By rights, the Edinburgh tomb pictured above should be garlanded with huge, expensive wreaths and floral tributes left by the wealthiest entrepreneurs and moguls on the planet: Roman Abramovich, Richard Branson, Steve Forbes, Bill Gates, Ralph Lauren, Sir Ka-shing Li, Vladimir Lisin, Rupert Murdoch, Mark Zuckerberg, Donald Trump and Mr Burns from The Simpsons. Mind you, conspiracy theorists might argue that Donald Trump and Mr Burns are actually one and the same person. You never see them in the same room together, and I suspect that when Trump takes off his toupée he bears a striking resemblance to the shiny-pated billionaire owner of Springfield Nuclear Power Plant.
Interred within this tomb are the remains of Kirkcaldy-born and Glasgow University-educated Adam Smith, who was the granddaddy of modern economics, the author of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, and the first man to really articulate the tenets of the free-market economy, including the roles played in it by competition and self-interest. Margaret Thatcher was such a fan of Smith’s economic philosophy that she was said to carry a copy of his book around in her handbag. And she could never fathom why most people in Scotland didn’t like her since, as she berated them whenever she ventured north of the border, the Scots – i.e. Smith – had ‘invented’ Thatcherism.
Smith’s tomb is found in Canongate Kirkyard, whose gates open onto the Royal Mile, that narrow and ultra-historic thoroughfare in central Edinburgh that scoots down the slope from the castle to Holyrood Palace. The Canongate area of the Mile, at the lower end, was a separate parish from Edinburgh until the 1800s. Built in 1691, the church standing in the kirkyard thus provided a place of worship for the people of Canongate, whereas further up the road the parishioners of Edinburgh proper went to St Giles’ Cathedral. Thanks to the peculiarities of some ancient charters, however, the Parish of Canongate also included Edinburgh Castle on the far side of St Giles. For that reason many soldiers of the castle came to be buried in the kirkyard. And at its northern end you’ll find a 26-foot-high granite cross honouring those soldiers, which was erected in 1880.
Smith is the cemetery’s most famous inhabitant but there are others of note. Also buried there is the 18th century poet Robert Fergusson. His poetic career was short-lived and tragic to say the least – he started writing verse at the age of 22 and died two years later in a lunatic asylum – but his example was enough to inspire a young Robert Burns to take up poetry too. So for that alone, for being the John-the-Baptist figure who paved the way for Scotland’s national bard, Fergusson deserves his place in Scottish literary history. The stone that commemorates him in the kirkyard was supposedly financed by Burns himself. Meanwhile, on the pavement outside the kirkyard gates, there’s a rather dandy statue of Fergusson that was put there in 2004.
Buried there too are the brothers and publishers James and John Ballantyne, who were friends and business associates of Sir Walter Scott. When the Ballantynes’ business collapsed in 1825, Scott himself was ruined and he spent the next six years, until his death in 1831, sitting at his desk and scribbling book after book in a determined effort to write his way out of debt. The Ballantyne brothers are honoured by a mere plaque, not by a memorial stone, which no doubt reflects the reduced circumstances their family ended up in.
Another businessman with a literary connection buried in the kirkyard is Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie, a corn merchant and whisky-supplier. When Charles Dickens was exploring the kirkyard in 1841, he encountered Scroggie’s grave marker and misread its inscription, which identified him as a ‘meal man’ – i.e. a grain merchant. Dickens thought it said ‘mean man’ and from this misunderstanding he got the inspiration for Ebenezer Scrooge, the miserly central character of A Christmas Carol.
The moral philosopher Dugald Stewart lies there, as does the merchant Sir William Fettes, who bequeathed a fortune for the founding of Edinburgh’s poshest school, Fettes Academy. Among those folk who can claim Fettes as their alma mater are, impressively, the fictional James Bond; and, less impressively, the all-too-real Tony Blair.
After Adam Smith, though, the cemetery’s most famous tenant – or reputed tenant – is the unfortunate David Riccio, who was the Italian secretary of Mary Queen of Scots. Massively unpopular among the Scottish nobles, and rumoured even to have made his royal employer pregnant, Riccio was hacked to death by assassins in front of Mary at Holyrood Palace in 1566. He’s said to rest under a large stone by the Canongate Kirk’s eastern wall, although this is unlikely – for the simple reason that an Italian Catholic would scarcely have been interred in a Scottish Protestant cemetery at the time.
The area in front of Canongate Kirk, which borders on the Royal Mile, is impressively gothic-looking at this time of year, with some gaunt trees, some low winding walls and a statue of a figure wrestling desperately with a lion. It may not be clear in this photograph I took a few weeks ago, but the dark bundle lying on the ground below the tree on the right was actually a dead crow – a truly Poe-esque detail.
Unfortunately, when you go around the back of the kirk and explore the cemetery’s northern reaches, the surroundings are less picturesque and the atmosphere is less haunting than what you get in other Edinburgh burial grounds like Greyfriars or St Cuthbert’s. This is due to the modern developments of Yuppie-style apartment buildings that have sprung up or are springing up along its eastern, western and northern sides. These developments have been sneakily positioned back from the Royal Mile, behind its historic facades, apparently in the hope that any future UNESCO inspectors who come to central Edinburgh to assess whether or not it merits its continuing status as a World Heritage Site won’t notice them.
It’s a terrible pity but… Well, I suppose that’s capitalism for you.