I didn’t know burial grounds were so full of life. Cemeteries filled with crumbling stones dating back one hundred, two hundred years, hidden and forgotten places known only by lonely dog walkers, head-dwellers, and retirees, places like Warriston Cemetery where the dead sleep while new growth teems with life. My friend took me there earlier this week, but I was too busy chatting to take it all in, so I returned alone this morning, welcomed again by the raven perched gauchely on top of a headstone. Too big and ungainly to balance, he squawks and flies off.
Attached to the gate is a little perspex box filled with leaflets: Friends of Warriston Cemetery. Inside are mostly pictures, light on information. The Friends came together in 2013 to “combat the ever-encroaching ivy and invasive weeds threatening to swamp the site entirely. A few years on, there’s a dramatic difference!” I’m amazed that this feral and untamed section of Edinburgh represents a ‘dramatic difference’. Even now, it teeters on the precipice of being swallowed whole by greenery, devoured by spring growth. What must it have looked like before the Friends took it with their scythes?
Opened in 1843, Warriston Cemetry, the leaflet tells me, was the first garden cemetery in Edinburgh. That it was once carefully planned and landscaped is evident; dare I say, in its layout it has good bones. What makes it different from other cemeteries is the undulating woodland, the soft, curved sections of graves and planting. Initially, by the main entrance, where the raven stands sentry, it appears regimented – if unkempt – but walk deeper, stroll through dales of fading bluebells, and it is easy to forget it is a cemetery at all.
Dandelion heads have turned to seed clocks, cutting the grass is too big a job and it grows in thick, lush tufts. Cow parsely, pink campion, forget-me-nots, anything wild that can fend for itself drapes the graves in an effortless beauty that can only be found in the untended. Tits and finches shimmer through the new leaves of the birch. The horse chestnut, whose leaves, when they first started to unfurl five and six weeks ago, looked like the unsure limbs of a new foal, are now wide and solid as the thick fingers of a Blacksmith. The other trees emanate an early spring glow of pale green, so fresh it appears almost yellow. Scots pine, cherry, lime, sycamore, larch, oak, copper beech, yew: so many ancient trees, some in their prime, others with broken boughs, severed and lying on the ground like the old bones buried by their roots.
The site is bounded by a high wall and when I stand still, all I can hear is birdsong. Flanked all around by playing fields, allotments, cycle paths and walkways, the hum of traffic is faint against the cackle of the magpie. I can’t see the other birds I hear, despite searching for them in high branches. Scanning lower, my eye stops on the gravestone of the aptly named George Bird and his wife, Mrs. Florence Nightingale Lamb-Bird.
The hawthorn is coming into bloom; its gentle shower of white blossom will, in another week, be a torrent of white. Willowherb, montbretia and foxglove are pushing through, no flowers yet, just now we are left with the last of the bluebells and the dying aroma of wild garlic. This morning, a light wind blows the husks of seed pods upon me in delicate confetti.
Nature has distracted me from the hundreds of graves; from the small, reinstated grave of a Scots Guard named Simpson, who died aged 23 in 1918, to the ornate grave with a stone effigy of a young woman lying on her back, hands placed on her solar plexus, folds of a Grecian dress brining to mind her youth. Once, surely, this statue would have been atop a concrete plinth, but the concrete has given way to the earth, and she sinks into the soil. Around her, someone has planted geraniums, lavender, a single marigold. She symbolises the whole of the graveyard: half in the earth, half out of it; a place in this world, a place apart.
Soon, I am lost. The network of paths loop in on themselves like a poorly wound ball of wool, and I think I have been here before, but I am not sure. Every tangle of ivy, brambles, and nettles begin to look like the last. I hear a dog barking nearby. When I meet its owner I shall have him or her orient me towards the gate. No one appears. I keep wandering.
I come across a cluster of gravestones carved with ivy. Real ivy creeps up the stone towards its carved cousin, and I find the enmeshing of the two sharply poignant. On comes the rain. I hear it land on the trees above me before I feel it. I walk on, stop by the tall, slender oak – has it self-seeded or planted? – by the weeping laburnum. Nature has found a way to shape and model the landscape with no guidance from human hand. And, whilst a team of volunteers do their best to train the rebellious undergrowth, I find myself wondering what it would have looked like one hundred years ago when all these gravestone names were known, when the sounds of their voices echoed in the heads in the living, when close relatives came to visit.
I’m walking in circles, passing the same section of wall again and again. The quietness worries me somewhat, enough to be pleased when I find the path rising to a clearing and I know I have looped back to where I began.