‘Top 10’ things to see at Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh

‘Top 10’ things to see at Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh

Take a trip to Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh and you will inevitably find yourself wandering through the famous gates of Greyfriars Kirkyard.

Located at 26A Candlemakers Row, Edinburgh, Greyfriars will be celebrating its 400th anniversary in 2020.

There has been a burial site on this exact spot since 1562 after Mary Queen of Scots permitted the site to be used as a burial ground – moving the cities burials away from the overcrowded and noisome kirkyard at St Giles.

Rarely quiet, this top attraction is famed for its macabre history, its links with body snatching, and its superb Memento Mori.

Gates to Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinbrugh, Scotland

And if that’s not enough, Greyfriars is meant to be one of the most haunted graveyards in the world!

It is also particularly well known for its association with JK Rowling and her inspiration for some book about a wizard called Harry Potter…

You’ve probably seen Greyfriars mentioned in all the city guides for Edinburgh, but what are the key sites to see if you can only manage a brief visit. I hope you enjoy my favourite ‘Top 10’ sites for Greyfriars Kirkyard. .

#1 The Double Mortsafes

Double mortsafe, Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh

I CANNOT start writing about the ‘Top 10’ things to see in Greyfriars and not start off with the most iconic of body snatching relics, the mortsafe.

If you enter Greyfriars through the main gates, you’ll see these beauties a few yards up on your left.

There are two mortsafes located alongside the path, both of different designs. The mortsafes at Greyfriars were for the more affluent members of Edinburgh’s society and would have been made ‘to order’. They are much more sturdy and of a permanent disposition than the parish mortsafe that would have been hired out to subscribing members.

Double Mortsafe, Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh

One mortsafe bears an inscription with the date 1829. Body snatching fans amongst you will recognize this as the year when infamous murderers Burke and Hare were finally sentenced for their crimes and in which Burke, bless him, was hanged and himself sent off for dissection.

The fear of being ‘snatched’ was at its height when these mortsafes were commissioned and this style of double mortsafe is probably one of the finest set of body snatching relics to have survived.

#2 The Dancing Skeleton

If you love Memento Mori then you’ll love the ‘Dancing Skelton’. Found on the eastern gable of the church, this stone will definitely have you grinning from ear to ear!

The stone is a memorial to James Borthwick, an active member of the Incorporation of Surgeons in Edinburgh since being admitted in 1645.

Borthwick’s memorial not only has the most delectable dancing skeleton you’ll probably ever see, but the stone itself is festooned with surgical instruments around its border – knives, scalpels, syringes – everything a surgoen in the afterlife would need.

Look closely along the bottom ridge of the stone and you’ll also see the tools of the sexton crossed behind a coffin in the two bottom corners. A real sight to behold, this one is NOT to be missed.

Gravestone of James Borhtwick, Dancing Skeleton, Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh

#3 The ‘Black Mausoleum’

As a complete wimp when it comes to all things relating to ghosts, it is perhaps some surprise that I have included the MacKenzie mausoleum in my ‘Top 10’. Whether or not you’re petrified by ghosts, as I am, a walk past George Mackenzie’s ‘final’ resting place is an absolute MUST.

George Mackenzie (1636/1638-1691) is best known for his zealous persecution of the Covenanters during the reign of Charles II. Becoming Lord Advocate in 1677, Mackenzie dedicated himself to his role and later would earn himself an unsavory reputation due to his treatment and zealous persecution of the Scots who signed the National Covenant in 1638.

Imprisoning and torturing 1,200 Scots in a make-shift prison in a field which was, at the time, next to the Kirkyard, many of the men imprisoned were to perish. To read more about the covenanters, jump to #5 below.

Known for its paranormal activity, the ghost of George MacKenzie has little peace. Mackenzie’s poltergeist is perhaps the most famous or rather most active poltergeist in Scotland. Tales of visitors being pinched, burnt or bruised abound and if you’re brave enough, you too can see if Mackenzie will have ‘a go’ at you during a City of the Dead Tour.

