They may be eerie and a little creepy, but Scotland’s often forgotten graveyards are at the centre of a new tourism boom. Sandra Dick investigates

Decayed and decrepit with their eerie moss-covered memorials, ivy-choked stones and long-dead inhabitants, Scotland’s old and abandoned cemeteries have emerged from the grave, and are enjoying a fresh lease of life as "must-see" tourist destinations.

While Edinburgh’s Greyfriars Kirkyard and the Glasgow’s Necropolis have always lured visitors with tales of graverobbing, ghosts and famous occupants, attention is now increasingly focusing on Scotland’s lesser-known cemeteries.

Dubbed "tombstone tourism", rising interest in some of Scotland’s centuries-old forgotten kirkyards and atmospheric Victorian garden cemeteries is being aided by the Scots diaspora searching for family roots and hundreds of social media pages showcasing macabre images and fascinating stories from previously forgotten Scottish lairs.

Last month VisitScotland tapped into the dark tourism trend when it launched Scotland’s Ghost Trail, a guide for spooky places for tourists to visit which included battlefields and graveyards.

Meanwhile, national charity Archaeology Scotland says there is rising interest in its "adopt-a-monument" scheme, aimed at conserving graveyards by creating networks of volunteers to care for stones at risk from increasing wet weather and to document their inscriptions.

Cara Jones, the scheme’s project manager, says there are signs of mounting interest in once-neglected graveyards. “They are such ubiquitous features of the Scottish landscape in both urban and rural locations, which makes them very accessible heritage monuments.

“They are a great indicator of population rises and falls, trends and movements. And while there has always been interest it does seem to be increasing.”

Jan Andrew Henderson is author of Black Markers: The Dark History of Edinburgh Told Through Its Graveyards, and runs Edinburgh’s City of the Dead Tours which takes tourists to Edinburgh’s Covenanter’s Prison and the Black Mausoleum. It is home to the Mackenzie Poltergeist, credited with lashing out, leaving tour guides and visitors scratched and injured.

He agrees graveyards are now firmly on the tourist trail. “The real shift is in the loosening up of taboos and the way we see graveyards – leading to a huge increase in visitors and, therefore, websites and books,” he says.

“Some people attribute this to a rise in ‘dark tourism’. But it’s more do with a huge shift in perception and attitudes.

“At one time, graveyards were only seen as places you went to visit dead relatives or were interested in stone carvings, places that were supposed to be serene and solemn.

“In recent years attitudes have relaxed and folk have realised they are a fantastic source of history and a good spot to picnic.

“City of the Dead was the first tour in Edinburgh to go into a graveyard when it started ghost walks 20 years ago. Now there are 10 times that number.”

Interest there has soared due to the grave of Tom Riddle, said to have inspired JK Rowling’s Voldemort character. However, its popularity is so high that photographers seeking a perfect, eerie graveyard shot to add to popular social media collections have turned to exploring Scotland’s other cemeteries. That is also believed to be fuelling interest in graveyard tourism.

German television journalist Nellie Merthe Erkenbach, whose Graveyards of Scotland website features dozens of images and stories from kirkyards around the country, says the combination of atmosphere and the unique stories they tell is particularly fascinating.

“I was on holiday and started to take the odd picture of graveyards,” she says. “Then I looked closer at the stories behind them. It could be stories about how the graveyard was protected from robbers, or the myths and legends linked to them.

“People visit my blog from America, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Some may be looking for ancestral links and trying to find a certain name, but others are just interested.”

Forth Valley Hospital theatre nurse Ann Bollen is among scores of amateur photographers who have created a hobby from trekking around Scotland’s cemeteries.

Her new book of photographs, Tiptoe Through the Gravestones, explores the five graveyards in the shadow of Stirling Castle, including one which features a pyramid monument and a glass-cased statue.

“I started photographing them two or three years ago, when there didn’t seem to be anything like the interest there is now,” she says.

“There are so many pages on Instagram now which are devoted to Scottish graveyards – the Americans are fascinated.”

Bob Reinhardt, an art lecturer from Philadelphia, visits Edinburgh regularly to photograph its Victorian cemeteries, in particular Warriston Cemetery.

Once a showpiece of Victorian mourning, part of its eerie charm today is its air of decay, with weathered stones often choked by creeping weeds and rampant ivy.

He says: “The heroic legends of the past all come to life when you visit Scotland. The many Historic Trusts that maintain all the original sites where these stories originated have preserved so much of your Scottish history, they serve as modern-day stage sets to relive the stories of old.

“What better site to relive those stories than the final resting places of the dearly departed historical figures?

“As these old neglected cemetery sites become more accessible to the public and safer to visit, their documentation of the past is an endless resource to revisit your colourful history.”

His photographs of Warriston Cemetery which showed its monuments being consumed by nature, sparked the Friends of Warriston, one of a rising number of cemetery groups in Edinburgh which look after the city’s historic graveyards.

He points to the impact of social media for growing interest in Scotland’s old kirkyards and cemeteries.

“There are numerous websites and blogs devoted to historic cemeteries, with thousands of members. I alone have three sites on Facebook, one for The Friends of Warriston Cemetery, one for Historic Scottish Cemeteries, and one for Friends of Historic Cemeteries. Instagram, Youpic and many others are steeped in cemetery images.

“The rise of genealogy has also given a boost to all of this renewed interest in cemeteries.

“We now have a global outreach.”


Old Town Cemetery, Stirling: Home to two of what must be Scotland’s most bizarre graveyard memorials – a pyramid and glass encased statue which looks like it would be better placed on top of a wedding cake.

The Star Pyramid was built in 1863 and is a memorial to martyrs of the Scottish Reformation, while the Martyrs Monument contains an angel looking over two girls, Margaret and Agnes Wilson. Both were arrested for their beliefs of the Covenants and sentenced to death by drowning in 1685. Agnes was saved but Margaret died.

St Kessog’s, Callander: Saint Kessog’s graveyard houses a small octagonal building. It was used in the early 1800s for watchmen to keep guard and ensure no grave was robbed.

Larbert Old Church, Stirlingshire: The graveyard illustrates the industrial revolution, with a large mausoleum dedicated to the managers of the nearby Carron Ironworks. There is also a large mausoleum, towering column and mock Roman temple.

Old Logie Kirk, near Stirling: Nestled under the Ochils, there’s been a church on the sites since the 1100s. Gravestones feature carved mortality symbols, including skulls and crossed bones and hourglasses. There are also trade symbols which hint at the roles and lives of the graves’ occupants.

Canongate Kirkyard, Old Town, Edinburgh: Less busy than Greyfriars, it is the final resting place of many famous Scots, including the poet Robert Fergusson, Agnes Maclehose who wrote to Robert Burns under the name "Clarinda" and who is said to have inspired Ae Fond Kiss.

Old Kirk, Tulliallan, near Kincardine: Graves date from the late 1600s to the early 1800s and feature traditional mortality symbols alongside others which reflect Kincardine’s history as a port. Stones reflect local trades, including tailors, masons and sailors. Look out for the gravestone which shows a woodsman chopping down a tree.