Greyfriars’ Cemetery, Edinburgh, Saturday, May 2, 1835, pp.109-111.

[Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal Contents]


   THE principal burial-ground in the Scottish capital is one situated in the southern quarter of the city, and which forms the precinct of the Greyfriars’ churches. Previously to the Reformation, the greater part of this ground was a garden connected with a kind of school or college, taught by a body of Franciscan or grey friars, brought originally from Zurich; while the area around St. Gile’s church, in the centre of the town, was employed as a cemetery. But, in 1562, the magistrates and community petitioned Queen Mary, “that, because our town is populous, and the multitude thairof greit, your heines will give us the yairdis of the Grey freiris, being somewhat distant from our toun, to make ane burial-place of, to burie and eird the personnis decessand thairin, sae that thairthrow the air within our said toun may be the mair pure and clene;” a request which was promptly complied with. In the course of time, additions were made to the original yards, and a church built for the accommodation of the inhabitants, since called the Greyfriars’ Church. The cemetery is now of several acres in extent, and, besides the remains of countless multitudes of ordinary people, contains the ashes of many of the most distinguished men produced in Scotland during the last three centuries. It may indeed be called the metropolitan cemetery of the country – the Westminster Abbey of Scotland. 

   There is much of both historical and sentimental interest in a walk through this ancient place of sepulture – 

Along the walls where speaking marbles show 

What worthies form the hallowed mould below; 

Proud names which once the reins of empire held, 

In arms who triumphed, or in arts excelled; 

Chiefs graced with scars, and prodigal of blood; 

Stern patriots, who for sacred freedom stood; 

Just men by whom impartial laws were given; 

And saints who taught, and led, the way to heaven.1 

   Fashion having in some measure deserted this quarter of the town, and the burial-ground too, (for there is a fashion even in being buried,) the place has a decayed and venerable appearance, which adds to its impressiveness, while the scenery around – the stupendous Castle, the numerous minarets of Heriot’s Hospital, and the steeples and towers of the now surrounding city – conspire still further to increase the effect. Most of the monuments are old; many even of the finest, while retaining much of their original architectural elegance, have forgot the chief aim of their erection, the commemoration of the frail beings below, and stand like empty trophies around the place. There are some in secluded and sunless situations, which present a singularly dismal aspect. Upon lofty sarcophagi, surmounted by swelling mausolea, repose figures of lordly grace, and around each is drawn a strong wall, to protect it from the rudeness of vulgar contact. But the pains taken by the immediate mourners of these great ones have not been seconded by posterity. While the area is generally found filled with rubbish and weeds, the sculpture is in most cases defaced and blackened, the inscriptions gone, and nothing left in the waste and ruin of the scene to tell to whom or by whom it was consecrated. Nothing could more emphatically show the futility of all such attempts by one generation to obtrude itself upon the notice of another. 

   One of the first great men interred in the Greyfriars’ yard was GEORGE BUCHANAN, for whom, however, there has never been any monument. This illustrious scholar was buried here, at the expense of the city, in 1582, and in the immediately ensuing age his skull was exhumed, and was shown for many years in the college of Edinburgh, being remarkable for its exceeding thinness. On the west side of the churchyard, near the gate which leads to Heriot’s Hospital, is a plain obelisk with an urn upon the top, marking the grave of ALEXANDER HENDERSON, the first great clerical leader of the Covenanters, and who died in 1646, immediately after concluding a religious controversy with Charles I. The inscriptions upon this monument, which describe him as “a diligent defender of the freedom of the church against the fraud and tyranny of prelates,” were erased at the Restoration, by order of Parliament, but restored at the Revolution. The Greyfriars’ churchyard happens to be interestingly connected with the history of the Covenant. It was in the elder of the two churches that, on the 28th of February 1638, this celebrated document, framed for resisting the introduction of Episcopacy, and which was the means of beginning the civil war, was, after a prayer by Mr Henderson, first presented to the Scottish people. It is stated by tradition, that after being signed by the Earl of Sutherland and other persons within the church, it was brought out to the churchyard and read to a vast and rapturous crowd, who placed it upon the flat monuments, and there joyfully annexed their names. When times of a different temper arrived, and the adherents of this bond were sacrificed in multitudes by a jealous government, the greater part of one hundred noblemen, gentlemen, ministers, and others, who suffered for it in Edinburgh, were interred in the corner of this burial-ground allotted to common felons, where, in 1726, a monument was erected in their honour. It is a remarkable proof of the veneration still entertained in Scotland for the memory of these religious patriots, that, so lately as last year [1834], their place of rest, once considered mean and vile, was put into the condition of a flower-garden. 

