Ten facts you (probably) didn't know about Greyfriars Kirk and Kirkyard

07 March 2019
9-39070.jpg Ten facts you (probably) didn't know about Greyfriars Kirk and Kirkyard
From a gunpowder explosion to the reason an American flag hangs above the kirk sanctuary, these ten facts about Greyfriars Kirk and Kirkyard will help you see this historic attraction in a new light.

1. Tower blown up

From the 1700’s onward, the Edinburgh Town Council kept their gunpowder in a small, squat tower at the west end of the Kirk (today located just behind the organ). This accident-waiting-to-happen scenario blew up in 1718. The west end of the church was reduced to ruins and a new west wall was built.

  1. First stained glass windows

Following a tragic fire in 1845, the minister Rev Robert Lee saw an opportunity as the Kirk was re-furnished to reform aspects of worship and church order, implementing the first stained glass windows in any Scottish parish church since the Reformation.

Had Lee not suffered a stroke in 1867, he would have been called to the bar of the General Assembly and put on trial as an innovator due to his reforms! He died the following year, but his changes rapidly became the norm, and worship in the Church of Scotland was transformed.

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  1. National Covenant

In 1638, the National Covenant was presented and signed in front of the pulpit (or, as some stories say, in the Kirkyard). This was a document of great importance in the history of Scotland and a crucial development in a turbulent period in Scotland’s history, revolving around religious and civil freedom.

  1. American flag

At the east end of the Kirk, an American flag hangs above the sanctuary. Greyfriars Kirk opened Christmas Day 1620 at the same time as the Pilgrims landed in the United States.

This flag, which has flown at the White House in Washington D.C., was presented by the American Consul in Edinburgh on the church’s 350th anniversary in 1970.

  1. Covenanter’s Prison

After the Battle of Bothwell Bridge in 1679, a prison was crafted in the Kirkyard to hold over 400 Scottish Covenanters. To form this prison, a picket fence was built to enclose the already-existing Flodden Wall and the George Heriot’s walls to form an easily-guarded space. Today, the Covenanter’s Prison is closed to the public, but the Kirk offers tickets for tours that visit the space every Thursday.

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  1. Two churches… one building

Upon visiting the Kirk, you may be confused by the multitude of doors available to you on our northern wall! Two congregations, Old Greyfriars and New Greyfriars worshipped together in the same building, with separate entrances, until the 1930’s, when the dividing wall between the two halves of the building was taken down and the two buildings were united.

The congregation is still flourishing today with regular services in English and Gaelic.

  1. The worst poet in Scotland?

William McGonagall was known, rather cruelly, as one of the worst poets in Scotland – his most famous work is probably The Tay Bridge Disaster (based on a horrific rail crash near Dundee, his hometown).

McGonagall worked as a weaver and struggled to ever make any real money from his poetry. He was buried in the Kirkyard in an unmarked grave – though an inscribed slab was later installed in 1999. Today, his burial site has been made famous by the numerous Harry Potter fans that flock there each year.

  1. Mortsafes

Throughout the Kirkyard, mortsafes (low ironwork cages) are visible covering gravesites. These were leased, and protected bodies for long enough to deter the attentions of the early nineteenth-century “resurrection men” who supplied Edinburgh Medical College with corpses for dissection.

Before the Anatomy Act of 1832 widened the supply, the only legal supply of corpses for anatomical purposes in the UK were those condemned to death and dissection by the courts. This led to a shortage of legitimate subjects for dissection. The shortage became more serious as the need to train medical students grew, and the number of executions fell.

  1. Royal connection

Greyfriars was built on the site of a pre-Reformation Franciscan monastery, which explains how the name of the Kirk came to be (so-called after the robes that the friars wore). However, following the Scottish Reformation of 1560, the grounds of the Franciscan monastery passed into the possession of Mary Queen of Scots, who subsequently granted it to the town council for use as a burial ground.

  1. Moving graves

Throughout the 15th century onward, many prominent citizens in Edinburgh were interred within St Giles Kirk itself. However, the space quickly became oversaturated, and finally in 1562, when Mary Queen of Scots established the Kirkyard as a burial ground, between then and 1900 nearly 100,000 people were buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard. 

To add to the overcrowding, when St Giles was being restored in 1879, several tons of human bones from unmarked graves in the middle of the church were removed and reverently reinterred at Greyfriars Kirkyard.

Visit Greyfriars Kirk

Discover Greyfriars Kirk for yourself with a visit to this historic building during our peak-season (April-October) from 10.30-16.30 Monday through Friday and 12.00-16.00 on Saturdays. Off-season hours (November-March) are Thursdays from 10.30-15.30. For further visitor details, special events, and more information, visit our website.