Things Ain't What They Used To Be: Dark Pasts of Places (Part I)

SUP's Frances Mann takes us through the eerie history of some of Scotland's well known buildings and places

Submitted by SarahManavis on 05-10-2017 10:11:07

I gaped in awe at a gorgeous Victorian edifice in Wigtown with a “for sale” sign outside, and I immediately fell in love; beautiful walled gardens, numerous tall chimneys, gothic splendour and ooh, I bet my Christmas tree would look great in that window! On my inevitable follow up browse of the house on the internet, I never imagined that the lucky buyer would also have 4 locking prison cells in their basement. Having found out it was the Wigtown Jail until the 1870s, the rest of the family weren’t keen on moving in, although strangely I was still game....…

That’s the wonderful mystery of our urban past; you can walk past somewhere many times, never realising what dark secrets it conceals. In this month of ghoulish, grisly and ghostly tales, here are a few more seemingly innocent places which have a “dead” interesting past.

Princes Street Gardens

Until around 1763, Princes Street Gardens was a water-logged swamp known as the Nor’Loch. Once marsh land, it was flooded on the orders of James III in 1460 to strengthen Edinburgh’s defences. It was never very deep, but always very fragrant! The natural slopes of the Old Town slurped all the raw sewage and refuse into its waters on a daily basis. The Nor Loch was notorious as a place of punishment. We know that in 1628, a man called Sinclair, and his sister, were incarcerated a wooden chest, peppered with holes, and thrown into the Loch, as punishment for incest. They drowned and their bodies were left in the loch’s murky waters. The Nor’ Loch was drained when, unsurprisingly, the residents of the exclusive New Town objected to a smelly, watery pit on their doorstep. In 1820, workmen were digging a drain in, what is now, the gardens. They discovered a rotting chest with two skeletons within, presumed to be Sinclair and his sister. They were re-buried nearby and now most likely lie under the railway line, near the Haymarket tunnel.

Princes Street Gardens, 1920

St Cuthbert’s Watchtower

St Cuthbert's Watchtower, early 20th century

A few steps on from the Sinclair’s final resting place, there lies the final destination of many of Edinburgh’s finest citizens, in St Cuthbert’s Church burial ground.  Here, there is sometimes an opportunity to rent a very small office, dating back to 1827. This two storey tower was used as a watchtower by those paid to look out for the nefarious bodysnatchers, who would raid Edinburgh graveyards for new specimens to sell to doctors and their students. By having a constant guard over the dearly departed, it was hoped that the bodysnatchers would take their shovels elsewhere. The dead could rest easy though; in 1832, the Anatomy Act was passed, which gave doctors legal access to unwanted corpses, mainly from poorhouses and prisons, so the bodysnatchers had to hang up their shovels and the watchtower was no longer required, after only 5 years use. Since the 1970s it has been used as an office by anyone brave enough to work there. At least the neighbours are quiet.

St Giles Graveyard

Do you know what Richard III of England and fiery Scots Refomer John Knox have in common? 

Step off the bustling High Street and walk behind St Giles Cathedral, to the quiet and sombre Parliament Square, bordered by the Georgian splendour of the Supreme Courts and overlooked by a statue of a Charles II doing his best Julius Ceasar impersonation. Standing in this square, it is easy to forget you are in the heart of medieval Edinburgh. St Giles, behind its 19th century makeover, dates back to the 12th century. And where you find an old church, you will usually find a burial ground nearby. And that is what lies underneath the Mercedes and Jaguars parked in the square today – layer upon layer of bones. The bones belong to those who could not fit, or could not afford, to be buried within the church itself. By the mid 16th century, the burial ground was full to bursting – there’s only so many times you can push down before things start popping back up again. In 1561 land was given by Mary Queen of Scots to establish a new burial ground at Greyfriars, “because that kirkyard is not thought to have sufficient room for burying the dead, and taking into consideration the smell and inconvenience in the heat of summer, it would be provided [by the council] that a burial place be made further from the middle of town, such as in Greyfriars yard, and the same [should be] built up and made secure.”

However, a special exception was made to admit one final resident to the burial ground. John Knox died in 1572 and it was deemed fitting he should be buried in the shadow of the church where he was minister for twelve years, among the people of his congregation. James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton stood at his graveside and declared for posterity, “Here lies one who never feared nor flattered any flesh”. Today, the approximate site of his grave is denoted by a simple stone marker in car park bay 23, but he is just one of many thousands who lie under Parliament Square. But unlike Richard III, Knox would spin in his grave should any attempt be made to move him to a grand resting place! So, in bay 23, his remains will remain forever more.

The back of St Giles Cathedral, 1912

Coming soon in Part 2...

What is the bloody history of the building that tourists often mistake for Edinburgh Castle? And what might you have found in Glasgow’s new lost property department?



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