   As it is the proverbial privilege of the grave to level distinctions and reconcile enemies, there is little occasion to wonder that the same burial-ground contains the body of Sir GEORGE MACKENZIE, the legal officer whose duty it was for a considerable time to prosecute those patriots to the death. This eminent and erudite person, however, had also his panegyrists, and the inscription upon his very beautiful mausoleum describes him as an ornament of his age, and a man kind to all “except a rebellious crew, from whose violence, with tongue and pen, he defended his country and king, whose virulence he stayed by the sword of justice, and whose ferocity he by the force of reason blunted, and only did not subdue.” Popular feeling, however, has taken a very different turn respecting the tomb of Mackenzie, from what it manifests regarding the lowly graves of “the martyrs.” The boys till a late period entertained the idea that the sprite of this great persecutor remained restless in its superb but gloomy tenement, and used to deem themselves very heroic, if, in a still summer evening, they could venture up to the place and cry – immediately after, running away – 

Bluidy Mackingie, come out if ye daur, 

Lift the sneck and draw the bar! 

It is curious to reflect, that a peculiarity of political and religious feeling should have subjected to such an epithet the most learned and polished man of his time, the friend of Dryden, and the first cultivator of polite English literature in Scotland. 

   The epitaph upon Mr William Aikman of Cairnie, advocate, who died December 29, 1699, states that the monument was erected by his sorrowful widow and son. The latter was the celebrated WILLIAM AIKMAN, the painter – the friend of Ramsay and Thomson, and the protegé of the Duke of Argyle and Sir Robert Walpole. Aikman was the Kneller of the reign of George I., and excelled also in historical painting. He and his only son died at the same time, January 1731, and were buried here in the same grave, with an epitaph by Mallet – 

Dear to the good and wise, dispraised by none, 

Here sleep in peace the father and the son; 

By virtue as by nature close allied, 

The painter’s genius, but without the pride; 

Worth unambitious, wit afraid to shine, 

Honour’s clear light and friendship’s warmth divine. 

The son, fair-rising, knew too short a date; 

But, oh! how more severe the parent’s fate! 

He saw him torn untimely from his side, 

Felt all a father’s anguish – wept, and died. 

It may here be mentioned that the Greyfriars’ churchyard also contains the remains of the only eminent painter produced in Scotland before the time of Aikman – GEORGE JAMESONE – but without a monument. This eminent individual died in 1644. 

   At the south-west angle of the church is a spot containing, within the compass of a few feet, the ashes of COLIN MACLAURIN, ALLAN RAMSAY, and HUGH BLAIR. To the first, so eminent for his mathematical writings, and who died in 1746, there is a Latin epitaph, composed by his son, a judge of considerable note, who rests in the same grave.2 It expresses that here is placed COLIN MACLAURIN, Professor of Mathematics in the University of Edinburgh, to which situation he was elected by the recommendation of Sir Isaac Newton – that his son erected this stone, not to advance the name of his parent, for such aid was not necessary, but that, in this unhappy scene, the peculiar region of fear and woe, there might not be wanting some consolation to mortals – for consider, says this eloquent tribute, the productions of him who rests below, and you cannot fail to believe that a mind capable of such things must survive the frail body with which it was connected. A marble slab of recent erection, and disgraced by some wretched rhymes, marks the grave of the author of the Gentle Shepherd;3 and a similar stone, with a neat Latin inscription, denotes the resting-place of Blair. In the same spot is interred, but without a monument, Dr ALEXANDER MURRAY, the eminent philologist. 

   In the detached ground to the west, is a slab, “Sacred to the memory of that celebrated scholar and worthy man, THOMAS RUDDIMAN, A.M., keeper the Advocates’ Library near fifty years; born Oct. 1674, within three miles of the town of Banff; died at Edinburgh, 19th January 1757, in his eighty-third year.” In the north-west angle of the principal churchyard is the mausoleum of Dr ROBERTSON, the historian of Charles V. and America; and near the same place is a little enclosure in which lies ANDREW DALZELL, eminent as a professor of Greek, and writer of books for instruction in that language. Among the later men of note who have been interred here, is one of many notes, but, alas! undistinguished by a monument, NATHANIEL GOW. He died in January 1831. 

