Looking At Edinburgh

6 March 2008

St Cuthberts: the Kirk below the Castle

Filed under: buildings, history, photos — Tags: , , , , , , , — EdinburghEye @ 12:05 am

This windowless tower is the most visible part of St Cuthbert’s graveyard, to a passer-by on Lothian Road or Kings Stables Road or Castle Terrace. It was built in 1827 to allow a watch to be kept on the graveyard after a body had been buried.

I took these photos here. They’re all on Redbubble: St Cuthberts.

St Cuthbert’s graveyard is well below the level of Lothian Road. There are vaults with graves below the pavement of Lothian Road. No internments have been carried out in this graveyard since 1875: passers-by are walking over old graves.

In 1127, King David I granted a Charter that gave “all the land below the Castle” to the church of St Cuthbert’s. This church was built 1892-94, but there has been a church on this site since at least 1077.

The parish of St Cuthberts is now in the centre of the city, just below Lothian Road. But through much of its history it was outside Edinburgh: the parish was countryside, marsh and wilderness.

In 1505, the Barber Surgeons of Edinburgh were formally incorporated as a Craft Guild of the city, as a body concerned with the maintenance and promotion of the highest standards of surgical practice.

By the 1700s, the Barber Surgeons had become the Barber Apothecaries, and Edinburgh Council, which provided bodies to the surgeons, couldn’t keep up with the demand. (To be fair, they were supposed to supply the corpses of executed criminals, and no one would have wanted them to execute more people just to be able to provide more subjects for anatomy lessons.)

From the St Cuthbert parish records, by 1738 the robbing of graves from St Cuthberts graveyard to provide dead bodies to the Surgeon Apothecaries of Edinburgh had become a serious problem. The churchyard wall was raised in height. In 1803, the parish provided funds for a regular watch. In 1827, the parish built this tower. (I think the increasing level of precaution represents the increasing number of well-off people in the parish. The New Town was being built, and the Nor Loch was drained: St Cuthberts wasn’t an isolated country parish any more.)

By 1837, the law had changed, allowing a person to donate a cadaver to medical research, and from then on grave-robbing was no longer a profitable profession.

Since the graveyard at St Cuthbert’s stopped being used in 1875, the City of Edinburgh District Council took over the upkeep.



  1. […] St Cuthbert’s beyond the wall of St John’s graveyard: green leaves. […]

    Pingback by St John’s graveyard « Looking At Edinburgh — 21 September 2008 @ 8:03 am

  2. […] Leith became a Parliamentary Burgh in 1833 (that is, a burgh upon which an elected town council was imposed by Parliament in their reforms of 1832-33), uniting the parishes North Leith and South Leith (separated by the Water of Leith). The name Leith was once Leyt, Let, or Inverlet. King David (1083 – 1153) gave the water, fishings and meadows to Holyrood Abbey charte, and then “and that Inverlet which is nearest the harbour, and with the half of the fishing, and with a whole tithe of all of the fishing that belongs to the church of St. Cuthbert“. […]

    Pingback by Persevere: the seal of the town of Leith « Looking At Edinburgh — 7 October 2008 @ 8:09 am

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