Taking a wander around a cemetery may not be the first thing you think of doing on a sunny summer’s day. Yet mention the name Highgate, and many people will think of the famous cemetery in London, the final resting place of Karl Marx and more recently George Michael, or Pere Lachaise in Paris where you find the graves of Chopin and Jim Morrison of the Doors fame.
Closer to home is Newington Cemetery, originally known as Newington Necropolis, (necropolis meaning “city of the dead”). Located opposite a large tenement block off a main artery in South Edinburgh, it is a fine example of the post-1830s “garden cemeteries movement”. This movement had burial grounds located, not by the full-to-the gunnels churchyards but out in rural areas. These were operated by town and city councils, not religious institutions, which meant that anyone was welcome to be laid to rest there.
During the Victorian era, practices relating to death were very important and burial grounds were landscaped, with grand roads wide enough for carriages and smaller paths for strolling. They were planted with trees and shrubs, and became a place of quiet reflection for the living as well as a place of repose for the dead. Newington Necropolis, later called Echo Bank and still referred to as “Ekkie Bank” was no different. It was opened in 1846 by the Metropolitan Cemetery Association as a money-making venture with the land purchased from the Dick Family of Prestonfield.
The first burial was in 1846 and in 1848 the well-known local architect David Cousin designed a layout which included catacombs. By the turn of the 20th century, the desire for elaborate funerals was declining. Space in the catacombs failed to sell and lay empty. Families began to choose more modest memorials for their departed ones and profit in this business sector declined. The cemetery came into private hands in the 20th century and it was at this time that it suffered from its greatest neglect. The gravestones tumbled, the site became overgrown with weeds and, after a tragic accident in 1992, the site was compulsorily purchased by Edinburgh City Council.
Friends of Newington Cemetery was formed by the Grange and Prestonfield Community Council in 2013 to help the council restore the cemetery to its former glory. It was felt that the 14-acre site needed to better serve its community and therefore local community involvement was key. People are encouraged to join the group to help raise awareness and funds for a variety of projects, including the restoration of the “Angel”, a beautiful adult-sized carving, which had topped a grave but had collapsed and broken into several pieces. Owners of lairage (or burial plots) were also consulted and many are members.
The Friends of Newington Cemetery would love more people to join their group and there are ways in which you can help in the restoration of this fascinating site of Victorian grandeur. There is a Working Group which meets every third Monday of the month, between 10am and 12 noon, with meet-up at the front gates of the cemetery. Come equipped with secateurs, trowels or shears to help clear weeds and ivy.
The Friends also organise snowdrops walks around the site in late winter and tours have taken place on the yearly Doors Open weekend – at these events, volunteers to act as tour guides are always welcome. It is also a site of Commonwealth War Graves, mainly from World War I and some from World War II, and there is a memorial to those who have no individual burial ground. Children from local schools are invited to visit with a focus on World War I.
There are wildlife projects for children and young people, such as workshops to build bird nesting boxes. Many bird species have been spotted, both as visitors and nesters, including woodpecker, blue-tit, coal-tit, dunnock and chaffinch. A bird-count is on-going so if you are interested in catching up with what other species have been spotted this year, go to the bird count webpage.
Signage has been erected to explain the tree varieties - grand examples of sycamores, yew-trees, horse chestnut and maple. Benches have recently been installed so that visitors can take a quiet moment. A map showing notable graves can be found on the website and there is a plan to catalogue the graves by profession.
William McTaggart, the famous Scottish landscape and marine artist, is buried here, as is the Edinburgh-born Jean Thomson Harris, wife of Rotary Club founder Paul Harris. The grave is visited by Rotarians from across the world.
Newington Cemetery is now a peaceful green haven in the middle of an urban area, a wildlife sanctuary and an asset to the local community, but much work is still to be done so please come and help.
For more information on how to join Friends of Newington Cemetery, please email firstname.lastname@example.org