   Having thus enumerated the historical names connected with the Greyfriars’ cemetery, we may now advert to a few of those persons of private station whose tombs are in any respect remarkable. One of the oldest of the monuments now existing refers to JOHN MACMORAN, a bailie of the city, whose death took place in 1595, under extraordinary circumstances. The boys of the High School had rebelled against their masters, and effected what is now termed in England a barring out. The affair was deemed of so serious a nature, that one of the magistrates of the city was called upon by the masters to interfere, in order to reduce the scholars to obedience. Macmoran came for this purpose, attended by a competent body of armed men, and, fearlessly approaching the door of the school, called upon the boys to undo the fastenings, and submit to the usual authority. He was told by the ringleaders that they had no intention of obeying his command, and that it would be best for him to retire. But he only replied by making a nearer approach to the door, when he was fired upon from within, and slain by a shot through the head. It does not appear that any of the young people suffered punishment for this heinous crime: tradition represents their rank as having been in general too high to allow of an unsparing exercise of the laws. There would even appear to have been a kind of delicacy in the diction of the epitaph placed over the worthy bailie, who is simply stated to have been “unfortunately shot with a leaden bullet, to the great grief of all good people.” 

   The tomb of GEORGE HERIOT, citizen of Edinburgh, and father of the celebrated goldsmith to King James VI., who seems to have died in 1610, addresses the following emphatic words to those who gaze upon it: “Passenger, who art wise, hence know whence you are, what you are, and what you are to be.” Another of nearly the same date informs us in Latin: “Here lies JOHN NASMITH, of the family of Posso, an honourable family in Tweeddale; a citizen of Edinburgh, chief surgeon to his most sacred majesty, and to the King of France’s Scotch troop of guards; who, after having performed all the duties of a godly life, died in London, to the grief of both nations, in the exercise of his office with his majesty. His remains (such was his love to his country) he ordered to be brought to this dormitory; acquitting himself to his king, his country, and friends, to the utmost of his power and duty. He died in the 57th year of his age, September 16, 1613. Why is it grievous to return to the place whence you came?” On a lady of the same name, there is or was to be seen the following truly poetical epitaph:- 

Here lies a flower, that, with the too much haste 

Of fate cut down, did in her blossom waste; 

In whose untimely fall fond man may see 

Youth, vigour, strength, what mortal things they be. 

What graver eye, contemplating thy dust, 

O happy Nasmith, after thee, will trust 

The smiles of nature – or presume to say 

This well-set morn foresigns a hopeful day? 

Oh, may thy grave, untainted like thy years, 

Grow ever green, bedewed with sister’s tears, 

Who envies not thy good, but grieves to be, 

By lingering life, so long disjoined from thee. 

   It seems to have been in the seventeenth century that this churchyard was in the height of its reputation, the monuments of that period referring chiefly to persons of condition, whose friends appear to have spared no expense in commemorating them in an appropriate manner. Some of these are not only sumptuous, but are constructed with the greatest architectural elegance, and in some instances with sculptured figures of no mean workmanship. One of the more splendid structures on the west side of the yard, presents a pair of busts, now somewhat defaced, but originally designed for GEORGE FOULIS of Ravelston, a man of eminent integrity (according to his epitaph) in every relation of life, who died in 1633, in the 64th year of his age; and JANET BANNATYNE, his wife, “with whom he had lived twenty-nine years in the greatest concord.” This monument derives a relative interest from the fact of the lady having been daughter to the celebrated George Bannatyne, to whom Scotland has been indebted for the preservation of most of her ancient poetry. The Bannatyne Club, an association of literary antiquaries who take their name from this individual, have deemed the tomb of so much importance, from its connection with their patron, that, in a publication referring to him, they have given a faithful drawing of it. 

   There is a handsome monument to JAMES MURRAY, merchant in Edinburgh, who died in 1649, in his 79th year: the Latin prose epitaph contains a simple and dignified recital of facts, which has, by the taste of a more recent age, been rendered into the following whimsical verses:- 

Stay, passenger, and shed a tear, 

For good James Murray lieth here; 

He was of Philiphaugh descended, 

And for his merchandise commended. 

He was a man of a good life, 

Married Bathia Mauld to ‘s wife; 

He may thank God that e’er he gat her – 

She bore him three sons and a daughter. 

