Old Calton Cemetery (properly called Old Calton Burial Ground) is a graveyard in Edinburgh, Scotland. It is located on Calton Hill, to the north-east of the city centre. The burial ground was opened in 1718, and is the resting place of several notable Edinburgh people, including philosopher David Hume, publisher William Blackwood and clergyman Dr Robert Candlish. It is also the site of the Political Martyrs’ Monument, an obelisk erected to the memory of a number of political reformers. The burial ground was altered following the construction of Waterloo Place in 1819, which divided the graveyard into two sections. Along with Edinburgh’s other historic graveyards, Old Calton is managed by City of Edinburgh Council.
The villagers of Calton, a village at the western base of Calton Hill, buried their dead at South Leith Parish Church. This was so inconvenient that, in 1718, the Society of the Incorporated Trades of Calton bought a half acre of ground at a cost of £1013 from Lord Balmerino, the feudal superior of the land, for use as a burial ground for the village. Permission was granted for an access road, originally known as High Calton and now the street called Calton Hill, up the steep hill from the village to the burial ground.
The Society of the Trades of Calton expanded the burial ground a number of times. Burials ceased in 1869 but the Society remained in control until 1888. A new road, named Waterloo Place after the contemporary victory at Waterloo, was approved in 1814 and built between 1815 and 1819. This road cut through the existing graveyard, requiring major removal of bodies and stones. Unusually for the period this was done with a high degree of decorum, bones being carefully grouped and wrapped for removal to New Calton Cemetery, 0.5 kilometres (0.31 mi) eastwards, where several of the more substantial stones were also re-erected. These transported stones belie the age of that cemetery, as it is odd to find 18th-century stones in a 19th-century cemetery. Due to the cut, a small section of the graveyard is isolated to the north side of Waterloo Place, and is accessed from Calton Hill (the street). The building to its east, part of Archibald Elliot’s Waterloo Place development, was originally the Calton Convening Rooms for the Incorporated Trades of Calton built as a replacement for their old convening rooms, which were demolished to make way for Waterloo Place and the Regent Bridge.
In 1795, Herman Lion (one of several versions of his name), a Jewish dentist and chiropodist of German nationality who had moved to Scotland in 1788 and who could not be buried in a Christian graveyard, petitioned the Town Council of Edinburgh for a small piece of ground as a burial ground for himself and his family. A council minute of 6th May 1795 records that the Council agreed to convey to Lion a piece of ground on Calton Hill for seventeen pounds sterling. The location of this burial ground is indicated on the 1852 Ordnance Survey map as “Jews’ Burial Vault (Lyons Family)” just outside the north wall of William Henry Playfair’s City Observatory.
In 1793 several members of The Friends of the People, an early universal suffrage movement, were brought to trial and deported, being charged with treason for attempting to correspond with the French. Their true crime in the eyes of the judges was to push for universal suffrage, and the rights of the common man to control his destiny, i.e. voting rights for all, not just landowners. The men became known as the Chartist Martyrs. Thomas Muir of Hunter’s Hill was their leading figure, and he, along with four others who followed him, was banished to Botany Bay in Australia on 30 August 1793.
The huge obelisk (designed by Thomas Hamilton buried just behind), clearly visible from many central Edinburgh viewpoints, is the focal point of Old Calton Cemetery, and was erected in their memory. The choice of this site is probably linked to the graveyards lack of affiliation to any church, and prominent position. There is no known connection between any of the martyrs and Calton parish. The inscription reads:
To the memory of Thomas Muir, Thomas Fyshe-Palmer, William Skirving, Maurice Margarot, and Joseph Gerrald, erected by the Friends of Parliamentary Reform in England and Scotland 1844. I have devoted myself to the cause of the people, it is a good cause – it shall ultimately prevail – it shall finally triumph – speech of Thomas Muir in the Court of Justiciary on the 30th August 1793. I know that what has been done these two days will be re-judged – speech of William Skirving on the 7th January 1794.
The Scottish Reform Act 1832 eventually brought about their aim, and the men were pardoned in 1838. The monument was erected some 50 years after their stand, but was inspired by the Reform Act brought about by their original actions.
Historian and philosopher David Hume (1711–1776), author of Treatise of Human Nature, was a household name across Europe in the 18th century, and a critical figure in the Scottish Enlightenment. He was a strong influence on many other thinkers and public figures, Adam Smith among them. However, his grave had to be guarded for 8 days after burial, due to strong public hostility towards him at the time of his death, largely due to his professed atheism.
In his will Hume requested that a “Monument be built over my body … with an Inscription containing only my Name and the Year of my Birth and Death, leaving it to Posterity to add the Rest.” The tomb is a large cylindrical tower on the Edinburgh skyline. It was designed by Robert Adam in 1777. Whilst Hume was not religious, leading to be buried in this non-denominational site, other family members did not hold his views. His niece is also interred here and she added a particularly Christian sentiment to her panel, which reads “Behold, I come quickly, thanks be to God which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ”.
Hume’s home, between 1771 and 1776, was relatively close by, on the corner of St David Street and St Andrew Square, but that location has never been visible from Hume’s tomb (as some claim).
The work of architect Robert Burn (d. 1815) includes Nelson’s Monument on Calton Hill. This imposing family vault says nothing of his works. He was a respected architect by most, but not by his near-namesake Robert Burns, who commissioned Burn to erect a monument over the grave of his hero and inspiration, the poet Robert Fergusson who died in the poorhouse and is buried in Canongate Churchyard, visible from the southern reaches of Old Calton. Such commissions were normal, as many architects specialised in funerary monuments. On this occasion Burns was less than happy, as he indicated in a letter: “Five pounds ten shillings per account, I owe Mr R Burn, architect, for erecting the stone over the grave of poor Fergusson. He was two years in erecting it after I had commissioned him for it, and I have been two years in paying him after he sent me his account, so he and I are quits!” Both William and John Burn, his sons, were also eminent architects, and are also buried here, but with no specific memorial.