Edinburgh Council proposes new code of conduct for cemetery tour guides after accusations of damage

Council bosses said they wanted “a fair contribution” from tour operators to help repair damage from tourists.

By Conor Marlborough
Wednesday, 9th September 2020, 7:29 pm

Tour guides at some of Edinburgh’s most popular tourist attractions face a hefty registration fee and a code of conduct to continue operating, under new proposals put forward by Edinburgh Council.

Chiefs cited “expensive and ongoing conservation” costs covered by the Council to repair damage to the 39 cemetries it owns across the city.

Last year, an estimated 700,000 people visited Greyfriars Cemetery for Harry Potter and Ghost tours alone, with many others paying for guided tours of Category A listed sites on the Canongate and on Calton Hill.

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Last year, an estimated 700,000 people visited Greyfriars Cemetery for Harry Potter and Ghost tours alone, with many others paying for guided tours of Category A listed sites on the Canongate and on Calton Hill.

Members of the Culture and Communities Committee will consider the Cemetery Tour Operator Registration Scheme when they meet next week (Tuesday, September 15).

The scheme would require all tour guide operators who wish to carry out any tour which starts, finishes or visits a cemetery owned and managed by the Council to abide by a formal Code of Conduct to better regulate the conduct of tour guides and their customers.

It would also levy an annual charge for tour guide registration of £175.

Tour operators would also be asked to donate 50p for each paying customer as part of the scheme to help raise further funds.

Róisín Caird, a freelance tour guide in the Capital, welcomed the code of conduct, but questioned how effective the other measures would be.

“I'm a ‘free’ tour guide,” she explained, “so I get paid at the end what the customers think it was worth.

The 28-year-old estimated that about half of the tours around Greyfriars Kirk are run like hers, and wondered how the Council would manage the 50p charges.

“I'm just not sure how it'd work for us, because I don't know who is going to be a paying customer until the end - and those who do, I don't know how much they'll pay,” she added.

“In terms of code of conduct,” she went on, ”I doubt anyone will have any issue with it in principle, it would depend on what the rules were.

“I certainly don't know of any tour guides who cause damage - at least not deliberately,” Róisín said.

“The main issue I'd say is with the Harry Potter graves, where people need to walk across mud and grass to get to them and it gets all trudged up.

“Harry Potter tours are very popular so you've literally got thousands of people in a week walking over the grass and it's really bad when it rains.

“I've often thought a path being put down and maintained would best.”

“Otherwise,” she went on, “as far as I know no one is disrespectful - no one goes climbing on the graves or doing damage.”

Councillor Donald Wilson, Culture and Communities Convener, said: “As a Council it is our duty and responsibility to provide safe spaces and poignant places of remembrance and reflection and to manage our historic world heritage site cemeteries, protecting and preserving them for the future.

“While it is fantastic that our cemeteries are appreciated by so many, the significant footfall through some of our cemeteries, like Greyfriars, is causing erosion of pathways and path edging which require regular repairs.

“Organised walking tours can charge £10 to £20 per person, but at present there is no contribution by the operators to the maintenance of the cemeteries visited as part of their business.

“It’s important we step in now to preserve as much as we can. What is being asked for here is a fair contribution to their ongoing maintenance so they can continue to be enjoyed for generations to come.”

Councillor Amy McNeese-Mechan, Culture and Communities Vice Convener added: “Our cemeteries are poignant places of reflection and remembrance, as well as a haven for wildlife and fauna and an important part of our larger green spaces network for biodiversity and habitat corridors.

“Before the Covid-19 restrictions, it would be common to see tour groups of up to 50 with only one tour guide, thus making it difficult to ensure that a reasonable and respectful code of conduct was maintained.

“Consultation has been held with organised paid Ghost and Harry Potter tour operators, including those who operate as free tours who ask for a donation as well as visitors to the church and other stakeholders.

“All support a formalised code of conduct and that a donation contribution towards maintenance is also a reasonable request.

“We are not trying to prevent visitors from exploring our cemeteries but rather work together as we protect and enhance these historic city centre sights.”

Greyfriars Kirkyard is of particular interest for fans of the Harry Potter series of novels and films.

Author JK Rowling lives in Edinburgh with her doctor husband, and many fans believe she may have been inspired to choose the names of several prominent characters after visiting the historic kirkyard while penning the books.

Thomas Riddell, William McGonagall, and Elizabeth Moodie - who are all buried in the cemetery - could well be the namesakes of the Harry Potter characters Tom Riddle, Professor Minerva McGonagall, and Alastor "Mad-Eye" Moody.

Hundreds of thousands of tourists from all over the world visit Greyfriars Kirkyard each year just to see their headstones.

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