The History of Leith

March 1, 2008

Gravestones and all that

According to law and, practice the ground in parish churchyards is not sold, but only let; that is to say, the Kirk Session cannot convey a lair so as to make it for all time the property of one family. No doubt if a husband should bury his wife in a certain grave the ground will be kept for his own use when his death occurs.

But after the lapse of say fifteen or twenty years the ground becomes, ripe.for opening again, and the Kirk Session may let it to a new series of tenants, and so on it goes. Hence all over the churchyard proper there has been a long succession of families occupying the same spaces, although this has been checked to some extent by allowing grave stones to be erected.
Down to the middle of the 17th century it was thought to savour of popery to show respect for the dead in this way. On 12th May 1646 the Kirk Session had before them a petition from a widow asking the favour to let her set up ,ane hewen stone in ye churchyard at ye head of hir husbands corpse, but the Session in no way would grant her request, becaus everie ane wold strive to have ye lyke favor. A few years later they changed their minds on the subject, and in 1665 and 1667 there are Minutes bearing that they granted licences for such erections on payment of certain dues. The oldest stone in the churchyard which can be deciphered bears the name Abercromby and the date 1656. It stands outside the elders’ vestry, and for the licence in this case a sum of £33/618 Scots was paid by the family. Within the church there are a few stones of antique design, the oldest probably being one which forms part of the pavement at the south-east doorway. Its date is 1593 and it bears the name of Logan. Many fine stones have been used up to form pavements in and around the church, and this unfortunate practice was not given up until the present concrete walks were made.
Various references.
If one turns over the unattractive pages of South Leith Records one can easily make a list of items of interest concerning the churchyard. There is the long tale of the plague in 1645, when we nay believe that the dead were buried in layers in the churchyard, and as the terror increased bodies were taken to trenches pre pared in the Links. There is the Cromwell drama when the church was occupied by troopers and the churchyard by military equipment and stores. If any memorials existed before that time they were swept away by those stern and thorough going Puritans. The occupation continued until the Citadel was built, to make way for which the burial place of North Leith was removed to the banks of the Water of Leith, where it remains as a relic of the schemes undertaken by the Great Protector. The negotiations for the new ground extended over some years, and a Minute of 1st August 1661 shows that the dead belonging to North Leith were then being buried in our churchyard. There is also the mutiny of the Highland Regiment in 1779 when forty soldiers were shot in front of the old Ship Tavern on the Shore. The victims were buried in the churchyard, where a large grassy mound marked for a long time the place of their interment. This was possibly in the south-cast portion but it has all disappeared. If we look at the level of the church it would seem to have sunk into the ground, but the fact is that the ground around it has risen not in a geological sense but by a process of general increment in consequence of the innumerable burials throughout the centuries.
From a Minute of 4th May 1682 it appears that where relatives wished to put turfs on the graves of their friends they were required to pay £3 Scots for the privilege. These dues went to help the poor, but during the 18th century the right to cast and place turfs was claimed by the Incorporation of Carters, and the Kirk Session from time to time sought to enforce their monopoly. Private persons were not allowed to have graves trimmed in this way until they had paid a sum, generally fixed at 3/4 per grave, which went to aid the charity fund belonging to the carters.
It has been mentioned that the churchyard was haunted by lazy persons and that the Kirk Session found it necessary at different times to forbid this practice on the , Lord’s Day and in special in tyme of divine service. Another class against whom they directed their legislation was the begging poor. A Minute of 14th October 1697 informs us that the collection at the church door was much wronged by the number of poor who stood at the doors of the churchyard, who by yr importunity get from people what they would give in to ye collection. This practice of begging at the church door was common to all places of worship, and the Kirk Session tried in vain to suppress it. The church was the recognised guardian of the poor until the passing of the Poor Law Act in 1854, which made an end of this and many other old customs.
Towards the end of the 17th century it came to be the practice to erect a tent in the churchyard as part of the arrangements for celebrating the communion. A Minute of 5th April 1697 orders the treasurer to,set up ye tent in ye Kirk yeard on Saturday morning. This and similar Minutes occurring throughout the 18th century have been thought by some to indicate that the sacrament was dispensed in the churchyard; but the more likely interpretation is that the tent was used for preparatory and thanksgiving services which could not conveniently be held in the church where the floor space was occupied by tables. A Minute informs us that this old time custom came to an end.

Burial within the 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 interred in the holy house 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 right down to the end of the 18th century as a privilege limited to persons 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 are over our head
And beneath our feet are the bones of the dead.

It is known that in the old church, that is the church before it was 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 is named, was buried there; and another Minute of 14th December 1637 tells us that General Ruthven had a space in the church reserved for himself ,qn it saIl please ye Lord God to call me from this lyfe.

Reference has been made above to the Contract entered into between the Maltmen and Carters on 9th January 1668 when the latter incorporation stipulated to have liberty and license to bury their dead in the Maltmens aisle. The Rev. David Lindsay, the first Minister of the church after the Reformation, was also buried in the church, where no doubt the priests and canons before him, and also the Protestant Ministers who succeeded him, were buried until a particular space in the church yard 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 the pastors and their wives and children. This space was so reserved until the beginning of last century, when the present 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 a sum of £100 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 to have been continued into the 19th century.

It has been mentioned that the church was restored in 1847, which recalls the circumstance 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 with bills denouncing this act of desecration, as the result of which the bones were collected again and decently re-interred in the churchyard. This incident is still remembered by people still living in Leith. Again when the church was re-seated in 1893 a quantity of bones was removed, but on this occasion they were taken direct to the churchyard.

The Registers of the Parish show that South Leith Church has on many occasions been utilised as a mortuary where bodies were temporarily 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 were oonveyed by ships from Leith. When the Bonnie Earl of Moray was murdered at Donibristle in 1591 his body was brought to South Leith Church, and it has been said, though not with certainty, that he was buried in the church, On 9th January 1662 a sum of £5/16/- was paid to the Kirk Session, for Sir Thomas Thomson’s corpse standing in the Kirk,, Sir Thomas had died in London, and was buried at Duddingston. On 20th September 1666 a sum of £60 was paid to the Kirk Session for the corpse of the Mayor of Hull lying in the church. On 18th April 1667 a sum of £11/12 was paid for the corpse of Sir James Home of Eccles standing in the Kirk one night, this gentleman having been slain in a duel on Leith Sands. On 10th September 1674 mention is made of the corpse of the Marquess of Douglas lying in the church, and there are numerous other instances in the Registers. The following cases are taken from an old Cash Book recently recovered,

8th May 1684 For My Lord Sempells corpse
lying in the Kirk …. …. £60 0 0
28th May 1685 For the Earl of Haddingtons corpse in the Kirk ane night…. £14 10 0
12th March 1696 For James Elphinston, son of Lord Balmerino his corpse lying in the Kirk …. …. …. … £29 0 0
8th September 1686 For My Lord Nepares corpse lying in the Kirk …. £63 16 0
16th February 1686 For the Lady Sempells corpse lying in the Kirk …. £19 12 0
5th July 1688 For the Laird of Gosfords corpse lying in the Kirk 9 days …. £58 0 0

Source-The South Leith Records 1925

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