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Discover some of the buried stories of the five internationally-important graveyards within Edinburgh's World Heritage Site.

Number of stops: 5

Distance: 2.2 miles

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Buried stories…

Each of the trails features a timeline and map which reveals some of the buried stories about Old and New Calton Burying Grounds, Greyfriars, Canongate, and St Cuthbert’s Kirkyards. The trails were produced as part of our Edinburgh Graveyards Project, which aims to promote and conserve the five historic graveyards within the World Heritage Site. The project is also supported by the World Monument Fund and the Pilgrim Trust.

Take in the epic history of Scotland’s nation-makers buried in Greyfriars with their magnificent monuments. Or discover the local stories of the craftsmen buried in Calton Old Burial Ground, their stones carved with symbols laden with coded meanings. Step away from Edinburgh’s busy West End and enjoy St Cuthbert’s beautiful green oasis. New Calton Burial Ground is one of the city’s hidden gems, with its breathtaking views over the Scottish Parliament, the palace of Holyroodhouse and Arthur’s Seat. Down in Canongate kirkyard the scavenger hunt, treasure trails and puzzles provide fun for all the family, illustrating why graveyards are places where you can’t help but learn about the past.

The five graveyards are of international importance, charting the city’s development from the medieval burgh to the eighteenth and nineteenth century neo-classical city. As a group they also document some of the major changes in Scottish history, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution. Many historically important figures are buried in the five graveyards, such as philosophers David Hume in Old Calton burying ground, and Adam Smith in Canongate Kirkyard; George Buchanan, tutor to King James VI in Greyfriars and mathematician John Napier in St Cuthbert’s Kirkyard.

The trails are supported under the Edinburgh World Heritage Green Heritage project, with funding from the Climate Challenge Fund.

St Cuthbert’s Kirkyard

The graveyard of the ‘kirk below the castle’ is an intrinsic part of the story of christianity in Scotland from the early medieval period onwards. Oral tradition recalls how the great missionary, Cuthbert, preached from this spot in the 7th century and established the very first church here, about 1300 years ago. Despite its busy city centre location, the site feels secluded and secret.

The kirkyard contains approximately 747 headstones, monuments, tombs and other structures. The watchtower is of historical importance as it provides evidence of changes to burial traditions during the late 18th and early 19th centuries arising from the practice of ‘bodysnatching’. An early area of the kirkyard known as the ‘knowe’ has an interesting and important collection of 18th century headstones.

Greyfriars Kirkyard

The kirkyard was founded on the site of a former Franciscan friary in 1562, following a grant of land by Mary, Queen of Scots. The graveyard predates the establishment of the kirk in 1620. Although popularly associated with Greyfriar’s Bobby, this site was the setting for many historical events of national significance, including the imprisoning of Covenanters after the Battle of Bothwell Bridge in 1679.

The kirkyard contains approximately 716 headstones, monuments, tombs, and other structures. It also incorporates a stretch of the Flodden Wall, part of the city’s sixteenth-century defences. The monuments show exceptional quality in terms of their materials and execution, and represent the work of leading masons and architects. As so little sculpture survives from seventeenth century, the collection at Greyfriars is of major importance.

Canongate Kirkyard

The graveyard of the ‘Royal Kirk’ was established in 1687. Distinguished persons buried at the site include the economist Adam Smith and the poet Robert Fergusson. In 1953, the Mercat Cross was relocated to within the kirkyard’s boundaries. The kirkyard contains approximately 352 headstones, monuments, tombs, and other structures.

The graveyard is important for the contribution it makes to the greening of distant views in the Old Town and for retaining an impression of how the Canongate may have looked when it was first developed. The kirkyard is a key element within a group of buildings that survive as the historic core of the former Canongate Burgh.

More trails from the Canongate Kirk

Friends of Canongate kirkyard have produced these “Burghs and Burials Trails” – each take a different theme, highlighting some of the fascinating and quirky stories behind the people buried in the kirkyard. The philosopher Adam Smith, poet Robert Fergusson and Agnes Macelhose or ‘Clarinda’, the muse for Burns’ poetry, all have graves there, but the trails also highlight some of the less well known burials. The trails are illustrated by Carmen Moran, and researched by Eric Drake, Vice Chair of the Friends. Support for the initiative has come from the Edinburgh World Heritage Green Heritage Project, funded by the Climate Challenge Fund:

Old Calton Burial Ground

This site is unusual as it was not established by an ecclesiastical body, but by the Incorporated Trades of Calton. Laid out in 1718, the graveyard was later divided in two by the construction of Waterloo Place in 1817. Its resulting layout is highly significant as evidence of the development of the New Town and Calton Hill area.

The burial ground contains approximately 412 headstones, monuments, tombs and other structures dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. These are of exceptional quality, including three nationally important monuments; the Lincoln Statue, Martyr’s Monument and Hume’s Mausoleum. The site contains several 18th century headstones with well-executed trade and mortality carvings.

New Calton Burial Ground

New Calton was established in 1817 and was also founded by the Incorporated Trades of Calton. The site is important because it is a precursor to the introduction of the Victorian cemetery. It is a well-designed landscape with distinctive terraces and a striking south-facing slope affording outstanding views over the Scottish Parliament, Palace of Holyroodhouse and Holyrood Park.

The burial ground contains approximately 1,000 headstones, monuments, tombs and other structures of high quality spanning the 18th and 19th centuries, including a watchtower.