The first he was a man of might, 

For which the king made him a knight; 

The second was both wise and wily, 

For which the town made him a bailie; 

The third a factor of renown, 

Both in Campvere and in this town. 

His daughter was both grave and wise, 

And married was to James Elies. 

   The next monument in point of time, that may be considered worthy of notice, is one of JOHN MYLNE, who died in 1667, in the 56th year of his age. The epitaph describes him as having been not only convener of the trades of the city, and several times its representative in Parliament, but the sixth master-mason to the king of the race of Mylne, from father to son – seven sovereigns having been served by six Mylnes. The monument is described as erected by his nephew, Robert Mylne, his successor in office, and who must be the same who rebuilt the palace of Holyrood, and is interred in the churchyard of the Abbey. It would appear that the architectural race of Mylne did not stop even here, for the late Robert Mylne, who designed Blackfriars’ Bridge, was the son of one Thomas Mylne, an architect in Edinburgh, the representative of the old line of royal master-masons. If the epitaph be correct in stating that John and his five ancestors had served seven sovereigns, we are presented with the singular fact of a family having pursued the same art, and that an art requiring no common mental gifts, from the reign of James IV. of Scotland to the year 1811 (the date of the death of the architect of Blackfriars’ Bridge), a space of three hundred years. 

   One of the more magnificent monuments is to the memory of Sir David Falconer of Newtown, of the family of Halkertoun, President of the Court of Session, who died in 1685, in his forty-sixth year. We are only induced to notice him by the fact of his having been the maternal grandfather of David Hume. Among the more modern tombs, there are few which claim peculiar observation, either by their form or the ideas which they express. But there is one which contains a morsel of the language of genuine and yet dignified pathos. The original purpose of the monument was to commemorate Mr WILLIAM COULTER, who died in the office of provost in 1810. After stating that it was erected by a widow and only son, it presents the following additional sentences:- “The widowed mother is called to inscribe this stone with a tribute to her only son, Ensign William Coulter, who lately joined in raising it. Having chosen the military profession, and served two campaigns in Portugal, daily gaining on the esteem of his equals, and confidence of his superiors, he fell on the 16th May 1811, aged 21, at the battle of Albuera, bearing the colours of the 66th regiment, and bequeathing to an afflicted parent the sweet consolation that he was worthy of his country.” 

   It must not be supposed that any great portion of the epitaphs here quoted are still to be read in the cemetery of the Greyfriars. Most of them have long since been obliterated by the weather, or by the ruin of the fabrics on which they were inscribed, and could not have been now quoted, if they had not many years since been copied into books. The vauntings of greatness, the murmurs of affection, the aspirations of piety, all have been alike subjected, wholly or partially, to this fate. A figure represented as springing from the grave at the last trump, is broken short by the middle; so that, every relative inscription having been effaced, its object can hardly now be even conjectured. Several of the monuments erected centuries ago to dignified persons, are now furnished with new tablets, commemorative of men totally alien, who happen to have been placed near them; and thus have the labour and cost of individuals, long since forgotten, been employed to save a fresh expenditure by individuals economical of tenderness and penurious of sorrow. Of all the ancient epitaphs, there is only one which any descendant has thought it worth his while to re-inscribe. 

1  Tickell, on the Death of Mr Addison. 

2  As it was much admired by Dr Johnson, we shall give the original:- “Infra situs est, COLIN MACLAURIN, Mathes. otim Acad. Edin. Prof. Electus ipso Newtono suadente. Hunc lapidem posuit filius, non ut nomini paterno consulat, nam tali auxilio nil eget, sed ut in hoc infelici campo, ubi luctus regnant et pavor, mortalibus prorsus non absit solatium: hujus enim scripta evolve, mentemque tantarum rerum capacem, corpori caduco superstitem crede.” 

3  An old lady, the mother of one with whom the editors are acquainted, used to relate that she had had a hand in making the burial-clothes of Allan Ramsay, being then a child at a sewing-school in the Grassmarket, the mistress of which was employed in that melancholy business. After the clothes were prepared, the mother of our informant accompanied her preceptress to the house of the deceased poet on the Castlehill, and was for some time in the room where the corpse lay. All she remembered was that the roses were blooming in at the open window, a sufficiently striking contrast with the mortality within. As Ramsay died in January, these must have been Christmas roses. 

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