Greyfriars Kirkyard is one of those really unique places to visit in Edinburgh and one that I recommend so often. It has history and a real atmosphere to the place, but most of all I like it because it’s a quiet spot in a busy city.
You may have heard of Greyfriars in relation to the a dog: GreyFriars Bobby. That’s tied in with the churchyard and you’ll learn all about it in this post!
I first learned about the kirkyard when my kids were young and we were learning some Scottish history. We ended up reading a story about the dog and that was it, we were enchanted and had to visit!
It’s one of my favourite places to visiting Edinburgh now and I almost always pop in when I’m nearby.
So if you’re staying in the city, or planning a break, 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 quirky to do if you have just a short period of time in the city.
Greyfriars Kirkyard is located in the Old Town, just a short walk away from the Royal Mile but honestly you wouldn’t really know it since it’s so peaceful there. And for a little bonus you’ll get a really stunning view of Edinburgh castle from there as well!
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. It’s less than half a mile from the Royal Mile and will only take a few minutes walk.
How to get in
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!
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.
I’ve visited in the daytime and also the evening in winter when it gets dark early.
As a woman 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 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, mausoleums and even mortsafes to see on a walk around. There are plenty of stories and history here as you’ll see!
The tale of Greyfriars Bobby, the wee Skye Terrier
We learned all about Edinburgh’s most famous dog, Bobby, when our kids were much younger and we were visiting the city and looking for family things to do. I was surprised that visiting a graveyard in a city might be on that list of family friendly attractions in Edinburgh but if you read on you’ll see why.
It’s a cute story, but be aware – after learning the tale we ALWAYS have to see the statue and grave when we visit Edinburgh now, even though my kids are grown now!
Bobby was a Skye Terrier and the tale of what he did has endured as a story and legend for years.
The legend of Greyfriars Bobby is one of loyalty and the story goes that Bobby was such a loyal dog that he stayed by his masters grave for 14 years after his death and wouldn’t leave it.
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 as they passed by.
In 1867 the Lord Provost of Edinburgh (which is a similar title to a mayor), Sir William Chambers gave Bobby his dog licence and also a collar. You can see the real items in the local Museum of Edinburgh if you want to know more and check whether the story was real!
Bobby died himself in 1872 and was buried inside the gate of Greyfriard Kirkyard near to his master. He would have been 16 years old which I always thought was pretty old for a dog, but now I have a terrier myself I know that they do actually live quite old so perhaps it’s true!
Greyfriars Bobby’s Grave
You can still see the grave for Bobby. It’s just inside the main entrance near the statue.
The grave is marked with a headstone that is fairly recent (erected in 1981) and to this day people bring Bobby a stick to put by his grave rather than flowers!
Greyfriars Bobby Statue
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.
It’s actually quite an old statue and dates almost as far back as the story – it was commissioned only a year after Bobby died after a wealthy lady heard of the story.
The statue is getting worn, especially on his nose, nowadays so be mindful to not make it worse.
Films and books about Greyfriars Bobby for kids
If you’re visiting Scotland with kids and want to get them excited for the trip then some kids books about the area are a great idea.
And you’ll be in luck because there are a number of books available about Bobby and a couple of films too.
Greyfriars Bobby by Ruth Brown
Greyfriars Bobby: A puppy’s tale by Michelle Sloan
The Tale of Greyfriars Bobby by Lavinia Derwent (easy read chapter book)
Disney’s Greyfriars Bobby
Adventures of Greyfriars Bobby
Greyfriars and Harry Potter graves
There’s a big connection with Greyfriars cemetery and the Harry Potter books which has helped make it on of Edinburgh’s must see attractions. Harry Potter locations are such a draw!
So what can you see and what’s the history between Greyfriars Kirkyard and Harry Potter?
Writing location of Harry Potter
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!) – you can find the entrance on George IV bridge.
It was one of the places that JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter from and not only does it overlook Edinburgh castle, but also Greyfriars Church and the graveyard.
2022 update – the cafe is temporarily closed due to a fire in the building.
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. It has a very old world feel to it for sure.
Harry Potter characters on gravestones
As you walk around the graveyard you might see some names that you recognise from the Harry Potter books.
There’s a McGonagal to be found, Thomas Riddell (maybe Voldemort’s grave?) and even someone with the name of Moody. It’s definitely a place where JK Rowling got name inspiration for her characters.
Harry Potter fans might also be interested in riding the Hogwarts Express train in the Highlands – it’s a must do activity for Potter Heads in Scotland!
Gruesome history and ghosts in Greyfriars
Greyfriars Cemetery is well known for being haunted and you’ll find many tours being touted to take you into the graveyard in the evenings to go ghost hunting.
One of the mausoleums in the kirkyard 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!
When you’re looking around the graveyard look out for some of the mortsafes (you can see one in one of the pictures further up the page) and tombs that were secured by bars. This was due to an increase in grave robbing where people would dig up the recently deceased.
Stealing bodies was big business in the 1800s when Edinburgh was at the forefront of human anatomy and medical learning. People would sell the bodies to academics who would then perform autopsies to learn more about the human body.
If you’re planning to explore more of the Old Town, don’t miss these things to see on the Royal Mile
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.
Edinburgh walking tours that include Greyfriars Churchyard
Get all the local knowledge and make it a visit to remember!
Harry Potter Magical Guided Walking Tour
Haunted Underground Vaults and Graveyard Tour
Evening Underground Ghost Tour
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