Kirkyard Heritage

Graveyard Conservation in Scotland

Susan Buckham and Catherine Lloyd


  Close-up showing detail of lichen growth on headstone with church in the background
  Lichens on a headstone at Inveravon church, Speyside

What makes historic churchyards special and worth conserving? The answer varies not only from site to site but from visitor to visitor. Conservation management is increasingly adopting an integrated approach which balances cultural importance (architectural, historical and archaeological) with ecological values. Dr Susan Buckham and Catherine Lloyd consider developments in Scotland over the past 15 years from their respective viewpoints as built heritage and natural heritage practitioners.


In his 1879 description of Greyfriars Kirkyard, Robert Louis Stevenson captures the sights and sounds of this remarkable historic churchyard in Edinburgh’s Old Town:

'As you walk upon the graves, you see children scattering crumbs to feed the sparrows; you hear people singing or washing dishes, or the sound of tears and castigation; the linen on a clothes-pole flaps against funereal sculpture; or perhaps the cat slips over the lintel and descends on a memorial urn. And as there is nothing else astir, these incongruous sights and noises take hold on the attention and exaggerate the sadness of the place.' (RL Stevenson, Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes)

What makes Stevenson’s account so compelling is the vivid way he encapsulates the site’s character. He does this not only by describing the varied burial landscape but also by recounting what people do in the churchyard and how these activities connect them with Scottish history, local folklore and personal memories. Stevenson explores Greyfriars’ relationship to its setting to show how these different spaces combine to form a particular atmosphere and experience for the visitor.

The picture Stevenson draws is a snapshot in time – sensibilities towards death have changed and the landscape he describes has altered and evolved. Nevertheless, Stevenson’s account of Greyfriars fits surprisingly well with modern approaches to the assessment of graveyards’ cultural and natural values. Such assessments typically seek to understand a graveyard’s fabric and development while also appreciating the associations it evokes. Today, that understanding is carried a step further – it is used to shape priorities for how we manage and maintain graveyards.


  B/w illustration showing visitors in the graveyard and the towering terraced houses that surrounded it  
  Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh c1857: Greyfriars was recently included in a study carried out for the World Monuments Fund and Edinburgh World Heritage which aimed to identify strategic options for the future management of five historic graveyards in Edinburgh’s World Heritage Site.  

A great strength of Stevenson’s description is that it seems so all-encompassing. He looks beyond the gravestones to take in all of the churchyard’s fabric and features. Yet we need to remember that Stevenson looks at Greyfriars with a picturesque and partial eye. We don’t know what details he chose to omit as, in his view, irrelevant. For example, the only flora and fauna described are weeds and an over-abundance of neighbourhood cats.

Although graveyards are a very common form of heritage asset, they are surprisingly under-researched. It is best to adopt a comprehensive approach to documenting what is found in a graveyard rather than simply focussing on the features with the highest artistic or architectural merit. Elements such as kerb sets, grave-markers and other grave furniture, even humps and bumps on the ground, have evidential value and contribute to the site’s visual character. In fact, because their importance is not fully appreciated, such features are especially vulnerable. Our understanding of the types of graveyard features we might expect to find is improved by identifying the type of burial site we are looking at (churchyard, cemetery, family burial ground, etc) and then comparing it to similar sites in the locality and beyond.


Stevenson describes the history of Greyfriars but he also touches on the historic social and cultural circumstances that helped to shape gravestone designs, such as attitudes towards death and Scottish stone-carving traditions. Today, our understanding of a graveyard’s development would also embrace evidence not so readily apparent to Stevenson. This includes information drawn from the below-ground archaeological record or held in documentary sources.

Records may help to illuminate how a site once looked, was used or perceived and the relationships between its features. Documentary evidence can cover many different topics including consecration practices, areas for particular types of burial or changes in ownership. Examples of archaeological evidence include not only human remains, but also material associated with earlier buildings, buried tombstones or remains associated with a different, earlier use of a site. It is every bit as important to protect below-ground evidence through graveyard management as the above-ground fabric.


  Mausoleum in the form of a domed rotunda with exterior decoration consisting of alternating columns and niches
  Greyfriars, Edinburgh: The mausoleum of Sir George ‘Bluidy’ Mackenzie, once the focus of schoolboy dares

Graveyards offer evidence of identifiable individuals from the past so they are rich in associative values. People may attach values to historic graveyards for different reasons, ranging from personal connections (as in the case of family history) to meanings shared by groups, where different levels of importance might be ascribed to the same heritage value. Greyfriars, for example, is especially important to some visitors as a focus of Covenanter history. Around 1,200 followers of this Presbyterian movement were imprisoned in an area of the churchyard in the late 17th century and it is the site of the early 18th-century Martyrs’ Monument, which commemorates those who died for the Covenanter cause. Stevenson also describes how the tomb of one notorious figure from this period (Sir George ‘Bluidy’ Mackenzie, right) entered into local folklore – schoolboys tested their mettle by daring to knock at its door and challenge his ghost to appear.

