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The Kirk (Church) Yard

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St Cuthbert's Kirk (Church) Yard

Visitors to the large and extensive churchyard can ask a church representative to locate someone - perhaps a distant ancestor - whose grave they would like to visit. The grave number is in the index books and referred to on the churchyard map.  

The land lying immediately around the Church has been a place of Christian burial for a thousand years.Only one stone, however, that of Rev Robert Pont, who died in 1606, remains from earlier days. Except in unusual circumstances, interments ceased at the end of the 19th century.  

There is a record of over 1000 graves and this was the work of John Smith:  

"Monumental Inscriptions in St Cuthbert’s Churchyard, Edinburgh, compiled by John Smith, edited by Sir James Balfour Paul, CVO, LLD 1915".  

The work came too late to record many of the inscriptions but enough remain visible to reward the scrutiny of the interested visitor.  


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Dates of interest:  


First intimation of a burying ground in Kirk Session minutes - a small hill known as the ‘Knowe’ south of the Church, was used.  

It was a lonely spot where the Kirk lay, especially at night. Except for one farm steading "there was neither hoose nor ha’ nor fire nor candlelicht" between it and the villages which stood on the banks of the Water of Leith.  

Over a century later, this quiet location was to give scoundrels an opportunity to dig up and steal the bodies of the dead, for which surgeons and anatomists paid very handsomely.  


Stone wall built to keep grazing horses and sheep out.  


Ground added to the west.  


Grave-robbing had become a frequent occurrence. Walls raised to 8 feet (2.5 metres).  


Kirk Session appointed an officer to keep records of the dead. Recorder used a lodge on the site of the present watchtower.  


Several bodies illegally removed. A Beadle was suspected of complicity and a furious mob burned his house. Both Beadles were removed from office.  


North marsh drained to provide further land. Land to the south-west was raised and walled in.  


Regular watch appointed to guard the cemeteries at night to deter grave-robbers.  


Watchtower to south west built.This was done a little late, however, because the long-running practice of body-snatching ceased within the next ten years when the law changed to allow the donation of bodies to medical science.  


Manse to south of Church demolished and garden incorporated into a new burial area.  


Churchyard extended by adding oddly shaped piece of wasteground known as the Glebe.  


In this year (and again in 1910), tunnel cut or extended beneath the Churchyard to accommodate the railway line. This involved the loss of stones erected between 1834 and 1841. No graves exist now over the tunnel.  


Burials ceased at St Cuthbert’s, except in exceptional circumstances.Upkeep of the Churchyard became the responsibility of City of Edinburgh District Council.  


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Notable churchyard monuments include those to: 

Rev Robert Pont (1524 - 1606) [No 451]

This is probably the oldest surviving gravestone from the graveyard. The Rev Robert Pont was a staunch ally of John Knox, and was present at the first General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1560. He was responsible for revising the first Book of Discipline (1561) and served as Minister of Dunblane and Dunkeld, Provost of Trinity College (Edinburgh). As Commissioner of Moray, Inverness and Banff, he was responsible for spreading the Reformation to these areas.

In 1574, Pont was appointed the Minister of St Cuthbert's Church, and served six times as Moderator of the General Assembly, through difficult times in Scotland. His influence extended beyond the church; he was appointed a Senator of the College of Justice in 1572. He accompanied the English Ambassador to Stirling in 1578 to mediate in a power struggle between James Douglas, the 4th Earl of Morton who had served as Regent, and Colin Campbell, 6th Earl of Argyll , and John Stewart, 4th Earl of Atholl, which threatened to escalate into civil war. Pont opposed the involvement of the Crown in the church and the suggestion of an Episcopalian system.

Pont was greatly enthusiastic for a full union with England, publishing his 'De Unione Britanniae' a year after the Union of the Crowns.  


John Napier (1550 - 1617)

(Memorial plaque in the entrance hall of the church) John Napier is best known as the inventor of logarithms. (The development of logarithms is given credit as the largest single factor in the general adoption of decimal arithmetic. He also invented the so-called "Napier's bones" and made common the use of the decimal point in arithmetic and mathematics. Napier was buried without the West Port of Edinburgh in the Church of St Cuthbert and in a vault, during April 1617.  


Henry Nisbet Of Dean (d 1692)

The earliest known remains of one of the many church buildings on this site, is the Nisbet of Dean vault, built in 1692 for Henry Nisbet. On the outside of the north church wall, facing a flight of stairs leading to his tomb, is Henry Nisbet's coat-of-arms. Above the entrance is an inscription in Latin, which reads :

"Henry Nisbet of Dean, preferring Fame to Riches, and Virtue to Fame, despising earthly things, and aspiring after Heavenly enjoyments, being mindful of death and waiting for the resurrection, in his own life, and at his own sight, caused build this sepulchral monument for him, in the year of our Lord 1692"

Henry Nisbet may have been exhibiting quiet humour, for his building of the tomb resulted in heaps of unpaid bills and uncleared rubble in the church, both of which were cleared only after a number of court cases. (John Nisbet of Dirleton, a successor of Henry's, was prosecutor of the Covenanters at the end of the 17th century, and author of 'Dirleton's Doubts'.)  