George Mackenzie Mausoleum, Greyfrairs Kirkyard, Edinburgh

In 2004, in true body snatching style, two youths broke into the MacKenzie tomb and cut the head from a corpse. Charged with ‘violating a sepulchre’, the first time in 100 years that this charge has been used, the boys were certainly A LOT braver than I’ll ever be!

#4 Body Snatching @ Greyfriars

Ok, so not an actual physical object to see but if you’re visiting Greyfriars in search of body snatching links then item #4 on my list has to be the mention of some of the earliest body snatching cases in Scotland.

Coloured drawing by T. Rowlandson, 1775.. Credit: Wellcome Collection.

The first-ever body snatching case to be recorded in Scotland dates from February 1678 and involves a 16yr old gypsy boy by the name of Shaw. After what is thought to have been a clan battle, the teenager, together with three other family members were hanged for murdering a man from the Faws family.

After being hanged, the four bodies were taken to Greyfriars to be buried in one mass grave. However, come the morning, it was discovered that the grave had been disturbed during the night and the body of the teenager gone.

Lots of speculation surrounded his disappearance. Some thought that he had survived the hanging and had risen again other believing that he had been stolen at the anatomists’ pleasure ‘to make an anatomical dissection of’.

Another very early case of body snatching, and one that give us our very first confirmed account of stealing a cadavers for the purposes of dissection dates from 1711 when the corpse of a Robert Findlay was snatched by medical students during a late night raid on the kirkyard.

There are no headstones for these snatchings but think of them, and the many others that were stolen from their graves as you wander around this atmospheric site.

#5 Covenanters Prison

Tucked away in the far left corner of the main kirkyard is the Covenanters prison. Locked to the public since 1990, the site is now only accessible either during the day via the guides of Greyfriars or, which is a little more atmospheric, at night during a City of the Dead tour.

Although not containing the graves of any of the Covenanters themselves, the graves that are located behind these locked gates date from 1705. The site, which gives off an impending sense of loss, is held in special regard as it is the location where not only were the prisoners held but also where many lost their lives.

You can read more about the history of the prison on a plaque to the left of the gates and of course, visit Mackenzie’s Mausoleum as described in #3

#6 The Grave of Tom Riddell

Every Harry Potter fan knows or at least should know anyway, that Rowling’s inspiration for ‘he who should not be named’ was taken from the gravestone of Thomas Riddell who died in 1806.

Although I like Harry Potter, and let’s be honest there aren’t many people who don’t, I’m not a ‘die-hard’ fan. All the same, I couldn’t help but wander through the Flodden Wall to see what had inspired J.K. to write such an epic story.

For EXACT instructions to Thomas’s grave, I can’t beat the directions given here

Tom Riddell's Grave, Greyfriars, Kirkyard, Edinburgh

#7 Watch House Bookshop

Just to the right of the main kirkyard gates lies ‘The Creepy Wee Bookshop in the Graveyard’ which also acts as the booking office for the City of the Dead Tours. I’ll be honest, every time I visit Greyfriars the shop has never been open (my fault entirely) and if you know me, you’ll know there’s no way am I brave enough to go on one of their tours (sorry guys because I’d love to, I’m just not brave enough!)

But did you know that this bookshop was once the watch house for Greyfriars Kirkyard? If you stop for a moment before exploring you’ll notice the three windows pointing out over the graveyard and a small chimney nestling at the back against the graveyard wall.

If you want to have a wander inside and take a look at what’s on offer, you can find details of opening times etc. here or alternatively, I’ve added the links below for some of the books available if you’d like to buy before your visit.

#8 Tomb of John Bayne

Tomb of John Bayne of Pitcarlie,  Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh

There’s a number of reasons I include this little cloaked character in my ‘Top 10’.

He rarely, if ever gets a mention and I like to show you things that other sites don’t necessarily cover. There’s a lot more to Greyfriars than poltergeists and grave robbers!

A Writer to the Signet, or more easily described as an Edinburgh lawyer, Bayne died in 1681. For me it is not his history that is fascinating, although you can read it here if you so wish. No, for me it is the statue itself, that such things aren’t made anymore and it’s nice to simply appreciate the craftsmanship that’s has gone into it.

Or is it perhaps his wee legs that make me like this statue of John Bayne of Pitcarlie? Whatever you’re reasons for visiting his statue, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.

