The History of Leith

February 16, 2011

The Churchyard of South Leith.

To the citizens of our town the churchyard of South Leith is almost as precious and as interesting as the old church itself. For a long period of time, which is measured by centuries, their fathers have worshipped in the one and been laid to rest in the other ; and both have been intimately associated with many of the events which make up the history of the locality.
The churchyard is set in the centre of busy life, but its walls enclose a still and peaceful haven, and as we pace along the trim walks and the
short grass we tread over the ashes of the small and the great, the saint and the sinner, who here partake the same repose. Here lie the citizens who in former days carried on the work of the town and by successive stages built up the prosperity of Leith ; and those also who stayed in the old homes and were busy housewives and kindly mothers.
” Their hatred and their love is lost,
Their envy buried in the dust,
They have no share in all that’s done
Beneath the circuit of the sun.”

The churchyard is of great antiquity, though it may not be possible to state exactly when the ground was first enclosed or dedicated to its present purpose. Churchyards did not exist anywhere in Scotland until the days at Christianity, and we may assume that there was no recognised burial ground in Leith until the first Christian place of worship had been erected, and an area attached to it which had been
solemnly set apart for the burial of believers. Prior to this time the dead were buried in shallow trenches in the links or fields or along the beach. Sometimes a little chamber was prepared unhewn slabs set on edge against the sides and ends of the grave. These formations are known as cists, and when discovered they are taken to be very ancient and to denote prehistoric burials, but this is not necessarily the
case unless relics are present which support such an assumption.
In Grant’s ” Old & New Edinburgh ” the statement is made that a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary preceded by more than a century the origin of the present edifice, the date of which is taken to have been in or about the year 1483. The authority for this statement is not known, as it is generally supposed that the first religious house in Leith was the Preceptory of St. Anton’s, which was erected in the year 1430 and stood on the west side of St. Anthony’s Wynd. To this latter date the first churchyard of Leith may be assigned, and it is probable
from the proximity of the two establishments that no addition was needed when St. Mary’s Chapel was built. From old titles it is known
that a ” Kirk yard ” was attached to the Preceptory of St. Anton’s, and a charter of 1618 in the possession of the Kirk Session conveyed
certain subjects for the use of the South Kirk of Leith and ” especially for the increase and extension of the burying ground of the said
church.” The size of the churchyard in the 15th and 16th centuries is not known, nor is it known whether it extended west of the Kirkgate
; but whatever the area may originally have been no enlargement of it by formal title occurred until the early years of last century,

source-South Leith Records

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