Tales from beyond the grave - Edinburgh's Canongate kirkyard comes alive

By Ben Miller | 13 March 2015
A photo of a tombstone
The tombstone of poet Robert Fergusson, at the Canongate kirkyard in Edinburgh© Courtesy Edinburgh World Heritage
Scotland’s physician to George III and a popular Edinburgh University Professor by the age of 23, James Gregory’s stumbling block appears to have been his temper. He reputedly beat up one of his academic peers, earning him a fine of £100, but the recrimination apparently didn’t improve his attitude, and he offered to pay the fine (around £6,000 today) if he could repeat the assault.

Gregory is one of several inimitable figures buried in the Canongate kirkyard – a cemetery on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile used between the late 17th and mid-20th centuries. Adam Smith, the forward-thinking economist and a key player in the Enlightenment, is another.

“It is right next door to his old residence, Panmure House,” says David Hicks, of Edinburgh World Heritage.

“Also buried here are ‘Clarinda’ – the muse for much of Burns’ love poetry – and David Rizzio, the secretary who was murdered in front of Mary, Queen of Scots.”

A photo of a large graveyard site with a stone building at its front
© Courtesy Edinburgh World Heritage
Clarinda’s is not the only memorial with a Burns connection.

“The gravestone is interesting,” says Hicks, describing one photo.

“It marks the grave of poet Robert Fergusson and was paid for by Robert Burns.

“Fergusson’s use of Scots in his poetry inspired Burns greatly, and on visiting Edinburgh he went to see the grave only to find there was no headstone. Burns paid for one and wrote the inscription.”

Elsewhere, a group memorial recalls the Coachdrivers Society who operated the Edinburgh to London route, taking an arduous ten days – 12 in winter – to make the journey from 1754 onwards.

A photo of the entrance to a large urban graveyard under a blue sky
© Courtesy Edinburgh World Heritage
One grave is a reminder of a dramatic life: Darcy Lever had the tantalising stage name of Mr Darcy, causing organisers to wonder if he inspired Jane Austen’s character in Pride of Prejudice through word of mouth at the time.

A wealthy man, Lever played arrogant aristocrats during the 1780s. The Friends of the Kirkgate, formed in 2014, are hoping his will be one of the stories given greater public exposure by a new series of trails and podcasts as part of the Edinburgh Graveyards Project, including routes narrated by Alexander McCall Smith, the creator of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series.

“This a lovely location,” says Laura Harrington, the Chair of the Friends.

“It is a privilege to be able to work towards enhancing and promoting our wonderful kirkyard and to contribute towards the project.

A photo from above of a large urban graveyard by a hill under a blue sky
© Courtesy Edinburgh World Heritage
“It holds many untold tales and secrets of its past, just waiting to be found. It's vital these aren't lost.”

The trails have different themes: Scotland and the World, Arts, Enlightenment, Royalty and Trades.

“I see us all as the guardians of this sacred and historical place,” says Harrington.

“The trails are the first steps towards the incredible things that can be achieved when volunteers work together towards a common goal.

“The connection we make won’t stop at the walls of the kirkyard. They will stretch out into the Canongate and its community."

You can find the trail and podcasts online.

More from Culture24's History section:

Rare books by Blake, Carrol and de Sade emerge from Edinburgh collection for Surrealist display

What did Robert Burns look like? Burns Birthplace Museum on the many faces of The Bard

Head of Richard III reconstructed in four-hour operation based on DNA test results

Latest comment: >Make a comment
  • Back to top
  • | Print this article
  • | Email this article
  • | Bookmark and Share
    Back to article
    Your comment:
    DISCLAIMER: Reader comments posted at www.culture24.org.uk are the opinion of the comment writer, not Culture24. Culture24 reserves the right to withdraw or withhold from publication any comments that are deemed to be hearsay or potentially libellous, or make false or unsubstantiated allegations or are deemed to be spam or unrelated to the article at which they are posted.
    Museum Crush digest sign up ad
    We are culture24