About Greyfriars Kirk
No visit to Edinburgh can be complete without a visit to Greyfriars Kirk, home to the famous Greyfriars Bobby, the wee Skye Terrier that kept a 14-year vigil on his masters grave in the 19th century. But many people may not know that Greyfriars has an interesting history of its own, and a visit to the kirk and it’s surrounding graveyard are a must-do for any visitor to the city.
Greyfriars sits in one of the prime tourist-attraction locations within Edinburgh. Not only is it directly opposite the tower entrance of the National Museum of Scotland, it is also sited just a few yards up from Candlemaker Row, the infamous street that leads to the popular Grassmarket district. The kirk is still very much in use today as a parish church as well as being a tourist hot-spot for visitors keen to visit Bobby. The story of Greyfriars extends back through many centuries and the old kirk oozes with a sense of history, which isn’t surprising as it is one of the oldest surviving buildings outside of Edinburgh Old Town, and is listed as Category A amongst Britains historic buildings. Read more...
There is a small museum on the site which tells the story of religious activity at Greyfriars from Franciscan times to the present day, and it includes one of only a handful of original copies of the National Covenant, which was signed in the Kirk in 1638. You can also view the oil painting of Greyfriars Bobby by John MacLeod. Visitors are free to walk around the outside of the kirk at any time and can also explore the inside at those times when there are no congregations or events going on.
The site where the graveyard and church now sits was originally a Franciscan friary, however, due to the smell of the deceased in the cramped Edinburgh Old Town, it was agreed that a new location was needed to bury the dead. Building works started on the main section of the kirk in 1602, but it wasn’t until 1620 that it was finally completed, with the building that we see today having undergone significant changes since those times. Perhaps the most notable of these modifications was caused by the destruction of the west end of the kirk in 1718. The town council in their wisdom had decided to store the majority of the city reserves of gunpowder inside a small building just outside the kirk. Unfortunately, it later blew up and demolished that end of the building, and so the entire western section had to be rebuilt. A new dividing wall was also installed at this time so that two separate congregations could worship within the same building, and the Old and New Greyfriars churches were kept this way for the next two hundred years.
Further alterations to the building occurred in 1845 when a fire raged throughout the kirk which completely destroyed its interior, and so the fittings that we see today were all installed after this date. Finally, between 1932 and 1938 a programme of reconstruction began which included the installation of a new wooden ceiling and removal of the old dividing wall. As you explore the interior of the building try to look for evidence of the 1845 fire on the sides of the eastern-most windows, and also take a look at the grand church organ, the first to be installed in a Presbyterian church anywhere in Scotland.
The kirkyard that surrounds the church is managed by a separate trust and the care and maintenance that have been taken in looking after the ancient graves are evident everywhere you look. Many notable Edinburgh residents were buried in Greyfriars over the course of its history, including the Lord Advocate Sir George Mackenzie, the poet Duncan Ban MacIntyre, Admiral Sir Charles Douglas and the artist Sir John Medina, amongst others. Walking through the site you can’t fail to be impressed by the tombstones, monuments and vaults that are crowded into such a relatively small area, but while you look around the graves make sure you keep an eye open for one of the few remaining sections of the Flodden Wall, as well the ghost of Sir George Mackenzie. This ghostly figure is reputed to wander through the lonely graveyards late at night, and legend has it that anyone who comes into contact with him will be left with cuts and bruises. So watch out!
Greyfriars Kirk is located at the junction of Candlemaker Row and George IV Bridge, opposite the National Museum of Scotland.
Prices and opening times
The Kirk, the Story of Greyfriars Museum, and the shop are open to the general public Monday – Saturday from April – October, but check with the kirk before travelling they are sometimes closed for services and concerts. Greyfriars is also open to visitors on some Thursdays during the Winter season (November to March) from 11am – 3pm.
The kirk and graveyard are free to enter but donations are welcome.
Craig Smith is your guide to the best attractions in Scotland. He loves exploring the Scottish wilds and is happiest when he’s knee-deep in a muddy bog in the middle of nowhere.