Edinburgh’s graveyard of heroes is in a shocking state of neglect – Angus Robertson

North Merchiston Cemetery, home to the graves of recipients of the Victoria Cross, one of Scotland’s greatest footballers and others, has suffered from the worst neglect, decay and vandalism imaginable, writes Angus Robertson.

Tuesday, 22nd October 2019, 6:00 am
North Merchiston Cemetery is falling into rack and ruin (Picture: Stewart Attwood)

North Merchiston Cemetery is a graveyard full of heroes. Some of the Capital’s greats are buried in the cemetery which is just west of the city centre.

Around 120 graves are for war heroes, many decorated with the highest honours. A number of sporting greats are buried here, including Hearts legend Bobby Walker, one of the best footballers Scotland has ever produced.

The headstones of the graveyard give clues to the lives lived, to their loved ones and the contributions made to their families, society and city.

A gravestone lies amid the foliage at North Merchiston Cemetery ( Picture: Stewart Attwood)

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Sad to say, however, that the graveyard is the victim of the worst neglect, decay and vandalism imaginable.

Many, if not most of the headstones now lie on the ground, toppled over, fallen down, or taken down. They often lie face down, sometimes propped up, cracked and broken. Some are half buried, or covered in ivy.

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Intricate memorials with pedestals, Celtic ­carving and ornamental urns lie all around on the ground in pieces. Signs warn visitors not to leave the paths because of the danger of falling memorials. The ­cemetery is overgrown and untended.

What a far cry from when the cemetery was laid out in the 19th century and served as the main burial ground for Gorgie, Dalry, Shandon and Merchiston.

Last resting place of heroes

Here you will find the graves of two Victoria Cross holders, the highest military decoration awarded in this country. Private Charles Kennedy, of the Highland Light Infantry, carried a wounded comrade for three quarters of a mile under enemy fire during the Boer War in South Africa.

Private James Davis of the Black Watch also received the Victoria Cross for carrying a comrade under fire, this time during the Indian Mutiny.

Scottish football fans of all persuasions will have heard of the great Bobby Walker, who became the first Hearts player to score more than 100 league goals. Described as the “best player in Europe” and “the greatest natural footballer who ever played”, he and his brother Alex, who also played for Hearts, are buried there.

Over the years, Hearts football fans, the Commonwealth War Graves Association, Edinburgh Council and volunteers have all tried to tend this cemetery, maintain often unsafe and crumbling memorials and keep nature in check.

The truth is, however, that as older cemeteries have stopped interments in favour of Mortonhall Cemetery and Crematorium as well as Warriston ­Crematorium, many of the older ­cemeteries have fallen into serious neglect.

A few years ago, the Scottish Parliament passed the Burial and Cremation (Scotland) Act 2016 to supersede older and out-of-date legislation. By better regulating responsibility for graves, headstones and burial sites, we should not find ourselves in the same ­situation in future. That still leaves scores of older and often historic places of rest in Edinburgh, Lothian and elsewhere in Scotland, which will need to be maintained.

The problem remains of what to do with places like North Merchiston Cemetery, Dalry Cemetery and many others. Very few of the graves are still visited. Only a few have flowers ­occasionally left on them. Most of the direct relations have themselves passed away and it is the families that are ­actually responsible for maintaining plots and headstones.

The passing of time will not solve this problem. It will only make things worse. Doing nothing is not a ­sustainable option. With public funding tight, local authorities understandably prioritise the living over the dead. The time will come however, when difficult decisions will need to be taken and a solution to this problem found.