History of Leith, Edinburgh

August 7, 2007

Burial within South Leith Church

The sentiment which led people to bury their dead within the shadow of the church impelled others to covet the higher privilege of burial within the church itself. No doubt many devout men Catholics, Episcopalians and Protestants have been buried interred within the church wherein when living they used to sing and pray and perform the rites of their religion.

On different occasions the General Assembly declared this form of interment to be objectionable on sanitary grounds and discharged all persons from burying their dead within the body of the Kirk where the people met for hearing of the word. Custom and sentiment however proved to be too strong for these laws and the practice continued down to the end of the 18th century as a privilege limited to a person of rank and distinction. And thus as we walk the aisles of South Leith like the monks of Melrose we may say-

“The pillared arches arc over our head
And beneath our feet are the bones of the dead”

It is known that in the old church that is in the church before it restored in 1847 the walls were adorned with memorial stones to persons actually interred there. From a minute of 22nd December 1633 we learn that Bernard Lindsay from whom Bernard Street was named was buried there and another minute of the 14t December 1637 tells us that General Ruthven had a space in the church reserved for himself ”qn it sall please ye Lord God to call me from this lyfe”.

Reference has been made to the contract entered into between the Maltmen and Carters on the 9th /January 1668 when the latter incorporation stipulated to have liberty and license to bury their dead in the Maltmen’s aisle. The Rev David Lindsay the first minister after the Reformation was also buried in the church where no doubt the priests and canons before him and also protestant ministers who succeeded him were buried until a particular space in the churchyard was set apart for such use. A minute of 22nd April 1649 appointed a piece of waste ground on the north side of the church “bewast ye porch” to be the proper burial place for pastors and their wives and children his space was so reserved until the beginning of the 19th century. When a ministers tomb was prepared at the extreme south-east corner of the churchyard. On 20th May 1697 the Kirk Session resolved that for the privilege of burial within the church a payment should be made for the use of the poor amounting to 100 merks or 100 pounds Scots according to the part of the church dedicated to this purpose. A minute of 27th October 1795 states that for this privilege sum 0f 100 pounds sterling was to be paid to the Kirk Treasurer. /There are various minutes throughout the 18th century which tell us of interments within the church and the practice seems too continued to the end of the 18th century and perhaps into the 19th century.

The church was restored in 1847 which recalls the circumstances that our callous predecessors carted away a mass of old bones from the old building to the seashore in order to get a proper level for the new floor. This led to a scandal and the town was placarded will bills denouncing this act of desecration as the result of which the bones were collected again and decently re-interred in the churchyard,

The registers of the Parish show that South Leith has on many occasions been utilised as a mortuary where bodies were temporary lodged until arrangements could be made for their final disposal. The church seems to have been specially favoured for this purpose for one reason because where persons of rank died abroad or in England it was convenient to bring their bodies by ships to the port of Leith; and alternatively where such individuals died here their bodies where conveyed by ships from Leith. When the Bonnie Earl of Moray was murdered at Donibristle in 1592 his body was brought to south Leith Church and it has been said though not with certainty that he was buried at the Church. On the 9th January 1662 a sum of five pounds sixteen shillings was paid to the Kirk Treasurer for “Sir Thomas Thomason corpse standing in the Kirk. Sir Thomas had died in London and was buried

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