When James I of Scotland invited several Franciscans from the Low Countries, to settle in Edinburgh, they very quickly accepted the invitation. In 1447, six friars arrived and settled at the corner of the Grassmarket and Candlemaker Row.
The Friary enjoyed royal patronage and connections. Mary of Guelders stayed there in 1449, and Henry VI of England lived in the Friary during his exile. The Friary grew quickly – in size and wealth – with at least fifty friars resident by the 16th century.
The Friary’s good fortune was however not to last.
The Scottish Reformation
Already in 1558, Greyfriars was getting caught up in the Scottish Reformation. In September of that year, their statue of St Giles was damaged when Reformers broke up a procession. Then, in June 1559, news reached Edinburgh that the Lords of the Congregation (Protestant Scottish Nobels) were advancing on the city. The Provost of Edinburgh, Lord Seton, abandoned his commitment to protect the Grey Friars and their Friary, resulting in the mob ransacking the Friary.
The friars had a few allies in the city, where they hid until they could escape. By the summer of 1560, most of the Edinburgh Grey Friars had left the country.
By 1565, all the buildings of the Friary had been demolished and the stone reused to build the New Tollbooth and several other buildings in Edinburgh’s Old Town.
St Giles’ churchyard became rather crowded, so Mary, Queen of Scots gave the grounds of the Friary to the council in 1562, who used it as a new burial ground.
New Beginnings for Greyfriars Church
As the population of Edinburgh grew, the nearby St Giles’ could no longer cope. It was decided that a new church was needed and the southern part of the Greyfriars burial ground was selected for this purpose.
Building work started in 1611 but progress was slow. Only on Christmas Day of 1620, was the first service held at this new church. The new Greyfriars Church was the first church to be built in Edinburgh, after the Reformation.
Religious Turmoil Continues in Scotland
King Charles I was still on the Scottish throne, and he was perceived to be “too Catholic” in his views. He was, after all, married to a Catholic woman. He tried to impose a new Service Book on the churches in Scotland (to bring them in line with the church in England). Many nobles opposed this measure, and this is where Greyfriars once again steps onto the stage of Scotland’s history.
Archibald Johnson of Warriston and others, created The Covenant. This was a solemn agreement inaugurated by Scottish churchmen on 28 February 1638, in Greyfriars Church. It rejected the attempt by King Charles I and William Laud, archbishop of Canterbury, to force the Scottish church to conform to English liturgical practice and church governance.
Copies of The Covenant were carried throughout Edinburgh, to be signed by the masses. The masses, now brought together as a group, now apposed the crown. This resulted in the Bishop’s Wars – the first conflict of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.
Bloody conflict continued in Scotland for the rest of the 17th century. Only after the Glorious Revolution, Presbyterian polity was re-established in the Church of Scotland, mainly bringing the conflict to an end.
Since 1562, a great many people have been buried at Greyfriars churchyard. Some of those resting here, made quite an impact during their lifetime.
There is a memorial to Sir Walter Scott and his family, at Greyfriars. He worshiped at the church as a young man. And of course, the churchyard is also where you’ll find the grave of the famous Greyfriars Bobby – a Skye terrier who kept watch by his dead master’s grave for 14 long years.
James Hutton, the father of modern geology, is also buried at Greyfriars. His study of the volcanic rock around Edinburgh Castle, lead to his publication “Theory of the Earth” in 1785 which challenged all accepted views of the time.
The Ghost of Bloody MacKenzie
One of the most impressive burial mausoleums at Greyfriars, is that of Sir George MacKenzie, also known as Bloody MacKenzie.
After the Battle of Bothwell Bridge in 1679, Bloody MacKenzie imprisoned 1200 Covenanters in a corner of Greyfriars churchyard, subsequently to become known as the Covenanter’s Prison. At that time, this area was enclosed by the town wall, with no covered space. The prisoners were left without food, water or shelter and hundreds died. Some were executed and their heads placed on spikes along the gate. By the end of 1679, only 48 Covenanters remained alive.
Bloody MacKenzie truly earned his nickname. He was buried in his mausoleum at Greyfriairs, which has become known as the Black Mausoleum.
But Bloody MacKenzie’s story does not end there.
The story goes that a 19th century criminal, John Hayes hid in the Black Mausoleum at Greyfriars for six months, avoiding police. He would come out from time to time to scavenge for food. When the law finally caught up with him, he had gone insane. He claimed that the coffins inside the mausoleum moved at night and that MacKenzie could be heard scraping around inside his coffin.
Then, in 1998, a homeless man sought shelter from the cold and wet weather. He broke into the Black Mausoleum, thinking it is a perfect place to stay the night. In the total darkness, he ventured down a few steps into the crypt where he found several wooden coffins. While stumbling about, the floor beneath his feet suddenly opened, dropping him into a chamber below – filled with centuries-old bones! Panic-stricken, the man clambered out of the pit, stormed out of the mausoleum, and ran off into the churchyard, where a security guard found him.
The story goes that the homeless man was not alone in escaping the mausoleum that night. It is said that the ghost of Bloody MacKenzie also managed to break out. And he is still causing havoc.
Strange things happen around the Black Mausoleum in Greyfriars churchyard. Since 1999, at least 140 people have collapsed near the site and 350 documented attacks are on record. Within a week of the homeless man’s incursion into the tomb, a woman felt herself blown back from the mausoleum by an icy blast of air.
Visitors record both hot and cold spots, inexplicable bruises, scratches, or being pushed by an unseen presence. They report having hair pulled or their limbs being grabbed.
Is this the work of Bloody MacKenzie?
Historical Sites Nearby
- St Giles’ Cathedral is a 5-minute walk away
- The ruins of Rosyth Castle lie 15 miles North, on the bank of the Forth
- The ruins of Roslin Castle lie 7.5 miles South