Unearthing the secrets of Warriston Cemetery

Warriston Cemetery.
Warriston Cemetery.
Have your say

CHOKED with weeds and with its ageing memorials weathered and broken, Warriston Cemetery’s final resting place for its Victorian dead is as much bursting with vibrant life as it is a place for the long departed.

Beneath a canopy of lush green boughs lies a thick carpet of rampant ivy with creeping tendrils that twist and twine around tree trunks, over long neglected family plots, across toppled tombstones and gradually up, over and round what were once lavish monuments to loved ones.

Ornate Victorian gravestones, once places of pilgrimage and peaceful reflection, are now smothered by lush plantlife and reduced to deep green mounds where bugs and mini beasts thrive and foxes prowl. 
Above fly wood pigeons and sparrowhawks, by nightfall owls flutter 
overhead and, appropriate for a 
cemetery, bats.

Visiting photographer Bob Reinhardt picked his way over clumps of weeds, conscious that while the decay and random wilderness has a charm of its own, untamed, Mother Nature was busily destroying a fascinating corner of Edinburgh history.

Eager to help stop the Victorian gem becoming swamped by nature’s onslaught, the American has led moves to gently peel back the most suffocating damage and reveal parts of the city’s first Victorian garden cemetery that have been hidden for decades.

It began with a subtle tidy-up, when enthusiastic members of the Friends of Warriston Cemetery arrived with gardening gloves, shears and secateurs, on a mission to clear tangled roots and thick clumps of weeds from ornate monuments and elaborately carved stones.

“We are being very careful and aware of all the wildlife, the nests and plants,” explains Bob, a Philadelphia based art lecturer. “We need to be sure we don’t do any harm to all the different types of birds, owls, funghi, and animals that are there.

“Our goal is to simply open up some areas so the names on gravestones are visible and there’s no way that we intend going in and interfering with the existing landscape.”

Although Warriston Cemetery is the last resting place of only a handful of well known, among them anaesthesia pioneer James Young Simpson, its striking Gothic monuments and sense of Victorian extravagance could ultimately see it become Edinburgh’s answer to Glasgow’s Necropolis which draws tourists and visitors with its mix of fascinating gravestones set amid a peaceful urban nature reserve.

Bob, who visits St George’s School every year as part of an education exchange, is among those who appreciate the hidden attractions of the city’s cemeteries having spent hours photographing the often crumbling and weed-choked graveyards. Thousands of his images have been collected by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments Scotland, everyone conscious that they are a valuable record of what remains, and that the relentless decay will only lead to more crumbling and inscriptions becoming unreadable in the future.

He was visiting Edinburgh in 2012 when he met local genealogist Caroline Gerard wandering around an overgrown cemetery searching for family history clues. Together they resolved to do something to halt further decline – and the idea for a Friends of Warriston Cemetery took shape.

Warriston Cemetery lies between Warriston Road and the Water of Leith.

It was designed by city architect David Cousin in 1842 in response to wealthy Victorians’ demands for carefully groomed burial places that could reflect their status. He designed it with space for lavish monuments, large family tombs and ornate stones all set in carefully landscaped gardens and walkways.

The first of its kind, it became a model for several other Scottish cemeteries.

Like other Victorian garden cemeteries that followed, it was privately owned. In 1994, following a suggestion that the graves could be exhumed and the land used for development, the overgrown cemetery was bought by the city council.

However, the graveyard continued to fall victim to Mother Nature. Sadly, hundreds of gravestones considered unstable were deliberately toppled flat – adding to its general air of neglect and rendering inscriptions unreadable.

But while the monuments, plinths and tombstones rotted, birds like sparrowhawks, tawny owls and kingfishers around nearby Water of Leith thrived. At ground level a skulk of foxes and, it’s believed, badgers, have made the cemetery their home among the aucuba, white flowering mock orange, prickly brambles and ivy. It’s thought more wily foxes have actually taken up residence within the thick ivy that covers the mural monuments wall, living a high rise life above the ground.

Among its better known “occupants” is James Young Simpson who discovered the anaesthetic properties of chloroform in 1847, whose family turned down the offer to have him interred in Westminster Abbey. His family plot has a tombstone shrouded in weeds.

A monument to Mary Ann Robertson, the daughter of a Brigadier-General of the Bombay Artillery, was known as the Tomb of the Red Lady because of its red glass roof and sculpture of a reclining woman, but was demolished in the Eighties due to vandalism.

The cemetery is the final resting place of John Menzies (1808-1879) who founded the chain of newsagents, anatomist Sir John Struthers (1823-1899) who gave his surname to a ligament in the arm, mountaineer Harold Raeburn (1865-1926) who mapped many of Scotland’s mountain routes and Gothic style church architect Hippolyte Jean Blanc (1844-1917).

Edinburgh’s five historic graveyards, Greyfriars, Canongate, Old Calton, New Calton and St Cuthbert’s were added to the World Monuments Fund Watch List in October 2009. They are the burial sites for numerous prominent figures in Scottish history including the philosopher David Hume and Mary, Queen of Scots’ secretary Sir David Rizzio, who was murdered in the Queen’s bedchamber in Holyrood Palace.