Rev David Williamson (1636 - 1706) [No 451]

Rev David Williamson is believed to be the 'Daintie Davie' of Scots songs, and a seven times married Minister of St Cuthbert's. He was ousted from the church in 1665 as a Covenanter. He then served as a Captain on the rebel side at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge (1679). He was restored as minister of St. Cuthbert's in 1689, and subsequently became Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1702.  


Sir Henry Raeburn (1756 - 1823) [No 293]

Sir Henry Raeburn was a Scottish portrait painter and Scotland's first significant portrait painter since the Union to remain based in Scotland. He served as Portrait Painter to King George IV in Scotland. He is actually buried next door, in the Church of St John the Evangelist although there is a record of him owning a burial plot in St Cuthbert's graveyard, and there is a large memorial to him on the east wall of the graveyard.  


Alexander Nasmyth (1758 - 1840) [No 917]

Alexander Nasmyth was a Scottish portrait and landscape painter (a pupil of Allan Ramsay), also an architect, and inventor. His most notable painting is probably the much-copied portrait of his fried Robert Burns, which now hangs in the Scottish National Gallery. Although he began as a portrait painter, eventually, his strong Liberal opinions offended many of his aristocratic patrons in a politically charged Edinburgh, leading him to turn to landscape painting instead. His landscapes are all of actual places, and architecture is usually an important element. (Nasmyth's six daughters all became artists. His eldest son, Patrick, studied under his father, then went to London and attracted attention as a landscapist. Another son James, invented the steam hammer.)  


George Meikle Kemp (1795 - 1844) [No 806]

George Meikle Kemp was a Scottish carpenter and master joiner, a draughtsman, and a self-taught architect. He is best known as the designer of the Scott Monument in central Edinburgh, although sadly he did not live to see the completion of his great work. Kemp is also commemorated by a memorial at Moy Hall, Redscarhead, (formerly the workshop of Kemp's master, Andrew Noble),  


Thomas De Quincey (1785 -1859) [No 428]

Thomas De Quincey was an English essayist, and the author of 'Confessions of an English Opium-Eater'. Many scholars suggest that in publishing this work De Quincey inaugurated the tradition of 'addiction literature' in the West. As with many addicts, De Quincey's own opium addiction may have had a 'self-medication' aspect for real physical illnesses, as well as a psychological aspect He was an acknowledged influence on many later authors, although he himself has largely slipped from fame. His immediate influence extended to Edgar Allan Poe, Fitz Hugh Ludlow, Charles Baudelaire and Nikolai Gogol, but even major 20th-century writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Hector Berlioz admired and claimed to be influenced by his work.  


John Lizars (1787 - 1860) [No 631]

John Lizars was a surgeon. He served as a naval surgeon on a ship commanded by Admiral Sir Charles Napier, and saw active service in engagements during the Peninsular War. He returned to Edinburgh in 1814 and began practicing surgery, while teaching anatomy and surgery. He went on to serve as professor of surgery at Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and senior surgeon at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, developing a number of new procedures. In 1825, he became the first in Britain to successfully remove an ovary. Around the same time he is known to have lectured the naturalist Charles Darwin.

His most notable work was 'A System of Anatomical Plates of the Human Body', published in five volumes between 1822 and 1826. Lizars is also remembered for 'The Use and Abuse of Tobacco' (1856), an early work identifying the dangers of tobacco, including its carcinogenic nature.

Lizars had a long-running and bitter dispute with fellow surgeon James Syme, which led to legal action between the pair on more than one occasion and was eventually to damage Lizars's career.  


James Findlay (1822 - 1862)

James Findlay enlisted in the Royal Artillery at the age of nineteen. Transferring to the Land Transport Corps, he served in the Crimean War as a transport officer. Re-joining the Royal Artillery, he became a Chief Master Gunner, and worked with Professor Charles Piazzi Smyth and Frederick James Ritchie to set up the One o'clock Gun time service. He was the first gunner to fire the one o'clock gun from Edinburgh Castle.  


Robert Tait McKenzie (1867 - 1938)

Robert Tait McKenzie was a Canadian-born sculptor, doctor, soldier, physical educator, athlete and Scouter. During the First World War, his methods and inventions helped to restore and rehabilitate those injured by war, and have since provided a sound basis for the development of modern physiotherapy practices. He created over two hundred works of art seen around the world today.

Near the end of his life, McKenzie expressed a wish for his heart be buried in front of the Scottish-American War Memorial in Edinburgh, that he had created. When he died this request was denied by the city of Edinburgh, but his heart was subsequently buried in St. Cuthbert's churchyard.  

scots american memorial


An on-line listing of the graves and gravestone inscriptions in the churchyard is available HERE

(Please note this links to an external site - St Cuthbert's are not responsible for the availability of the website or its content, and do not have access to this document in any other format other than this link. St Cuthbert's have no control or input to the document, and cannot attest to its accuracy.)

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If you are researching your FAMILY HISTORY you can find information on available resources HERE

Please note : St Cuthbert's do not store any historical records. This means we are unable to assist with any historical or family history enquiries


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