I didn’t know it until I was wandering around Calton Hill the other day, but Edinburgh actually boasts a statue of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States. Lincoln, of course, was the man who delivered the Gettysburg address and preserved the American Union during the Civil War, and he’s surely a contender for the title of Most Awesome US President Ever. (Not that he’s had much competition for that title recently.) Honest Abe’s statue is to be found in the Old Calton Cemetery, the entrance to which is on the opposite side of Waterloo Place from the entrance to Calton Hill itself. He stands magisterially atop a memorial to Scottish-American soldiers while the clock-tower of the Balmoral Hotel on Princes Street is just visible in the background.
Standing next to Possibly-the-Greatest-President-Ever in Old Calton Cemetery is the cylindrical mausoleum of Possibly-the-Greatest-Philosopher-Ever, David Hume – the 18th-century Edinburgh thinker who rejected causality, claimed that God’s existence could neither be proved nor disapproved and argued that morality was based upon man’s benevolence rather than upon reason. Clearly, Mr Hume still has at least one admirer in Edinburgh, because when I was there I noticed that the bolt-and-padlock of his mausoleum’s door had been decorated with a cluster of violet flowers.
The other inhabitants of Old Calton Cemetery are less illustrious than David Hume, but some of them were notable figures in their day. It is the resting place, for example, of Thomas Hamilton, the architect who designed the Royal High School building a little further up the road, which was once earmarked to house Scotland’s new devolved parliament – it would have spared the Scottish political establishment an awful lot of expense and embarrassment if they had put the parliament in the Royal High School, rather than in the white elephant that ended up being built, massively over-budget, at the bottom of the Royal Mile. Hamilton was also responsible for the Martyr’s Monument, the obelisk that rises from the centre of the cemetery, erected in honour of the members of a universal suffrage group called the Friends of the People, who were persecuted in 1793.
Also interred there are the publishers William Blackwood, founder of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, which during its 163-year history published contributions by the likes of James Hogg, Thomas De Quincy, George Eliot, Joseph Conrad and John Buchan; and Archibald Constable, who was involved in the Ballantyne Press, the company whose collapse in the 1820s bankrupted Sir Walter Scott. And the cemetery contains the remains of classical and historical painter David Allan, who at one time was likened to a ‘Scottish Hogarth’ (although he certainly wasn’t the satirist that Hogarth was).
Allan’s visage, carved on his tombstone, adds a decorative flourish to a graveyard that is, on the whole, rather austere-looking. However, it is spectacularly situated, with Calton Hill to the north and the skyline of the Old Town to the south. And at its there’s a striking alleyway lined on either side with hulking stone sepulchres.
If you follow the tomb-flanked alleyway to near its bottom end, you’ll find this mausoleum for a certain Robert Burn. That’s Robert Burn, not Robert Burns, although the inscription mentioning ‘twelve children’ brings to mind the famously promiscuous ploughman-poet (who’s actually buried in Dumfries). At the sides of the entrance to Burn’s tomb, these cowled faces stare blankly and disturbingly from the stonework.
Another feature of the cemetery that is uncharacteristically decorative is the headstone on the left-hand side of the entrance that, on its crest, bears the name of Captain John Gray. Mention is made too, down the stone below, of Elisabeth Wilkie, Thomas Gray and Michael and John Swan. It also features a sturdy-looking galleon, sculpted near the top, while lurking on either side of the inscriptions are two of the most grotesque skeletal figures to be found on any Edinburgh headstone. And on its back there’s a Masonic-looking carving that resembles a compass straddling a gallows (or a turned-around Freemason’s square).
I read somewhere that Captain Gray placed the headstone in the cemetery in memory of his parents, but I haven’t been able to find out why some visitors feel obliged to add to the pile of coins nestling on its summit. Is it a Masonic custom? Perhaps somebody out there could enlighten me?