Understanding the associations that link a graveyard to people, places or events helps us to reflect both on why Stevenson was sufficiently moved to write about this particular churchyard and on the subsequent value that we place on its cultural connections. In the case of Greyfriars this pits Stevenson’s reputation against that of Greyfriars Bobby, the famous Skye terrier said to have guarded his owner’s grave there for 14 years.

Engaging with the people who visit a historic graveyard and asking them to explain how they see the site’s importance can help to identify those ‘evidential values’ that illuminate the significance of its natural history, genealogy, local history, geology, art, architecture and other special interest areas. Talking to visitors can also reveal how visitors connect with the graveyard simply as an attractive open space and local amenity.


Stevenson’s account does not consider the future of Greyfriars. Yet this is the most critical issue we contend with today for historic graveyards. There are limited resources available to maintain and preserve these sites so efforts should be targeted on the basis of both significance and risk. The increasing recognition of the cultural and natural value of these sites also brings with it the danger of uninformed intervention, where even the smallest actions can irrevocably alter a site’s character and integrity. Change is best made once we have documented what is at a graveyard, determined which of these features might be valuable and why.

Evaluating the relative importance of different areas enables priorities to be set for a graveyard’s future care. For example, perhaps the mature trees that contribute to a graveyard’s biodiversity and amenity values are now obscuring an important view from the site and undermining the stability of the surrounding gravestones, one of which commemorates a locally important figure. If this site is to be managed in a balanced way, the relative importance of each of these areas of value needs to be weighed and a decision made about what to protect.

It is also important to recognise that all graveyards are unique. Each has its own history, character and associations with a particular place and people, and therefore has values that require protection.


In Scotland over the past 15 years the knowledge and skills that underpin graveyard conservation management have been advanced by both published guidance and the experience gained through project work. Historic Scotland’s Practitioner’s Guide to the Conservation of Historic Graveyards (2001) sets out comprehensive advice on routine maintenance and repairs. The Carved Stones Adviser Project (2001-06) developed a wide range of materials to support the documenting and recording of graveyards. More recently, the Clyde and Avon Valley Landscape Partnership commissioned a conservation strategy for rural graveyards that piloted a recording system to document and assess a graveyard’s cultural and natural values. This assessment can be used to create conservation and activity action plans.

  An adult and a group of children read the inscription on an old gravestone  
  Attitudes to burial change: a children’s ‘I-spy’ trail in Old Calton Burial Ground, Edinburgh  

Several other projects have developed their own surveys to set regional priorities for carrying out conservation work and enhancing maintenance routines, including the Aberdeenshire Historic Kirkyards Project and Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust’s Historic Churchyard’s project. The recent appointment of a development officer for five graveyards within the Edinburgh World Heritage Site aims to ensure that the management of urban burial grounds is led by an integrated approach.

Experience has shown that 15 years is a relatively short period of time to begin to get to grips with sites which are such complex heritage assets. Useful future work might include developing a better understanding of graveyard chronologies and the material variation that exists for different periods, site types and regions. Also, if we evaluate and monitor the actions and activities delivered through project work we can better identify and disseminate best practice. (See Further Information for details of the resources described in this section.)


Conservation organisations of all types increasingly work together, form partnerships, pool resources and seek to understand other perspectives. Historic building specialists now stop to consider potential environmental impacts before they undertake work, while biodiversity conservationists are also engaging with the cultural aspects of the sites they manage. What better place to highlight this than graveyards? For over 15 years there have been community-led initiatives all over England to better manage graveyards, an important resource where nature and history seamlessly combine. They are now far more integrated than they used to be – and Scotland is playing ‘catch up’.


Graveyard management is different in Scotland, where local authorities own and maintain the vast majority of cemeteries and Church of Scotland churchyards. The nature of ownership makes it more difficult to engage volunteers in enhancing local graveyards, although the leaflet Tayside’s Green Graveyards has helped to raise awareness. Having drafted a Burial Grounds Habitat Action Plan as part of the Tayside Biodiversity Action Plan, years passed before an opportunity arose to work with the local authority and Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust on a joint historic/biodiversity project. The Perth and Kinross Biodiverse Burial Grounds Pilot focussed on seven graveyards in the Braes of the Carse (a rural area between the cities of Perth and Dundee). It was funded by the SITA Tayside Biodiversity Action Fund, derived from the Landfill Communities Fund.

Lichenologist John Douglass, together with the Scottish Churchyard Lichen Group, visited the graveyards three summers ago and documented 176 lichen species, 30 of them very rare. Astonishingly there were also two new British records: a tiny crustose lichen Lecanora invadens with ‘jam tart’ like spore-producing bodies and a lichen parasite, Sclerococcum tephromelarum, found growing on the black shields lichen Tephromela atra (lichens are part-fungi and part-algae and sometimes have their own fungal parasites). Deciphering these species has been a lifetime’s work for lichenologist Dr Brian Coppins, the discoverer of the two new species.

