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3 Atmospheric Places From Edinburgh’s Grave Robbing Past You Can Still Visit

April 2021

Like all escape rooms in Edinburgh, Escape The Past remains temporally closed due to the pandemic. We’re planning to reopen on 17th May, but if you can’t wait until then to get your fix of Edinburgh’s dark and mysterious past, then fear not!

We’ve put together a list of our favourite atmospheric spots with ties to the city’s history of grave robbing that you can visit right now on a socially distanced stroll…

1. Greyfriars Kirkyard

Greyfriars/Candle Maker Row, Edinburgh EH1 2QQ

Established in 1562, Greyfriars is one of the oldest burial grounds in Edinburgh. Once you get passed the association with a certain melancholy dog, its history gets a little darker…

‘Grave robbing capital of the world’ is a rather undesirable title, but in the mid-18th century it’s one that Greyfriars could likely claim. Tucked away on a hillside above the old town, with high walls and plenty of unlit corners, it was a popular haunt for resurrection men who would dig up recently interred bodies under cover of night to supply the nearby anatomy schools.

Still visible in Greyfriars are the remnants of numerous efforts to deter these thieves, including two iron “mortsafes” - cages placed over grave sites. These contraptions were leased to concerned mourners in the 19th century!

The sheer number of bodies buried in this relatively small plot is staggering, with coffins stacked several layers high, estimates of its underground population vary from a few hundred thousand to over a million.

Greyfriars is a great place to visit for a spooky stroll or as part of an informative walking tour such as the Blood & Guts tour organised by Surgeons Hall.

2. Old Surgeons Square

High School Yards, Edinburgh EH1 1LZ

From 1697, Surgeons Square became the meeting place for Edinburgh’s newly formed Guild of Surgeons. The Old Surgeons Hall can still be found on the south side of the square (not to be confused with the larger “new” Surgeons Hall which opened on Nicholson Street in 1832).

This virtually forgotten corner of the city was once home to the highest concentrations of extramural anatomy schools in Europe. Each competing for medical students eager for hands-on experience of dissections. In the late 18th/ early 19th century, the square must have required hundreds of bodies each year, and with virtually no legitimate sources, it proved a willing marketplace for the grave robber’s wares.

The most infamous school was that operated by Dr Knox who, in 1828, famously purchased the bodies from mass murders Robert Burke & William Hare. His school at No.10 Surgeons Square is no longer standing but a visit to the square still holds an atmospheric charm and several plaques reveal glimpses of its former grizzly glory.

Now absorbed within an Edinburgh University campus, Old Surgeons Square can be reached just off Nicholson Street. Simply walk to the bottom of Infirmary Street and pass through the archway ahead.

3. St Cuthbert’s Watchtower

7-9 Lothian Rd, Edinburgh EH1 2EP

One of the best-preserved relics of the grave robbing era can be found in Edinburgh’s bustling West End. The Watchtower in St Cuthberts’ churchyard can be found in the south-west corner. It was erected in 1827, to defend the wealthy interred residents from resurrectionists which had plagued the graveyard since the early 18th Century.

The present church of St Cuthbert’s was built in 1894, however there has been a church on the site since the 12th century, with the area previously referred to as the ‘West Kirk’.

The tower housed watchmen who patrolled the graveyard and fired warning shots into the dark of night. The first floor of the watchtower still contains the original gun cabinet.

While the inside of the tower is off-limits (in the 1990s it was converted into private studio space), a stroll around St Cuthbert’s churchyard at dusk is still a highly atmospheric experience.

Last but not least, our very own Edinburgh Escape Room “The Anatomist” is set in the city’s dark medical past. Set at the peak of Edinburgh’s grave-robbery epidemic, we invite you to descend into a world of mystery and malpractice in our highly immersive escape room packed with grizzly historical details. The room is located in a church basement which dates back to this dark and fascinating era.

“The Anatomist” escape room will reopen on 17th May 2021, with bookings now open.

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