Thursday, 12 February 2015

Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh

 In Edinburgh Picturesque Notes, Robert Louis Stevenson writes: “We Scotch stand… highest among nations in the matter of grimly illustrating death,” and adds, “the classic examples of this art are in Greyfriars.” 

Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh has a reputation for being haunted (The Mackenzie poltergeist). It is, trust me! It is hauntingly beautiful! It has haunted my imagination. I fell in love with this inspiring, mysterious and tranquil place instantly. Many of the monuments and mausoleums are engraved with symbols of death and damnation: skeletons and skulls; crossbones and coffins; austere angels blowing judgement-trumpets. Elaborate la Dance Macabre artworks convey one message: Memento Mori.

If I were to visit Edinburgh again I would do it. Just for the sake of meandering through Greyfriars...again.

I paused to admire a quantity of elaborate carvings lavished over the tomb of Foulis, laird of Ravilstoun (d.1633) and his wife, Jane Bannatyne. A stylized skull, known as the death's head, strikes passers-by with its sinister grin. The death's head was a popular decorative motif employed in the seventeenth-century gravestone carving.  

 Other decorative motifs accompanying the death's head were: cherubs,skeletons, coffins,hourglasses, elaborately carved side panels with florets, finials, foliage and fruit. Seventeenth and eighteenth-century stones generally had solemn epitaphs which prompted passers-by to contemplate mortality and the fleeting nature of life. 

 The most disturbing, yet most evocative part of the kirkyard are the monuments lining the walls. They are lavishly carved with evil-looking, thought-stealing images.  

Sheltered behind the wall of massive stone buildings, Greyfriars Kirkyard is nestled on the edge of the Old Town. Greyfriars takes its name from the Franciscan friary on the site, which was dissolved in 1559.The land surrounding Kreyfriars Kirk was a Franciscan convent garden until 1562, when Mary Queen of Scots granted the right to use it as a burial ground.

The former convent garden was utilized as a burial ground down to the Kirk at St Giles becoming too full to safely inter any more bodies within its grounds.

A record from the Town Council records for 23 April 1561 reads:

Because it is thought beneficial that there should be no more burials within the church [ie St Giles], and because that kirkyard is not thought to have sufficient room for burying the dead, and taking into consideration the smell and inconvenience in the heat of summer, it would be provided [by the council] that a burial place be made further from the middle of town, such as in Greyfriars yard, and the same [should be] built up and made secure.

Greyfriars Kirkyard is a truly fascinating place. It is one of Scotland's most evocative cemetries - a tranquil, green oasis dotted with elaborate monuments and majestic mausoleums. Greyfriars is a morbid feast for visitors eyes.  It is atmospheric, eerie and unforgettable. It will stimulate your vision at every turn. 

When I was in Edinburgh last May, I took part in one of the city's Ghost Tours. The tour took us through the Greyfriars Graveyard and two old voults.

Between the 14th and 17th centuries Edinburgh was hit by almost a dozen plague epidemics. The death roll from plague wiped out tens of thousands of human lives. Far exceeding all visitations of the kind in Europe stands out the Black Death of the 14th century and the Great Plague of the 17th century.
The plague epidemic which gripped Edinburgh in 1645 was, without exception, the most devastating that the city ever experienced. It is estimated that up to half of the population died. Corpses littered the closes and local government collapsed as the infected fell in their tens of thousands.
There was no time for burial. The corpses were consigned to mass graves without the least attempt at ceremony. Burial ground was quickly filled to overflowing and it became necessary to dig trenches into which the bodies were placed in hundreds, layer upon layer with little earth sprinkled in between till the pit was full to the top. The labour of burying the dead was great. As the death toll increased, churchyards became nightmare places, stinking and swelling many feet above their usual level and spilling corpses from their overcrowded depths. 
Town councillors had to take tough action to halt the spread of of the disease and produced a raft of regulations with penalties for disobiedience including branding, banishment and even hanging. When the plague struck, the Burgh Muir, which was then outside the city walls, was used to isolate the unfortunate victims, who suffered symptoms including fever, aches, swollen glands and gangrene. 
The main expediment adopted to prevent the spread of the disease was isolation, achieved either by conveying the infected to pesthouses, forcibly if necessary, or more commonly, by sealing up houses where there was known to be infection, incarcerating the diseased and the uninfected residents together. Houses were shut with padlocks, chains and nails. By 1665 it was a common sight. The period of confinement was 40 days, which meant that any survivors among those shut in had often to wait until long after the last fatality before the house was opened up. 
Grim history of Edinburgh inspired me to write a short poem:

Black Edinburgh

Bleak houses with

Children’s tearful faces

Their wet noses glued to

Cold windows’ surfaces

They cry help, help, help

Plague, plague, plague.

Black Death

Crossbones reach out

For the living on a rainy night

Lasagna Graveyard….

Echoes at a dusk

Little children’s singing

Heartbreakingly sad.

Below, a tombstone bearing a skeleton "memento mori" motif, marks the grave of James Borthwick, a surgeon, who died in 1676.

