keys to the graves

Dalkeith cemetery

It is not unusual, to find a Scottish graveyard locked up overnight, especially in city centres. Too much damage and destruction has happened in the past and is still happening today. Vandals causing even more grief for the families of the deceased by damaging ground and headstones alike. Drug and alcohol use are also frequent problems on graveyards in urban environments. Historical churchyards are often locked by the councils and taphophiles will often try in vain to gain access. Locking up the graves of course often seems feasible, after all, there is no need to visit a churchyard at night.

demand for bodies

There is of course a historical twist to the question of accessibility. When 19th century demand for bodies for scientific research had created an industry where income could be generated by excavating the deceased under the cover of the night and selling them to nearby universities, the establishment fought this illegal practice in various ways, one was closing the churchyards overnight and setting up watchmen, to guard the premises.

demand for protection

In Dalkeith, a watchtower was built in 1827. It looks very Victorian with its stylish battlement top and arrow slits at the sides. “The tower had been built by a voluntary body called the Committee of the Dalkeith Churchyard Association, sometimes referred to as the Committee for the Protection of the New Burying ground.” (Ann Lindsay: Hidden Scotland, Birlinn, 2010)

This is not to be confused with the new cemetery across the road, an extensive modern and open space without any access restrictions.


demand for keys

In the historical graveyard, the Committee soon found out, that the watchmen were not the solution to the problem, they were the problem, since thy not only neglected their duty, but they also made business with the body snatchers. The Committee and the Kirk Session were at odds about how to deal with the problem and who should keep the key to the graveyard. In 1829 it was decided that it should be the Kirk Session who held the key to the graveyard.

view through the gate of Dalkeith old graveyard, the watchtower is situated in the far left corner

It seems the power of the key has now transferred to the Council. Dalkeith old graveyard is closed to the public.

Liked the read? There’s more here…

The stories of this book have been discovered and gathered for my blog, Graveyards of Scotland, over many years. Find treasure all over Scotland with my latest book. I am Nellie Merthe Erkenbach, journalist and author.The fairy hill in Inverness, a nitrate murder on Shetland, a family of left-handers, wolves, Robert the Bruce and William Wallace shown in a new light, the secret bay of the writer Gavin Maxwell, a murdering poet and so many things you didn’t know about Scotland, its clans and its history.

My main sources were historical travel guides from the 18th and 19th centuries, where the finds were scary, beautiful, funny, and sometimes, cruel. 

This unusual approach to a country’s history has produced amazing results. You don’t have to share my passion for cemeteries to enjoy this book; only a small number of the stories in this collection take place in graveyards, though they do all end in them, so perhaps it helps. 

Scotland for Quiet Moments is available @Amazon ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️


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