#9 Caged lairs

Let’s talk about caged lairs. The No. 1 in body snatching prevention, the caged lair was the body snatching prevention of choice for the elite, and Greyfriars certainly doesn’t disappoint.

Caged lairs could either be stone structures with a slatted metal roof or a complete iron caged like the ones found at Ramshorn Kirkyard, Glasgow. Greyfriars lairs are of the former style.

Primarily located all along the left-hand side of the kirkyard as you walk through the main entrance, the caged lairs here look more like a plain bank of tombs rather than the some of the most iconic body snatching relics around.

Caged Liar, Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh
Caged Lairs, Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh
Caged Lair, Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh

Sadly, most of the lairs are damaged in some way or other, but on the plus side, you can pretty much walk into every lair along the ‘strip’, wondering if the inhabitants are still interred or not.

More caged lairs can be found in the Covenanters’ Prison.

#10 Notable surgeons

Naturally you’re going to find the graves of some of Edinburgh’s most eminent surgeons in Greyfriars and because my interest lies predominantly with body snatching and it is their graves that I’m going to share with you here.

Most notable amongst these graves is the caged lair of surgeon William Inglis. Yes, you did read that right, a surgeon with a fear of being snatched! Dating from 1792, Inglis would have known the horrors of being carved up on the dissecting table – it seems it was all a bit too much for him!

Although you can’t make it out here, you’ll be able to spot his final resting place as his name is written on the lintel.

Caged Lair William Inglis Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh

Other surgeons instrumental in the body snatching movement include Monro primus and secundus whose family gravestone is rather subdued affair compared to other monuments on the site.

Grave of Alexander Monro Primus and Secundus, Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh

This father and son dynasty feature at the start of the body snatching era and I’ve included them here because, without them, we would not have had the bumbling Monro tertius who incidentally is buried at Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh.

James Borthwick’s gravestone (the Dancing Skeleton) I’ve already mentioned above but you may also wish to visit the grave of Dr John Gordon, anatomist, who taught anatomy and physiology at Surgeons Square as well as being a surgeon in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

Although not linked directly to body snatching per se, he is placed in exactly the right time and location to certainly have been aware of such practices.

Greyfriars Bobby

Although he didn’t quite make my ‘Top 10’, no visit to Greyfriars would be complete without mentioning the grave of Greyfriars Bobby.

The legend of this loyal dog is perhaps as famous as Greyfriars Kirkyard itself, but there is some conflict as to who Greyfriars Bobby actually belonged to.

The most common story is that Greyfriars Bobby was the loyal dog of nightwatchman John Gray. After passing away in 1858 and for the next 14 years, this cute little Skye Terrier watched over his masters grave until his own demise in 1872.

Greyfriars Bobby, Edinburgh

The alternative story, not quite so common as John Gray’s is that Bobby belonged to a farmer, also called John Gray.

You can find ‘Bobby’ sitting at the top of road that heads down to the Grassmarket, just opposite the entrance to Greyfriars itself – just look for the Greyfriars Bobby Bar!

I’m sure whichever ‘Top 10’ you follow for your visit to Greyfrairs, you’re bound to have the best graveyard experience ever! Packed full of history, ghost stories and Memento Mori, Greyfriars Kirkyard is an absolute MUST for anyone visiting Scotland’s capital city of Edinburgh!

I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!

Further Reading:

There are lots, and I mean lots of books written about Greyfriars itself or the individual characters buried within its walls. Here are just a select few to get you started.

Black Markers: Edinburgh’s Dark History Told Through its Cemeteries by Jan-Andrew Henderson

Greyfriars Graveyard by Charlotte Golledge

The Ghost That Haunted Itself: The Story of the Mackenzie Poltergeist – The Infamous Ghoul of Greyfriars Graveyard by Jan-Andrew Henderson

The Graveyards and Cemeteries of Edinburgh by Charlotte Golledge

Edinburgh: City of the Dead by Jan-Andrew Henderson

I've been researching the macabre world of body snatching since 2005 when I looked at the topic in depth for my Under Grad dissertation. Since then, I've been absolutely fascinated by this often forgotten side of Britain's history.
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