The Photographers, the Kirkyard and the Poltergeist

To anyone familiar with Edinburgh, the exhibition of photographs by Hill & Adamson currently on display at the Portrait Gallery provides a fascinating view of the city in the 1840s. Through a short series of blogs we will look at some of the people and places recorded by their enduring photographs. This week: Greyfriars Kirkyard.

Edinburgh in the 1840s was a city in dialogue with its own past. Its rich history was written in its stones but the story was far from over. David Octavius Hill, one half of the pioneering photographic partnership at the heart of A Perfect Chemistry, an exhibition of photographs at the Portrait Gallery, knew this well. His painting Edinburgh Old and New, presents a panoramic view of the city with the Old Town to the right and the New Town on the left.

David Octavius Hill, Edinburgh Old and New
Thomas Annan, photograph of Hill's painting The First General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland signing the Act of Separation and Deed of Demission at Tanfield, Edinburgh 23 May 1843

Although the painting shows us a clear divide between Old Town and New, it depicts in its details a place which for Hill & Adamson resonated with ideas both old and new. Although already in use for centuries, Greyfriars Kirkyard was a site that had contemporary relevance for the photographers and was a place that features in many of their photographs.

The photographer Adamson and the painter Hill came together in 1843 in order to create photographs as studies for Hill’s epic painting The First General Assembly of The Free Church of Scotland, Signing the Act of Separation and Deed of Demission at Tanfield. While Hill’s painting recorded a historic moment (the 1843 schism within the Presbyterian church), Greyfriars was the scene of another historic moment, some two hundred years earlier. It was in Greyfriars Kirk in 1638 that the National Covenant, a document enshrining Presbyterian religious liberties, was signed. Consequently, the site became an important spiritual location for those involved in the 1843 schism. This may help explain why Hill & Adamson photographed within its walls so often.

David Octavius Hill, Old Edinburgh, Showing the Castle from Greyfriars Churchyard, City of Edinburgh Council
David Octavius Hill & Robert Adamson, Greyfriars' Churchyard, a group of monuments including the Chalmers and Jackson Monuments, 1843-1847

Of course, it did not hurt that Greyfriars Kirkyard is also an incredibly picturesque location. The view across the monuments to the castle that it afforded was not something to be ignored by someone with Hill’s eye. Indeed, Hill had already painted Greyfriars in Old Edinburgh, Showing the Castle from Greyfriars Churchyard (in the collection of the City of Edinburgh Council). In this work Hill illustrates the cycle of life; a child playing among the tombstones, alongside the funeral parties. Indeed one could argue that death was very much a part of life in the nineteenth century, perhaps more so than it is today. Hill himself had seen his fair share of tragedy, having lost both his first wife, and a daughter shortly after birth.

David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, Greyfriars' Churchyard, the Dennistoun monument, 1843-1847
David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, Greyfriars' Churchyard, the Naismith Monument with Thomas Duncan and David Octavius Hill, 1843-1847

As in the painting, the majority of photographs taken by Hill & Adamson in Greyfriars show the kirkyard as a place for the living as well as the dead. Many of the images feature friends and family members posing among the monuments. Indeed Hill himself can also be seen in many of these. One work in particular stands out as the only image to depict photographers at work. The photographers in this case may well be Hill & Adamson. If so, it is likely that the photograph was taken by their trusted assistant Miss Jessie Mann.

David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, Greyfriars' Churchyard, with Heriot's Hospital in the background, two figures bent over camera in right foreground, 1843-1847

Of the many photographs taken by Hill & Adamson in Greyfriars Kirkyard there is one whose already macabre associations have only grown with the passing of time. The Mackenzie Tomb is the ‘resting’ place of George ‘Bluidy’ Mackenzie. Mackenzie was a lawyer who rose to the rank of Lord Advocate of Scotland, and through this role was responsible for persecuting the Covenanters on behalf of King Charles II. He was relentless and brutal in his treatment of the Covenanters, who were housed in a prison in Greyfriars Kirkyard, and he is believed to be responsible for some 18,000 deaths. He died in 1691 and was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard, the scene of his horrendous legacy.

David Octavius Hill & Robert Adamson, Greyfriars Churchyard, the Mackenzie Tomb, 1843-1847
Unknown (after Sir Godfrey Kneller), Sir George Mackenzie, 1636 - 1691. Founder of the Advocates Library,1680s

Hill & Adamson’s photograph shows two figures seemingly entering the tomb. A foolhardy course of action given the reputation that the tomb would later aquire. In 1999, a homeless man broke into this mausoleum, disturbing Mackenzie’s remains, and unwittingly unlocking something from within. Ever since, hundreds of visitors have reported scratches, bruising, broken fingers and blackouts while in the area. The Mackenzie poltergeist, as it has come to be known, has been blamed for a house fire and even been linked to a death!

This is but one of the many tales to be told through the photographs of Hill & Adamson. In the coming weeks we will look at some of the artists in their photographs and the changes wrought on the city that their photographs recorded.

25 August 2017