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A history of Warriston Garden Cemetery in Edinburgh

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Alastair Learmont examines the cultural and historical background of one of Edinburgh’s most beautiful, and least discovered, burial grounds, Warriston Garden Cemetery.

On 1 June 1843, the Directors of the Edinburgh Cemetery Company respectfully announced to the inhabitants of Edinburgh and Leith that the new Edinburgh Cemetery at Warriston was open for the purpose of interments. A print reproduced (shown below left) in 'Grant’s Old and New Edinburgh' based on an 1843 drawing by Daniel Wilson, evokes the scene.

Elegantly dressed ladies and top hatted gentlemen, enjoy a setting of rural tranquillity. A bonneted child holds a parasol. There is a sense of open space and middle class domesticity. The Melville Monment and the recently erected Scott monument are clearly visible on the horizon. Further afield is the outline of St Giles cathedral in the Old Town of Edinburgh. The city is distant and far removed.

OVERCROWDED AND DANGEROUS BURIAL GROUNDS

In the early 1840s, Edinburgh’s existing cemeteries and graveyards were overcrowded, unhealthy and dangerous. The business of death was unregulated. Fifteen years previously, body snatching had been commonplace.

Watchtowers, mort coffins and mort safes were commonplace. A watch tower, overlooking the high walls of St Cuthbert’s Churchyard had been built as late as 1827. Human remains were frequently visible. In 1843, the directors of the new Warriston Cemetery declared that no human body would be disturbed after interment. Moreover, in an unambiguous reference to the state of the city cemeteries, 'no remains of humanity will at any time unpleasantly meet the human eye'.

Graves, they continued, would be six feet deep and in the case, of multiple burials at least twelve feet deep. The Anatomy Act of 1832 had effectively put an end to the practice of body snatching but disease continued to plague the City. The siting of Warriston, on the outskirts of Edinburgh was, therefore, significant. Removed from the crowded city centre, death could be both sanitised and beautified. 

The immediate inspiration for Warriston were London’s garden cemeteries of Kensal Green (1831), Norwood (1837) and Highgate (1839), which in turn had been influenced by European cemeteries including Pere Lachaise in Paris.


The link between city and cemetery was consciously broken, as was the association between church and burial ground.  


Curiously though, there was something of the new garden cemetery which evoked the tranquillity of a country churchyard:

Warriston was the first of Edinburgh’s 'garden cemeteries'. Five more followed during a sepulchral decade. Before the advent of cremation, the business of death was necessarily linked with space; the new cemeteries, funded by private investment, promised attractive returns. The original nine acre site at Warriston was designed by David Cousin (1809-1878). An apprentice to the fashionable William Playfair, the young architect had tendered an unsuccessful entry for the design of a new monument to commemorate the life of Sir Walter Scott.

In the 1840s, he became a specialist in the design of cemeteries, in the new garden style. At Warriston – and later at Dalry and Newington – a particular selling point was the catacombs which cut through the cemetery east to west. Other features typically included serpentine paths, gothic gates and lodges.

The 1843 tariff offered the public a wide range of burial and funeral 'options'. The price of a standard 7 foot by 3 foot grave varied ,according to situation, from £ 2 .6s. and 8d. to £ 4. 13 s and 4 d. – 'being at the rate of 20s. to 40 s. per square yard'. For another  6 and 14 shillings, a funeral could be arranged to include a hearse with four horses and two mourning coaches, with two horses apiece, 'including every charge excepting the undertaker’s'.

THE WARRISTON CATACOMBS

A 'range of catacombs' was lovingly described in language as appealing to the prospective house purchaser as the long term dead. The catacombs were 'well lighted airy and dry…affording space for sepulchre to a large extent': top of the range was an entire vault with enough space for twenty coffins, a mere snip at £120, whilst a single private catacomb for one (leaden) coffin retailed at a more modest £7.

By the beginning of November 1843, nearly 200 burials had taken place at the new Edinburgh Cemetery at Warriston. The approach, from the west, was from Inverleith Row, almost opposite 'but a little beyond', the gates of the Botanical Gardens; from the east, access was by Easter Warriston Lane, nearly opposite the Gate of Easter Warriston House (now the site of Warriston Crematorium).

By the autumn, the directors – with a view to facilitating 'immediate and direct access from the city' – had almost completed a Carriage Drive, including a bridge, from Canonmills down the south side of the Water of Leith.

The advent of Edinburgh’s garden cemeteries coincided with the development of Edinburgh’s suburban rail network. In 1845, the new Edinburgh, Leith and Newhaven Railway spliced Warriston cemetery in two.

BIOGRAPHY

Alastair Learmont is currently combining adult education work with postgraduate study in 18th century cultural history, at the University of Edinburgh. He was brought up just outside Edinburgh. As an undergraduate, he read Classics and later studied Law. In 1993, he was admitted to membership of the Scottish Bar. 

Visit Alastair Learmont's blog.

Selected bibliography

Brooks, Mortal Remains, the History and Present State of the Victorian and Edwardian Cemetery, London 1989
Grant, J, Old and New Edinburgh, Edinburgh, 1880, Volumes V and VI
Gifford, McWilliam and Walker, 'Edinburgh', Buildings of Scotland, 1984
Wilson, AN, The Victorians, London 2002

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