Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

Greyfriars Graveyard by Charlotte Golledge

Greyfriars Graveyard, east wall. (Greyfriars Graveyard, Amberley Publishing)

Greyfriars Kirkyard has been described as being the leading burial ground in Scotland. Not only for its place in history but also for those whose final resting place is beneath its turf. These great figures who, although may have been forgotten over the passage of time lent their achievements and successes to the City they called home, contributing to the modern day Edinburgh lived in by a population of over 482,000 people. Within in its walls are forty-four ministers of both Old and New Greyfriars Kirks; forty-one Lord Provosts; thirty-three lawyers and senators of the College of Justice; twenty-six principles and professors of the University of Edinburgh, including two of its founders.  Not to mention numerous doctors, surgeons, solicitors, soldiers, sailors, authors, merchants, artists, architects to name but a few along with families of great fortune and prestige and the more ordinary folk. Collectively they all played their part no matter how big or small in the history of Edinburgh.

However, it is not these great and ordinary citizens of yesteryear that captivate the visitors to Greyfriars. It is the fantastic monuments the more wealthy citizens left behind. For example, if someone was asked to identify the monument for James Borthwick, most people would not be able to clarify which one it was, especially as his name is no longer visible. With extra information that beside Greyfriars Bobby’s marker it is one of the most photographer mural monuments in Greyfriars, some people would be able to guess which one it is. However if the monument was described by its appearance as a near life size skeleton that appears to be dancing, then apart from a first time visitor who had entered the kirkyard by the lower original entrance then the monument would be instantly identified. This depiction of the King of Terrors instantly draws attention and sets the imagination running. In one hand he holds the book of Destiny and in the other a scythe. There are clues to James Borthwick’s profession in life with the surgical tools that can be seen at either side.

Flodden Wall, Greyfriars. (Greyfriars Graveyard, Amberley Publishing)

The majority of the symbolism falls into three main themes: mortality; immortality through resurrection and finally the means of salvation. The emblems of mortality are to remind us that death will come to us all. So the time spent in our earthly bodies should be spent well, living a good and moral life before judgement. The most recognisable of these emblems is the death head. There are hundreds throughout the graveyard in different guises: the full face; without a bottom jaw; facing front; partial profile; with cross bones below or behind the skull; the sextons’ tools in place of the bones and the winged skull. There is also the addition of the words Momento Mori which translates as ‘remember that you must die’. There are incorrect theories of what this symbol represents, the most popular being that they are for pirates or plague victims. In the late 1640s plagues began to disappear from the Scottish capital and there are certainly no known pirates buried it its grounds!

One possible explanation for the use of the skull and cross bones stems from those on medieval monuments when during the times of the crusades, knights or persons of note who died in distant lands and the need for the body to be transported home. Mos Tentonicus was a funerary process that stripped the flesh from the bones that entailed the more hygienic means to transport the bones for proper burial once home. While the skull is pretty self-explanatory the bones being most likely the sword arm that was fighting for God.

Some symbols of the freemasons. (Greyfriars Graveyard, Amberley Publishing)

The emblems of immortality are there to remind us of the resurrection and the immortal life of the soul. Again the most numerous of these emblems shows the head. In this instance a head coupled with wings, known as the winged soul. It can be used as a main feature or as multiple decorations along the upper detail of a mural monument, such as can be seen on the monuments along the east wall. The winged soul is commonly depicted as a face, often taking the form of a cherub or angels whose gender is not identified, with feathered wings like that of a bird. This represents the deceased person’s soul leaving the body at death and ascending, the body will then rise and join it on the day of judgement.

The third theme is that of the moral emblems, these are usually the personification of the moral messages they represent. The use of female forms of the classical Greek or Roman world are typical of the early seventeenth century. These include the seven virtues of Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance, Faith, Hope and Charity. These along with other virtues are there to remind us of how to live a good life.

Other symbolism includes animals, plants and flowers and, though few in number in Greyfriars, the emblems of trade. All of these are covered in detail in Greyfriars Graveyard and enables the reader to gain the skills to read the monuments and depict what that person, or their family, is trying to say.  Giving clues to the character of the deceased and how they lived their own lives. These skills can be used not only in Greyfriars but other Scottish graveyards and while the carvings may differ in accuracy, depending on the skill of the mason, the meanings are nearly always the same. As George Elliot said ‘Our dead are never dead to us until we have forgotten them’.

Charlotte Golledge's new book Greyfriars Graveyard is available for purchase now.