Case Study: Edinburgh Graveyards Scoping Report

Case Study 20

Edinburgh Graveyards Scoping Report

Susan Buckham

The Edinburgh World Heritage Site includes five local authority-owned burial sites, Greyfriars, Canongate, St Cuthbert’s Kirkyards and Old Calton and New Calton Burial Grounds. Together these form an important component of the City’s rich and varied urban landscape and chart its development from a medieval burgh to a European Enlightenment City. In 2010, the graveyards were placed on the World Monuments Fund (WMF) watch list, which draws attention to cultural heritage sites around the world threatened by neglect, vandalism, development and natural disasters. Through the World Monuments Watch, WMF fosters community support for the protection of these endangered sites. In 2011, Edinburgh World Heritage and the WMF commissioned research to identify the strategic priorities for the future care and enjoyment of the graveyards, focusing on understanding, future use, practical care and community involvement. While drawing on existing information about the history and management of the Edinburgh sites, the scoping study also surveyed over 20 graveyard trusts and ‘friends of’ groups across the UK to draw upon their experience of managing historic sites. These community groups had successfully led projects transforming neglected urban cemeteries into tranquil spaces and family-friendly places for learning and leisure. This work identified opportunities to improve the care and promotion of the five graveyards and developed a business model for an Edinburgh graveyard trust and friends groups.

As part of this research, a community survey focusing on perceptions of the five Edinburgh sites revealed how they were currently used and the public’s attitudes towards them. Survey participants clearly valued the sites’ history and gravestones, but also the amenity roles the graveyards played as green open space. Intangible and abstract qualities, ‘mysterious’, ‘sacred’, ‘unusual’ and ‘secret places’, also featured in survey responses. However, the survey also identified several areas that the public felt could be improved, notably maintenance, on-site interpretation, seating and anti-social behaviour. Over 75% of survey respondents described themselves as regular graveyard users and over 90% stated they were able to identify at least one item that would increase their frequency of visits e.g. ‘added value’ features such as graveyard tours, talks, leaflets, on-site interpretation and special activities and events.

One of the key recommendations of this work was the creation of graveyard ‘friends of’ groups for the Edinburgh sites. Accordingly, since April 2013, a part-time Graveyards Development Officer has been appointed at Edinburgh World Heritage to help grow and support local community engagement with the graveyards. A local ‘friends of’ group is now flourishing at Canongate and similar groups for New Calton and Old Calton Burial Grounds are planned. A long-term future for the graveyards can envisaged through the collective actions of existing community groups and ‘friends of’ groups, who together are already beginning to deliver interpretation, education and conservation projects.

The scoping study report can be downloaded from the Edinburgh World Heritage website.


Figure 1: Opening the lower gate to New Calton Burial Ground on Calton Road after an Edinburgh Art Festival event has resulted in increased footfall and a much greater sense of visitor welcome. © S Buckham


Figure 2: Looking at the gravestone symbols during the Old Calton Burial Ground graveyard i-spy trail. During a Doors Open Day this site received over 1,000 visitors including many who only felt comfortable visiting as part of an organised event. © S Buckham