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Revitalizing Edinburgh's Famous Burial Grounds

When five historic graveyards in Edinburgh, the Scottish capital, landed on the 2010 World Monuments Watch, it was a long-needed wake-up call that something had to be done to improve conditions at these decaying historic sites. Years of deterioration and vandalism had left the burial grounds of many important Scots in a bad state: toppled and broken stones and unkempt tombs may have created a gloomy atmosphere that some find appealing, but it was not acceptable for long-term conservation. In addition, defacement by spray-painting, for instance, in addition to stone-toppling had affected some of the monuments while drug use in some of the cemeteries had made them no-go areas for most people, especially after dark.

When I lived in Edinburgh in 2004-2005, Greyfriars Kirkyard, perhaps the most famous of the graveyards and probably one of the most atmospheric cemeteries in the country, was overgrown and unkempt in parts. Visitors often came just to see the grave of Greyfriars Bobby and his owner and then left, missing the important seventeenth- and eighteenth-century monuments dotting the landscape. When visitors did see more of the cemetery, it was often on ghost tours that did little to educate them about the value of the structures, including the Adam family of architects' splendid Neoclassical tomb (although Robert Adam, the most famous, is buried in Westminster Abbey).

On a recent visit, however, it was clear that things are changing. Greyfriars was cleaned up more than I'd ever seen before. The older monuments were still a little unkempt, but the entire cemetery was mown and visitors were enjoying wandering through the cemetery. At Old Calton Burial Ground, home of David Hume's tomb as well as a famous monument to Scottish-American soldiers in the US Civil War featuring a bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln, and Canongate Kirkyard, it was clear that more is being done to care for the sites. Although vandalism is still evident, especially at Canongate Kirkyard (a number of stones were toppled, and though they may have been that way for years, they had yet to be re-erected). Hopefully this new management initiative—begun last July and strengthened, thanks to WMF Britain, this spring with the appointment of Dr. Susan Buckham, a graveyards specialist, to work with local officials to create a strategy for stewardship—will continue to reap rewards for these important places in this fantastic city.