If you’re staying in Edinburgh and fancy a bit of solitude away from the crowds, pipers and street performers then I have the perfect idea for you – a visit to Greyfriars Kirkyard. It’s a perfect half day activity or something to do if you have just a short period of time in the city.
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Greyfriars Kirkyard is located in the old town, not too far away from the Royal Mile but honestly you wouldn’t really know it since it’s so peaceful. You’ll get a really stunning view of the castle too from there!
Just so you know, kirk is an old Scottish word for church so a kirkyard is a churchyard!
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Visiting Greyfriars Kirkyard – all you need to know
Greyfriars Church and graveyard is located in the Old Town of Edinburgh near Grassmarket.
There are two entrances to the graveyard. The main entrance is where George VI bridge and Candlemaker Row meets. You’ll also see a pub and the statue here. Another entrance is at the bottom of Candlemaker Row, just next to Grassmarket.
You can access the cemetery 24 hours a day which means no matter when you need solitude it’s there. You also have access to find out if there are any ghostly goings on!
I’ve visited in the daytime and also the evening in winter when it gets dark early. I found it felt safe to wander solo in the daytime. When I visited after dark I wasn’t on my own and was with my husband so that would colour my thoughts. Definitely use your discretion and common sense – I’d probably only visit after dark with another person or as part of a guided tour (see below).
The church is open Monday – Friday, 10.30am – 4.30pm from April to October and 12pm – 4pm on Saturdays. From November to March it’s only open on Thursdays from 10.30am – 3.30pm. The church sells maps of the graveyard for 50p.
The history of Greyfriars Church and Churchyard
The site used to have a Franciscan monastery on it but after the reformation in Scotland in 1560 the grounds were passed to the town council. The new church, the first in post reformation Edinburgh, was built and opened in 1620. The National Covenant, the rejection of the notion of joining the Scottish church with the English, was signed there in 1638 as well.
There are a number of really interesting gravestones, mauseleums and even mortsafes to see on a walk around. A mortsafe was used to deter people from resurrecting the dead as was often happening for the nearby medical school!
One of the mauseleums is a domed tomb and it’s the resting place of someone called Sir George MacKenzie – otherwise known as Bloody MacKenzie. It’s a well known site of ghostly goings on so be aware of that if you visit in the night!
About the tale of Greyfriars Bobby
We learned all about the little Skye Terrier, Bobby, when our kids were much younger and we were visiting Edinburgh looking for family things to do.
The story goes that Bobby was such a loyal dog that he stayed by his masters grave for 14 years after his death. Bobby’s master was called John Grey and he was most likely a police nightwatchman in the city of Edinburgh in the mid 19th century.
Bobby was around 2 years old when his master died but he was faithful and stayed by his grave constantly. This won the hearts and affections of the local people who would look after and feed Bobby.
In 1867 the Lord Provost of Edinburgh (similar to a mayor), Sir William Chambers gave Bobby his dog licence and also a collar which can be seen in the local Museum of Edinburgh if you want to know more. Bobby died himself in 1872 and was buried inside the gate of Greyfriard Kirkyard.
The grave is marked with a headstone and to this day people bring Bobby a stick to put by his grave rather than flowers!
Aww – my kids are so young here. Look at all the sticks left for Bobby!
On the main road just outside the kirkyard there is a statue that was erected in memory of Bobby, now known as Greyfriars Bobby, and a pub of the same name.
The statue is getting worn, especially on his nose, nowadays so be mindful to not make it worse.
If you want to learn more or have children who might be interested in Bobby there are a number of books available and a couple of films too that Disney produced. We really enjoyed this picture book and it was a great introduction to it all for my kids. We ALWAYS have to see the statue when we visit Edinburgh now, even though they are teens now!
What is the Harry Potter connection?
Look up when you’re walking in the graveyard and you might see the rear of the cafe called The Elephant House (highly recommended for a cup of tea and some cake!). It was one of the places that JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter from and not only does it overlook Edinburgh castle, but also Greyfriars and the graveyard.
She apparently also took many walks in the kirkyard and used it for inspiration for some of the names of characters in the books and also for some of the scenes – it definitely makes me think of the scene at the end of book four when Harry meets Voldemort in the graveyard.
It could also be where the Godric’s Hollow graveyard inspiration came from which is where Harry’s parents were buried. As you walk around the graveyard you might see a McGonagal, Thomas Riddell and even someone with the name of Moody.
You could do a self guided tour of the graveyard if you wanted – it’s easy enough to walk around and you can purchase a map from the church if you wanted. Also do check out the Google Maps that is further up this blogpost as some of the more notable graves with a Harry Potter connection are actually marked on there now.
There are also many guided tours you can take to learn about the history, the ghosts or the harry potter references, depending on what you enjoy. They are fairly inexpensive too so a good way to explore the area.
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