The History of Leith

May 9, 2006

Finding Family Burials in Edinburgh and Leith


The tomb of David Hume and the statute of Abraham Lincoln at the Old Calton Cemetery,Edinburgh

The position is this you have worked out your Family Tree; you know where people came from and have an idea when people died. The next problem is how do you find the place of interment? At first glance this may seem simple and straight forward. However in a lot of cases it isn’t for the simple reason people are not always buried where you would expect.

Contrary to what many people think people from the earliest of times people could travel quite far and of course increasing numbers of people from the 16th/17th century to the present travelled even further afield. So a person born in the UK could have lived most of his life in the UK but then travelled and died abroad which was very common in the records of the 19th century because Great Britain had colonised 25% of the surface of the Earth.

Even in a small country like Scotland people travelled and in the 18th and 19th century the fastest way to travel was by ship and so down the east coast of Britain developed a coastal trade with ships traveling from port to port down the coast from the Orkney’s in the north to London in the South. That is the reason why in Edinburgh and Leith cemeteries there are gravestones dedicated to people who came from Orkney or from places outwith of the area

Not only this but many people in the past could simply not afford to buy a headstone and so it is found that there many times more unmarked graves then marked.

The next problem is you have found the proper cemetery and so it should be the case of going and finding the grave. Unfortunately not, for example if your ancestor was buried at South Leith parish Church there are over 300 headstones and over 11,000 unmarked graves dating from the 16th century. At Greyfrairs in Edinburgh there is over a quarter of a million unmarked graves. So by just going to what you think is your ancestor’s last resting place could prove to be a complete waste of time. Also apart from this gravestones can be moved, damaged, eroded, vandalised or removed completely.

This problem however can be solved quite simply. The first thing to do is to produce as far as possible as accurate a family history as possible. If for example they came from Leith then their last known address in Leith will be given on the death certificate. This restricts the number of possible cemeteries that they could be buried in. The next thing to do is to approach the Edinburgh Council Bereavement Services at- giving them all the available information that you have on your ancestor. They will be able to check the burial records free of charge and give you the position of the interment. It should be noted that unmarked graves are recorded so many feet north, south, east and west of a particular headstone. Also remember they only hold the records for Council cemeteries, private cemeteries hold there own. However the council can advice on who to contact.

However before visiting a cemetery ensure you have all the relevant information first. Always go properly prepared and in that way you won’t have a wasted journey.

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