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Issue 56 - The Famous Dead

Scotland Magazine Issue 56
April 2011

 

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The Famous Dead

Roddy finds himself at the graveside of several historial Scottish figures

o a lot of people it might seem a morbid preoccupation but I have been spending a lot of time exploring graveyards. Not for occult associations, I hasten to add, but it fascinates me to discover where iconic figures of history have ended up. Every gravestone tells a story.

In London recently for Whisky Magazine’s World Whisky Awards presentation dinner, I found myself unintentionally wandering into a cemetery off City Road and coming across not only John Bunyon, author of Pilgrim’s Progress, and the equally acclaimed English poet-painter William Blake, but an obelisk commemorating Daniel Defoe, author of Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe. What is not widely known about Daniel Defoe is that in 1706, prior to the Act of Union, he was sent to Edinburgh as an agent for the English Government.

Rather oddly, Defoe, an English Presbyterian, was co-opted as an advisor to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and writing of him afterwards, Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, a prominent Scottish merchant, observed that had it been known that he was a spy, the Edinburgh mob would have pulled him to pieces.

Well I always wondered what became of him and now I know. You can visit him in Bunhill Fields in Islington.

Back home in Scotland I can tell you exactly where to find the mortal remains of Robert the Bruce at Dunfermline Abbey, although it has to be remembered that his heart lies under a stone at Melrose Abbey, and a couple of his teeth are kept in a test tube by his kinsman the 11th Earl of Elgin & Kincardine. Consequences of being famous.

Other notables I have called upon in Edinburgh are Mary Queen of Scots’ murdered secretary David Rizzio, who is interred beside the Canongate Kirk; the poets Allan Ramsay and William McGonagall are in the Greyfriar’s Kirkyard which is perhaps better known for the loyal little Skye Terrier who today lies for eternity beside his predeceased master John Gray. In St Cuthbert’s Kirkyard at the east end of Prince Street, you will find Thomas de Quincy, author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, the painter James Nasmyth, and the unfortunate George Meikle Kemp who designed the spectacular Scott Monument but drowned in the Union Canal before it was completed.

Close to the Water of Leith is the Warriston Cemetry which accommodates Sir James Young Simpson, pioneer of chloroform; in the Old Calton Cemetery is the tomb of that great philosopher David Hume.

Next to Glasgow Cathedral on the West Coast, there is the celebrated Necropolis, “City of the Dead”, which houses an astonishing array of designer tombs and obelisks commemorating that city’s great industrialists, including a spectacular statue of Charles Tennant, the bleach tycoon.

Down the coast at Inverkip in Renfrewshire, I came across the grave of James “Paraffin” Young, the inventor of kerosene. My own great grandfather is interred nearby.

Appropriately, Sir Walter Scott is buried alongside his wife and members of his family in Dryburgh Abbey, close to Abbotsford, his beloved home in the Scottish Borders. Robert Burns is in the churchyard of St Michael’s in Dumfries, while his parents William and Agnes, are commemorated on a memorial stone at the Auld Kirk, Ayr, close to where the bard was born, Burns personally financed a stone at Canongate Kirk in memory of his almost contemporary, the poet Robert Fergusson, who died bankrupt at the age of 24.

The last resting place of that other immortal Scots writer Robert Louis Stevenson is on far off Upolu Island in Samoa. However, in 1987, a simple upright stone inscribed “RLS - A Man of Letters 1850 -1894” was unveiled in Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens.

Stevenson was ambivalent about being commemorated for eternity, and it is ironic that he now also has memorials in St Giles Kirk, Edinburgh; Bournemouth; Davos in Switzerland, and Napa County, California.