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Warriston Cemetery | Historical Notes

Warriston Cemetery

Warriston Cemetery lies just outside the Inverleith Society area, but many Inverleith residents are saddened by the appalling neglect and dilapidation in what was once one of the most cherished of Edinburgh’s Victorian cemeteries and a popular local walking place.

Andrew Fraser 
(reprinted from The Inverleith News, Spring 2008)

Warriston Cemetery lies just outside the Inverleith Society area, but many Inverleith residents are saddened by the appalling neglect and dilapidation in what was once one of the most cherished of Edinburgh’s Victorian cemeteries and a popular local walking place. The cemetery was encouraged to decay under private ownership in the 1970s and 1980s, in the expectation that neglect and vandalism would leave no option but lucrative redevelopment. However, Warriston (along with five other old cemeteries) was eventually acquired by the Council by compulsory purchase in 1994. It is now included in the area covered by the new Stockbridge and Inverleith Community Council (SandICC), and the Inverleith Society has asked SandICC to press for proper care and maintenance.

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Warriston was one of a ring of private cemeteries built around the city in the 1840s when the old burying grounds in the centre - Greyfriars and Calton - had run out of space. It was designed by David Cousin, City Architect, in 1842, with a splendid neo-Tudor range of catacombs at the centre, and extensive picturesque grounds and paths laid out in front and behind. The scheme was complicated by the railway boom of that time, so that the new Edinburgh, Leith and Granton line descending from Waverley by tunnel below Scotland Street and branching after crossing the Water of Leith, effectively bisected the layout. The original entrance was from the south, by a long-vanished footbridge from Warriston Road, just east of the skew-arched railway bridge over the river. The Leith line, between high stone walls (now part of the walkway/cycleway system), cut off this section from the main part of the cemetery, but the two were linked by an ornamental neo-Tudor bridge designed by J. Dick Peddie in 1845. Until recently there was an informal entrance from this bridge, but it has now been walled off, leaving the only access at the north end, from Warriston Gardens, through the more recent part of the cemetery.

The Council’s policy for the cemetery seems to be dictated by two considerations, wildlife and public safety. The whole area along the Water of Leith is designated an urban wildlife site, part of a green corridor along the river with links to other parks and the Royal Botanic Garden, and northwards to the catacombs. The old trees and other vegetation are subject to ‘restricted ground maintenance activities’, i.e. minimal tidying and sporadic clearing, with fallen trees mainly left to rot amidst the toppled gravestones. The pathways are in a poor state, with extensive muddy flooding, particularly at the Gothic bridge. Much of the ground, and many of the walls and memorials, are choked with ivy. The public safety aspect consists of periodic testing of the stability of the tombstones, and deliberate toppling of those that do not meet the standards.

Nobody objects to care for wildlife: it is greatly heartening to catch a glimpse of the local heron or kingfisher. And there is a certain romantic air to the clustered columns, urns and obelisks overgrown under the ancient trees in the older parts of the cemetery, but there appears to be no policy that will prevent the progressive demolition in time of the rest of the monumental sculpture that still remains standing. It may be too late to ask for the already tumbled memorials to be re-erected, but surely there should be a policy to maintain and stabilise what we still have rather than continue the destruction?

Many important people were buried here. Lord Provost and MP Adam Black, famous printer and publisher, is commemorated in an overgrown and vandalised monument on the front of the catacombs. The gravestone of Sir Robert Rowand Anderson, renowned architect of such fine buildings as Edinburgh’s Medical School and the National Portrait Gallery, is also recorded here, though I did not find it on a recent visit. The tombs of several distinguished artists and sculptors used to be embellished with bronze reliefs, but many have been vandalised. Part of the interest is in recognising unexpected names of familiar figures in Edinburgh society. For example, there is the fine Celtic cross commemorating the artist Horatio McCulloch (1805-67), and I was delighted to come across the tombstone of Patrick Neill of Canonmills House (1776-1851), the philanthropic printer, assiduous natural historian and long-term Secretary of the Caledonian Horticultural Society, his memorial still largely intact against the boundary wall under a curtain of ivy. Perhaps the most famous burial here was Sir James Young Simpson (1811-70), pioneer of chloroform anaesthesia, a man of world-wide reputation. His memorial still stands, at the east end of the row of catacombs, surrounded by tablets recording other members of the family. Simpson’s public funeral was one of the greatest ever witnessed in Edinburgh, with a procession of 1700 representatives of the University, the City, the College of Physicians and all the other learned bodies in Edinburgh, from his house at 52 Queen Street to Warriston Cemetery, through a crowd of bystanders estimated at 100,000 people.

The whole cemetery, ‘with all monuments, catacombs, bridge, boundary walls, gates and gatepiers’ has been grade A listed by Historic Scotland since 1992, but this seems to give little protection in practice. We trust that SandICC and our local councillors will press the City to revise their policies for maintenance of the cemetery, to care for the monuments as well as the wildlife, and make it back into a pleasant and nostalgic public place, a worthwhile extension of the neighbouring walks and parks.

Andrew Fraser