Saturday, 21 May 2016

Of Faithful Dogs, Poltergeists...and Miss Cathcart

No one knows just how many bodies lie under the peaceful, rolling landscape of Edinburgh's Greyfriars Kirkyard. It is known that, in 1562, Mary Queen of Scots gave the land to the town as an overflow cemetery for the overcrowded St Giles churchyard. It took just 340 years to accumulate 100,000 bodies, not helped by the addition of several tons of human remains re-interred there from St Giles during restoration work there.

By the late eighteenth century, the situation was so bad that it was almost impossible for the sextons to dig a fresh grave without coming across remains - some of which were not by any means fully decomposed. You certainly get the feeling as you wander among the gravestones, that you are not alone. Is that whispering an unquiet spirit? Or merely the breeze ruffling the spring leaves...?


There are only two entrances to the Kirkyard and, if you enter from the junction of Candlemaker Row, Chambers Street and George IV Bridge, chances are you will have paused a moment to reflect upon one of Edinburgh's most famous monuments. Unusually, it is not commemorating some famous war hero, monarch or statesman. This little bronze statue, said to have been carved from life not long before its subject died, is of a faithful Skye terrier called Bobby. His story is one of simple, lifelong devotion. His owner was a policeman called John Gray who was employed as a night watchman by Edinburgh City police. Bobby was just two years old when his owner died and was interred in Greyfriars Kirkyard. For fourteen years, the little dog guarded his master's grave until he too died in 1872, aged 16. Technically, Bobby was a stray and could have been subject to a tragic fate, but the Lord Provost of Edinburgh - William Chambers - paid for his license and Bobby was granted the freedom of the City of Edinburgh. In 1873, a local philanthropist, Lady Burdett-Coutts, commissioned a statue of the faithful dog to be positioned atop a drinking fountain which would provide refreshment for both weary humans and dogs alike. Sadly the fountain's water supply has been turned off, but the monument remains and generations of visitors have rubbed the little dog's nose so that it gleams in the sunshine.

 Not all tales of Greyfriars Kirkyard are so sweet. Sir George Mackenzie (1636-91) was known as the ‘Hanging Judge’. Boasting that he had ‘never lost a case for the King’, he was a man of violent temper, and a scourge of the Covenanters – a group of Scottish Presbyterians who signed a Covenant protesting at the form of English worship introduced by Charles I. For this, they were branded as heretics and Mackenzie saw it as his mission to rid Scotland of their presence. When he died, he was buried in an ornate mausoleum, but it appears his spirit does not rest in peace. 

Inside the Black Mausoleum
The Mackenzie Poltergeist is a familiar presence – especially after dark. City of the Dead Tours run a fascinating nightly trip around the graveyard, culminating in Mackenzie’s Black Mausoleum. The tours have been running since 1999 and during that time, hundreds of visitors have reported being pushed, tugged, scratched and knocked over. Jan-Andrew Henderson’s book, The Ghost That Haunted Itself gives a collection of visitors’ spooky – and at times disturbing - experiences.

There are many unusual gravestones in Greyfriars Kirkyard. Some have no names – just initials – but the most enigmatic (for me at least) has to be the one which simply reads, ‘Miss Cathcart’. There is no trace of a first name. No one today knows who she was. Since I returned from Edinburgh, I have been researching likely candidates. Judging by the style of lettering on the wall-mounted stone carving, and comparing it with nearby memorials, it may have been created in the mid-nineteenth century. I have found at least two possible contenders from around that time. Spinster sisters called Miss Helen and Miss Isabella Cathcart who each owned a house in fashionable Princes Street. One of them could have been the Miss Cathcart (no first name given) who was Treasurer of the Edinburgh Ladies Association – a worthy institution that raised money for missionary causes.

But who would erect a memorial to a person without showing their first name? Maybe they didn’t know it. Maybe this Miss Cathcart was a teacher and the tablet was commissioned and paid for by a grateful former student who never knew her as anything but ‘Miss Cathcart’. The possibilities are many and varied. But then, I never could resist a mystery…


  1. Lovely post Cat. Glad you had such a nice time AND even better have found things to tickle your fancy. Oh, and a few spooky happenings too.

    1. Thanks, Shey. There's more where this came from. Can't believe how much we manage to squeeze into a couple of days!

    2. Lol I can. There's a lot goes on in Edinburgh. I look forward to more posts x

    3. They will be along, Shehanne! Thank you