Madeira Mondays: A Visit to Greyfriars graveyard in Edinburgh

Some of you may recall the walk that I took with Alan, my friend and fellow Georgian House volunteer, back in December. He very generously led me on a walk through The Royal Mile – the famous street that cuts through the city of Edinburgh – from the Castle down to Holyrood palace. During our walk, he shared with me tales of forgotten Edinburgh residents, catastrophic fires and years upon years of fascinating history.

A couple of weeks ago, my partner and I joined Alan for another walk, this time around Grassmarket which, locals will know, is a lively area of the city’s ‘old town’ that is full of pubs and cafes. We saw a lot on our walk, but instead of trying to cram everything into one post, I thought I’d focus instead on one of my favorite elements of the walk: our exploration of Greyfriars Kirkyard! (A ‘kirk’ is a Scottish word for church, by the way!)

While I don’t live far from Greyfriars, I rarely visit. But it’s a pretty little graveyard, and offers up a very Scottish color-palette: vivid green grass (so green from all the rain) and gray stone.

This graveyard has been used since the 16th century and is famous for several reasons. The first is this little pup right here: Greyfriars Bobby.

The story (legend, really) goes that this little dog sat for 14 years at his beloved master’s graveside. So it’s really a story of devotion and is commemorated with not one but TWO statues of the terrier dog.

It’s a pretty sweet story, but one that I’ve always had my doubts about. I’ve had dogs, I love dogs and I just don’t see a dog hanging around a grave or even really understanding what a grave is – you know? I could imagine a dog sitting beside his former owner’s favorite chair or something like that but…grave? I don’t know. When I brought this up with Alan, he confirmed that lots of people do think it might not be a true story. He said there might have been a stray dog that came along and started getting fed, at the same spot every day, by graveyard staff, and that’s why he was always waiting around. People saw him waiting ‘by the grave’ and legend started to spread about why. Now that I believe. But it probably wouldn’t make a good movie!

Another reason why the graveyard is famous is that JK Rowling (who used to live in the area) got some of the names from the Harry Potter series in the graveyard, for instance William McGonagall (who was a poet, apparently not a very good one!) gave inspiration for Professsor McGonagall’s name. Here’s a (rather blurry) picture of his grave.

Apparently ‘Tom Riddle’ was found in the graveyard too, but I didn’t actually spot that one. I’ll have to go back.

(And if you’re ever visiting, take note that there is a fun pub across the street called McGonagall’s that explains more about this! It looks sort of like a Victorian curiosity shop inside. It’s expensive, like most things are in this area, but worth a visit if you’re nearby.)

We also saw that some of the graves had bars across and this was to prevent body snatching. One of the reasons you might want a dead body is that you could make a lot of money selling it to the medical school for their anatomy lectures. That was why the famous murderers, Burke and Hare, killed 16 people and sold their bodies! They knew they could make a pretty penny doing so. It’s a grim story, but very, very famous in 19th century Edinburgh and their names today are still well-known.

So those are just a couple of reasons you might want to check out Greyfriars – if you’re ever in Edinburgh, it’s right smack dab in the middle of the city, so it’s very easy to find and worth a look in. A restaurant that I’d recommend nearby for very reasonably priced ‘British food’ (pies, sausages, that sort of thing) is called Mum’s and Greyfriars Bobby (the bar), right outside the graveyard, is actually not-too-bad for typical pub food and a nice ambiance.

Thanks for joining me for this historical exploration! I’m glad that I visited this graveyard, not least because I’m moving soon (to another part of Edinburgh) and won’t be as close to this historical site anymore. Sometimes it’s the things that are closest to us which we are ‘always meaning to see’ that we never actually end up seeing! So, I’m happy I went. And that you can visit virtually too.

Are there any local sites in your area that you’ve been meaning to visit?

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every first Monday of the month and thanks for reading!

Buy Me a Coffee at

4 thoughts on “Madeira Mondays: A Visit to Greyfriars graveyard in Edinburgh

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s