Many famous Edinburgh names are buried in Greyfriars, including the poet Allan Ramsay (1686–1758), architect William Adam (1689–1748) and William Smellie (1740–95), the editor of the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. A man known as Scotland's worst poet, William McGonnagal, and Sir Walter Scott's father have also been laid to rest here.
The most famous resident of all though is Greyfriar's Bobby, the loyal Skye Terrier who kept a 14 year vigil on his masters grave. Both the dog and his master, John Gray are buried here.

The queer-looking contraption made of heavy, solid iron railings, which looks like a massive cage is an example of an mortsafe. Mortsafes were designed to protect graves from disturbance. 
By the 18th century, there was rapid growth in the formal study of medicine and many more dead bodies were needed by the expanding medical teaching centres, some private. There were medical schools and also private schools of anatomy in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow. The growing demand for cavaders could not be met by convicted criminals and the anatomists became very determined in their efforts to acquire subjects, so the provision of the bodies became a lucrative business. Inevitably the needs were met in the most ghastly way by a new trade – that of the body-snatcher.
A body was worth £10 - £16, which exceeded the annual income of many workers. The financial prospects encouraged a group of people to exhume corpses to sell to the medical schools, and they became known as resurrectionists. They would also be referred to as body-snatchers or noddies among other names.
Many people were determined to protect the graves of newly deceased friends and relatives. The rich could afford heavy table tombstones, vaults, mausolea and iron cages around graves. The mortsafe was invented in about 1816.A plate was placed over the coffin and rods with heads were pushed through holes in it. These rods were kept in place by locking a second plate over the first to form extremely heavy protection. It would be removed by two people with keys. They were placed over the coffins for about six weeks, then removed for further use when the body inside was sufficiently decayed. 

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1632. Famous oil painting on canvas by Rembrandt housed in the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague, the Netherlands.

Greyfriars has the reputation for being the most haunted place in Edinburgh. The cemetery is often associated with tales of hauntings, unexplained events and strange happenings.
It has been considered haunted for centuries. Since 1998, however, when a homeless person broke into Mackenzie’s mausoleum for the night, Greyfriars Churchyard has been the epicentre of an escalation of unexplained events linked to the ghost of Mackenzie; known colloquially as the Mackenzie poltergeist. The Mackenzie poltergeist has been called the most well-documented paranormal phenomenon in the world.
As darkness descends, it is time for the scariest of all ghost tours - City of the Dead Tour. Nightly City of the Dead Tour provides vistitors to Edinburgh the only chance to get inside the Convenanter's Prison (its gates are locked at other times) and to the Black Mausoleaum. The Tour website contains a following warning:

The Mackenzie Poltergeist can cause physical and mental distress. You can join the tour at your own risk.

In the picture above you can see Mackenzie's tomb known as the 'Black Mausoleum'. It is located behind the high walls and locked gates of an area known as the Convenanter's Prison.
In 1679, the southern section of Greyfriars was used as a prison for over 1,200 supporters of the National Convent who had been defeated by Government forces. For over four months these men were imprisoned here in squalid conditions, without any shelter before being either hanged at the Grassmarket, or if they were lucky deported to Barbados as slaves. There is a memorial stone to comemorate their suffering for their cause.
Ironically George Mackenzie who persecuted many of the Convenanters is also buried here in the Black Mausoleum. Known as the 'Mackenzie Poltergeist' many people on the ghost tours have reported being physically attacked by an unseen force. The Mackenzie Poltergeist is believed to leave mysterious bruises, bites and cuts on unlucky visitors.

The picture above shows three Underground Ghost Tours guides. I highly recommend taking a guided tour because it will take you to places the guidebooks don't show. The best way to experience old, haunted Edinburgh is to follow your feet and your guide. The tour I took, revealed closes and courtyards, sites and blood-chilling stories from the past. Although I am a skeptical person I enjoyed the tour thouroughly. It was informative, educational, evocative and fun. It was an unforgettable experience.
As we followed our guide - Griselda, who was dressed up in a flowing, velvety, brown cloak; through the narrow cobbled streets of Edinburgh my heart was swelling with thrill and anticipation. Griselda told us of her horrific death by burning. She was convicted for witchcraft and incestous relationship with her brother and burned alive at the stake. Griselda unravelled gut-wrenching methods of torture and ways of killing used in Medieval Ages. Her animated narrative enabled the listeners to visualize some of the most brutel instruments of torture and techniques ever. Honestly, the images she painted with her words and powerful intonation will always be imprinted on my mind. 
Even if you are skeptical and reasonable person like me, you should never dismiss Ghost Tours as a mere entertainment for naive thrill seekers. Whether you believe in paranormal phenomena or not, these tours take you on an adventure that not only teaches you a dark side of Edinburgh's history: vaults and graveyards but also leave you just a little bit peculiar.The tour was packed with interesting facts about Edinburgh. Thanks to the tour and our guide I learned who the bodysnatchers were, what the purpose of mortsafers was and discovered the terrific truth about the plague virulent outbreak and its devastating effect upon the city's population.

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