Greyfriars Hidden Archaeology

The Grassmarket Centre & cafe opened in march 2014 at the grassmarket cafebottom of the Greyfriars Kirkyard and Candlemaker Row.  It is a substantial extension to the old Kirkhouse that many remember as the venue for parish meals and an inconvenient and dingy place for Sunday school and coffee after the morning service.

Now with a new board and new staff the centre provides a variety of help to variety of people, at the forefront is john david kinross, or jonny kinross a new CEO at the grassmarket project.  His aim is to engage with the local business and resident community and raise funds for the project.  And straight away he certainly has made himself known with not just joining but running the local BID (Business john david kinross jonny kinross grassmarket centre project cafe kirk greyfriars church communityimprovement scheme) Congratulations to Jonny who’s career has taken off

At that time the site at the back was occupied by an old warehouse in the ownership of City of Edinburgh Council, and after many twists and turns we could demolish it to make way for the new building.

But before we could start building we had to undertake an archaeological survey on the site.  This was done during 2011 by Headland Archaeology and, for a spell, there were tantalising glimpses of old walls and cellars and striped poles while they did their work.  Their work has now been written up, and what did they find?

Perhaps what was most important is what they did not find in the dig.  To our great relief they didn’t find any human bones.  In the kirkyard, wherever you put a spade in the ground you turn up bones which have to be reburied with due solemnity after a delay for consultation with the City archaeologist.


But the Grassmarket site there were no human bones at all, just a wide variety of domestic animals, rats and mice, and even frogs and toads from the lowest layers when the ground was swampy before it was built on.greyfriars churchyard graves candlemaker row old edinburgh candlemaker row greyfriars churchyard cemetary

So what we were seeing was a little piece of historic Edinburgh.  The archaeologists peeled the layers back to evidence of activity on the site going back to the 11th or 12th century, whengreyfriars grassmarket digit the area was largely rural but marked the junction of two major cattle droving routes into the town.  Candlemaker Row was the major route into the town from the south, from the Burgh Muir through the Bristo Port, or town gate.  Cowgatehead is the junction with the historic route from the west, the routes from Stirling and from Glasgow joining beyond the West Port at the other end of the Grassmarket.

One of the earliest dated artefacts was a 13th Century, brass buckle from a horse harness (pictured), which we hope to display in the Kirk museum.

The development of the Grassmarket area began in earnest in the 15th century.  A regular market was established by Royal Charter in 1477 and the southeast corner of the Grassmarket saw the construction of the Franciscan Friary in the mid to late 15th century.  However there is no evidence that the friary occupied our excavation site.

  As the picture from 1647 shows, our site was fully built up by the mid 17th century.

The most remarkable find on the site was this beautiful drinking glass.


The broken pieces have been reassembled to give the full circumference of the rim, and we also hope to display it in our museum. It is dated to the early 17th Century.  The decoration is apparently very unusual indeed and may be unique in the archaeological record in Britain.


It takes the form of small motifs of flowers greyfriars dig find glass grassmarketand hearts painted in white enamel onto alternate bosses, forming diagonal lines of each motif type spiralling up the walls.  The flowers are quite a common motif but the hearts are not and it may come from eastern France rather than the Low Countries where this general type was common.

The late 18th and early 19th Centuries saw the redevelopment of the site and the written records show tradesmen such as tobacconists, ironmongers and hatters.  By 1870, there was a brass foundry established on the site and its pit was uncovered in the excavation.

It is remarkable to reflect that our site has been used for homes and businesses for over six centuries – what better foundation for our modern Grassmarket Centre and own work for the community.

Jo Elliot – Kirk Financial Convenor

For more detail, please read the complete Archaeological Report and see the referenced images.

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