Grave Matters

Edinburgh and Leith have retained many of the graveyards that were used to bury their dead over many centuries and these are fascinating places to visit.

On all of the walks I lead, I visit at least one graveyard as the story of their inhabitants are  interesting and informative, giving an idea of how people lived and died in our historic city and port – see for more details.

The graveyards of the city centre contain the marked remains of philosophers, soldiers, merchants, the great legal and scientific minds of their day, religious leaders, Lords, Ladies and their offspring.

By contrast, when I was in North Leith recently, I visited the former St. Ninians Church and the nearby North Leith Cemetery where many of those interred had a connection with the sea.


On land owned by the Abbot of Holyrood, a chapel to St Ninian was built in 1493 at the end of a bridge over the Water of Leith leading from the Shore into North Leith  – an area in the parish of Holyrood House and Canongate. The building has been altered over time and the unusual Dutch style steeple was built in 1675 – see the date above the doorway.


By this time it had become the parish church of the area, but eventually became too small for the congregation and they moved to North Leith Parish Church in nearby Madeira Street, which was built in 1816.

It was fascinating to have a walk around this very quiet part of Leith which is easily accessible from the busier Shore area and the Bondside on Commercial Street. Before I went to the nearby graveyard, it being lunchtime I called into the nearby RoseLeaf Bar for a drink.

The Roseleaf is a fascinating bar and cafe that opened in 2007, which serves high quality brunches, lunches and bar food all day, but is particulary well known for their ‘Pot-Tails’ – cocktails in old china teapots! My drink and the staff were great – what is there not to like about that.

I knew The Roseleaf in it’s former life as The Black Swan , a name it had had for about a century – though known to local Leithers as the Mucky Duck. My paternal grandfather stayed across from The Black Swan during the latter part of the first World War in the street then known as Bridge Street.

I left The Roseleaf and walked about 50 metres South to the gate way into the graveyard of the old St.Ninians.


Now known as North Leith Churchyard this small burial ground has a fascinating connection to the Port and the sea. It is still “monied” people that made it into here between 1664 and 1820, but there are many more merchants and seafarers than seen in the city centre grounds. Many of the sandstone gravestones have worn away, but the skull and crossbones, hourglasses and angels are still visible along with items with the look of the deceased’s working accountrements,  if the names of the deceased are not.

I found that the final resting place of the grandparents of 19th Century British Prime minister W.E.Gladstone (So that is why Gladstone’s Place is near by). Also that of Lady McIntosh who raised a regiment for Prince Charlie’s 1745 rising. Amongst the more ordinary : John Broun, shipmaster  – died in 1744, the year before Bonnie Prince Charlie was in town.

It is fascinating to visit and graveyards are not scary at all. It adds something to your knowledge of an area and it’s past and I am glad I visited.



Leith Custom House and Ned Kelly’s Gang?

I was in Leith recently (see for a guided walk to Leith) and  just off the Shore is the Bernard Street Bridge leading into Commercial Street. On the left is a tenement terrace of restaurants and flats which had sustained damage on the night of the Zeppelin attack on the area on 2nd April 1916. Directly opposite is the imposing Custom House of Leith which escaped any damage during this air raid. Built in 1812, taxes and levies were collected from the movement of goods through the Port of Leith, but in recent years the building has been used for storage by the National Museums of Scotland. Presently, the building is for sale and a move to have the Leith Museum housed here has gathered support and momentum.


The building is adjacent to Dock Place and the old Bondside of Commercial Street where restaurants and bars like Mithas, The Kitchin, Teuchters Landing, Fatma and Bistro Provence have brought this area to light and are all highly recommended.

But the Customs House was the subject of an international incident that, for it’s day, was an outrage. On Friday 4th February, 1881 around 11pm, two uniformed Sergeants by the name of Arnot & Reid from the world famous Leith Police (of “The Leith Police Dismisseth Us” tongue twister) were on patrol when they fell upon two males who were peering in the window of the Customs House. These two males gave their names as Seymour and Grant and stated they were from a ship in the Docks. One stated he was Australian, the other Irish/American. The Sergeants knew of no ship and detained the two, leading them towards the small Police Station at the Dock Gate where Teuchters Landing sits today.  On approach the men drew pistols and shot both unarmed Sergeants and ran off. A chase ensued and another Police Officer was shot and wounded. At the far end of the Bondside opposite the old Cromwellian Citadel Seymour was cornered and having fired his gun again, took his own life. Grant was arrested having tried to commit suicide, but his gun jammed. Grant was arrested and taken to Leith Police Station in Queen Charlotte Street. He later received 14 years gaol.


All three Officers that were shot survived and received commendations and financial redress. The Chief Constable of the Leith Police James Grant wrote to the Chief Officers of Police in Melbourne, Sydney, Hobart, Dunedin and Adelaide as he believed the two men had come to Leith via London from Melbourne on board a ship called The Melbourne and had given different names. The Chief Constable stated that their proficient use of guns showed they may have used them in nefarious deeds in Australia and New Zealand. A copy of his letter is printed in the New Zealand Herald, dated 8th April 1881. It is a fascinating read.

But the rumour that spread around Leith was that these two bushrangers were in fact the remnants of the Australian Ned Kelly’s Gang and his associates who had recently been arrested, gaoled or executed. Had they fled to start a life of crime on the otherside of the world…………