Heriot School Edinburgh

A town full of stories

The cobbly streets of Edinburgh's old town are full of stories as windy and knobbly as the streets themselves. Tales of treason, witchcraft, passion gone wrong and daring hapless ventures. Of kings and beggars and all in between who wandered the square mile between castle and seat.

Many of them have ended up here, in Greyfriers Kirkyard...or around about it.

Greyfriars Kirkyard initially looks like just another churchyard with tombstones. But in a few steps, you can tell there's something different here. The looming grey granite church contrasts heavily against the deep green grass that is peppered with leering headstones.

It may be full of ghosts but it's also full of the stories that made the city.

The Killing Time

Greyfriars church was one of first to be converted after the Reformation. And it was here, in 1638, that the National Covenant was signed, binding 'covenanters' to the Presbyterian doctrine over any other. Needless to say this caused conflict with the English King and Parliament who believed they should determine the religious narrative of the land. This was a time of uprisings and civil war and Covenanters proved to be a force to be reckoned with.

In 1679, during a period known as "the Killing Time", 1200 Covenanters were taken prisoner and brought to Edinburgh. They were held in a makeshift prison in Greyfriars Kirkyard where they were starved and tortured as they awaited execution in the Grassmarket opposite.

Ironically the Kirkyard was where the original Covenant was signed 40 years before. And, in 1707, it was in this same kirkyard that a memorial was raised for the thousands of Covenanters who died as 'martyrs' throughout Scotland and England. The man who imprisoned them, George "Bluidy" MacKenzie, is also buried here in his family's private mausoleum.

By law, Covenanters were not allowed to be buried in kirkyards. If there was an attempt to do so, the body would be dug up and the ones who arranged the funeral could be hanged. But Covenanters weren't the only ones whose bodies didn't rest in peace.

Stealing the dead...and the not so dead

Some of the first graves you see in the churchyard are covered with a locked iron grill. As if they are trying to keep something awful from getting out. Instead, the ironwork was intended to keep grave robbers from stealing the bodies of the recently dead and selling them off to medical schools. The bodies would sit on the ground in the cage until they were so sufficiently rotted no self-respecting anatomy class would want it. And then it would be buried.

Of course taking measures like this lead to a shortage of bodies for medical science. In 1828, doing their bit for medical research, West Port Street duo William Burke and William Hare murdered 16 of Burke's hapless lodgers and sold their bodies to anatomy schools. Hare turned witness against Burke who was executed on the Lawnmarket in front of a cheering crowd of 25,000. His dissected body was put on display at the University of Edinburgh Medical School...the same School his victims ended up at.

Fire burn and cauldron bubble

It all sounds rather grim until you realise that the Kirkyard wall your leaning against is thought to be mortared with the ash of the witches they burned. The Scottish witch trials began in earnest after 1589 when King James IV was prevented from meeting his bride-to-be because of an 'unnatural' storm. Being an ardent puritan he knew this was the doing of witches so set out to rid Scotland of the pesky women once and for all.

Every few years there would be an 'outbreak of witchcraft' in a town or county kicking off a country-wide witch hunt with hundreds of 'witches' and their accomplices rounded up. Although Scotland only had a quarter of the population of England it had three times the witches. By the time the Witches Act was repealed in 1736, there were 4000 recorded prosecutions resulting in between 1500 and 2500 executions.

In Scotland, most of the witches put to the stake were strangled first, and their bodies burned after. Being burned alive was reserved only for the most treasonous or hapless of the Broom-Hildas. Like Lady Janet Douglas.

Up until 1537, Lady Janet lived happily with her family at Glamis Castle in Angus, near Edinburgh. However, she was vulnerable to King James V's hatred for his stepfather, who happened to be her brother. James V arrested Janet, her husband and son, bringing them to the black dungeons of Edinburgh castle where he set about proving that she had plotted to use witchcraft against him.

In Scotland, proving witchcraft wasn't as simple as throwing the woman in the water and seeing if she sunk or swam. They required confessions and witness statements. When these weren't readily given against Janet, because of her fine upstanding character, James V tortured her family, friends and servants. Even her teenage son was put on the rack.

The crowd purportedly watched in tearful silence as the beautiful, innocent woman was burned alive.

The Gibbet or the Gallows

Staying alive in Edinburgh was a tricky business. Edinburgh, as the seat of the Scottish monarchy, was regularly under attack from England. It was also severely overcrowded. Fires would burn through the closely built houses, there was malnutrition, sickness and crime. And plague. There are tens of thousands of plague victims who were dumped in Greyfriars Kirkyard in unmarked grave pits.

Though the city had a relatively small population (1200 in the year 1500 rising to 60,000 by 1800) public executions were an almost daily occurrence, meaning criminals were as vulnerable as their victims. Many crimes were punishable by death. From treason to robbery, even concealing a pregnancy would get you the gibbet or the gallows. And executions were public events well attended. Around the corner from Greyfriars Kirk, the Grassmarket was a meeting place and cattle market and, from 1660 to 1784, a place of execution.

The Last Drop Pub Edinburgh

General criminals and Covenanters were hanged or beheaded, the treasonous were hanged, drawn and quartered, witches were burned at the stake (though often strangled first). And, just to set the tone of the no-nonsense Scottish Capital, an executed body would be hung in a cage from the gibbet, sometimes for years as it rotted and was pecked away at by crows.

On the wrong end of the rope

Justice was a bit on the loose side. Crimes weren't necessarily proven and those with contacts in high places received reprieves. In 1736, on their way to the gallows, robbers Wilson and Robertson attempted an escape by overpowering their guards. It was their second escape attempt and this time Robertson managed to get away.

Wilson was executed but the mob got edgy and rose up against the City Guard. John Pourteous, Captain of the Guard, ordered his men to fire a volley at the mob, then a second when the even more outraged mob attacked. Half a dozen Edinburgh citizens were killed and around 30 wounded.

Although sentenced to death for the unlawful killing, Porteous was granted a Royal pardon and set free. This was seen as a slight by the lynch mob who rounded Porteous up in the Guards' Tolbooth and dragged him kicking and screaming to the Grassmarket. He's also lying in Greyfiars.

And then there's the story of Half-Hangit Maggie Dickson...but I'll leave you to find that one out for yourself when you get here.



GET THERE: Greyfriars Kirkyard Cemetery is on Candlemakers Row in Edinburgh's Old Town. Edinburgh is an international and domestic air terminal and is on the UK national rail network.

TOURS: Tours of the Kirkyard can be provided by Greyfriars or a dozen other Edinburgh based tour companies. But don't confine yourself to the graveyard. There are stories all over Edinburgh and plenty willing to tell them. (NOTE: "Free" tour guides work for tips.)

DO YOU REALLY NEED A TOUR?: No, but the Scots are great storytellers and this is a city of fantastical stories so it's kind of fun. I did a few tours, but this wasn't one.



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