Funding a lichen survey was only part of the pilot project and soon a larger project in East Perthshire’s churchyards incorporated wildflower areas. Bat and bird boxes were included at each site, together with red squirrel feeding areas; reptiles and amphibians were also considered when improving stonework and boundary walls.


  Richly coloured yellow and orange lichen growth on historic stone
  Biodiversity professionals now work with historians to discuss how best to conserve important monuments. Where a lichen species is common and the monument is of cultural importance, the priority remains with the historical aspect. If a species of lichen is found to be very rare or of local significance, conservation measures can be discussed.
  A vibrant burst of flowering red poppies in a historic graveyard
  The Howff, Dundee (category A listed) is one of Scotland’s most important historic burial grounds and an urban ‘green graveyard’ which has been enhanced to promote biodiversity

Work to historic buildings should be sympathetic to natural heritage. For example, care should be taken when removing roof tiles or top coping to ensure that swifts are neither trapped nor excluded. When replacing roof tiles, some of the original tiles can be stored nearby in their original alignment to safeguard the lichens, or lichen-rich tiles can be retained among the new tiles. Likewise, lichens can be safeguarded when removing fence posts or restoring drystone walls by leaving the old posts in the vicinity or reusing some of the original stone.

Swift ‘towers’ are becoming more commonplace in English churches and a project in the Carse of Gowrie will work with a local ‘Eco-Congregation’ (see Further Information) to safeguard and create swift nest sites. Church bat and swift conservation projects can work well as partnership initiatives between volunteers and nature conservation professionals. Innovative training workshops based on churchyard lichen, bird or wildflower identification can lead to on-the-ground projects involving volunteers and professionals alike. The potential to work with heritage organisations, local authorities, naturalists and the local community means many more projects are becoming possible and wider funding streams can be accessed.

Proactive and integrated management of both churches and graveyards can include:

  • swift, swallow and house martin conservation projects
  • bat conservation
  • butterfly and bumblebee meadows
  • conservation of the invertebrates, lichens and mosses that thrive in and on boundary walls, church walls and monuments
  • local community involvement with planting trees and wildflowers; creating amphibian hibernacula, bee banks or bug hotels; making bird or bat boxes; undertaking species and tree surveys; creating photographic records or time-lapse photographs to show seasonal changes
  • summer evening walks to see bats, swifts and owls; churchyard explorer walks to understand lichens, wildflowers and invertebrates.


A useful approach to graveyard management is to consider ‘the three Rs’:

  • Reduce the use of chemicals as they destabilise the soil, cause memorial collapse and habitat contamination for lichens; the number of grassland cuts in less prominent areas; over-cleaning of walls and monuments.
  • Remove grass cuttings from low-lying memorials.
  • Retain, where appropriate, short grass for waxcap fungi; lichens and mosses (they are often harmless to historic stonework and are an important part of its historic patina); ivy and dead wood; mature trees and hedges; gravestones, old walls and roofing materials in situ.

Managing a graveyard sensitively enhances the cultural aspects of the church building. The experience of exploring a church’s rich history is dramatically improved when visitors arrive to find pathways well kept, trees well cared for and clear indications that biodiversity is being actively promoted. The latter might include an area of ground with a different cutting or mowing regime with interpretation explaining what the visitor is likely to see at different times of the year. A sterile, over-managed exterior can mar a fascinating church interior. Equally, an unkempt graveyard can ruin a visit to a historic church, giving the impression that the local community neither cares about its local church, nor welcomes visitors to explore it.


Community participation leads to local people caring for and sharing their important wildlife or culturally-important areas. People of all ages, abilities and interests can become involved. Church newsletters, websites and local newspapers can be used to celebrate their efforts. Many green graveyard projects appear in the UK Biodiversity Action Recording System which ensures small-scale community projects count towards national and international targets making a direct contribution, therefore, to the UK biodiversity process. Importantly, as all public bodies and their officers have a ‘biodiversity duty’ (enacted by the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 and outside Scotland established by the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006), such projects demonstrate good practice and partnership working. Importantly, from a biodiversity conservation point of view, increasingly rare and vulnerable habitats and species are safeguarded.


Further Information

Aberdeenshire Historic Kirkyards Project

Caring for God’s Acre

The Carved Stones Adviser Project

Clyde and Avon Valley Landscape Partnership


Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust’s Historic Churchyard Project

Tayside Biodiversity Partnership



Historic Churches, 2013


SUSAN BUCKHAM PhD is a freelance heritage consultant specialising in historic graveyards and is also the graveyards development officer at Edinburgh World Heritage. She was formerly the carved stones adviser (2001-005) and led a Historic Scotland/ Archaeology Scotland project to develop best practice in graveyard recording and conservation.


CATHERINE LLOYD has been the Tayside Biodiversity Partnership’s coordinator for 13 years. The partnership is currently taking forward over 70 projects, including the Tayside Green Graveyard Initiative.


Further information



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Conservation principles




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Church repair contractors

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