This is my blog, intended to provide information relevant to the history of Edinburgh in the Georgian period. I would love to hear any comments you may have.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Old Calton Cemetery; memorials to philosophers and political martyrs

Calton was a village lying on the western slopes of Calton Hill in what is now central Edinburgh. Before 1718 its villagers buried their dead at South Leith Parish Church, the only graveyard available to them and some 3km distant. In that year half an acre of ground close by the village was purchased from feudal superior Lord Balmerino by the Society of the Incorporated Trades of Calton to create a graveyard, and this was gradually expanded throughout the eighteenth century.

                                                       Old Calton Cemetery

In the early nineteenth century Edinburgh was growing and developing rapidly. A new road, named Waterloo Place after the contemporary Allied victory, was built between 1815 and 1819 which cut through the graveyard, forcing the removal of graves and human remains to the New Calton Cemetery a short distance to the east. Perhaps surprisingly, this process was carried out with some sensitivity, the remains being carefully extracted and wrapped before reburial and many of the larger headstones relocated.

                                                                    The Hume mausoleum

Today a small section of the Old Calton Cemetery remains on the north side of Waterloo Place, cut off by the new road, and many of the older headstones survive in the main part. The cemetery has been closed to burials since 1869, but it is now in the care of the City of Edinburgh Council and is permanently open to the public. It is perhaps not the safest place to visit after dark (being at those hours the frequent refuge of various somewhat antisocial types!) but a daylight visit is recommended as full of historical interest. Among the memorials you will find those of the philosopher David Hume, the publisher William Blackwood, civil engineer Robert Stephenson, actors Charles Mackay and William Woods, architect John Burn, clergyman Dr Robert Candlish and mathematician John Playfair.

                                                                     Captain Gray's memorial

One of the most interesting stones is that of Captain John Gray, erected about 1760 in memory of his parents. It is inscribed with his name and then a carved anchor, beneath which is a carving of a 3-masted ship, flying the ensign, shown in bold relief. Down the left side of the stone is a skull and bearded, male head wearing a cap (his father). From the mouth spill two ribbons, that link symbols of death: a scythe crossed with another implement (not recognisable) and crossed bones. Down the right side is a female head, wearing a bonnet (his mother). Ribbons from the bonnet link again to symbols of death: a spade crossed with a coffin, and again crossed bones (specifically thigh bones).

                                                                       Scottish-American soldiers monument

An impressive memorial to the Scottish-born fallen of the American Civil War, crowned by a bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln, stands in a focal point in the graveyard. This was erected in 1893, the first statue of an American president erected outside of the United States. Of even more interest to this blogger however is the monument to the Scottish political martyrs Thomas Muir, Thomas Fyshe-Palmer, William Skirving, Maurice Margarot, and Joseph Gerrald. These men were sentenced to be transported to the New South Wales penal colony in 1793 for daring to express their political beliefs. Their crime in the eyes of the judges was advocate universal suffrage, and the rights of the common man to control his destiny, i.e. voting rights for all, not just landowners. Most of these men did not survive their exile, which at that time amounted to a death sentence, and the injustice dealt to these men by a Scottish court was recognised by the Friends of Parliamentary Reform in England and Scotland who built this huge obelisk in 1844.

                                                                     Martyrs' Monument, with Nelson Monument in background

For more on the Scottish political martyrs, especially Thomas Muir, see earlier posts on this blog.

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