St Cuthberts: the gravewatcher's tower from the graveyard


Edinburgh, United Kingdom

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In 1505, the Barber Surgeons of Edinburgh were formally incorporated as a Craft Guild of the city, as a body concerned with the maintenance and promotion of the highest standards of surgical practice.

By the 1700s, the Barber Surgeons had become the Barber Apothecaries, and Edinburgh Council, which provided bodies to the surgeons, couldn’t keep up with the demand. (To be fair, they were supposed to supply the corpses of executed criminals, and no one would have wanted them to execute more people just to be able to provide more subjects for anatomy lessons.)

From the St Cuthbert parish records, by 1738 the robbing of graves from St Cuthberts graveyard to provide dead bodies to the Surgeon Apothecaries of Edinburgh had become a serious problem. The churchyard wall was raised in height. In 1803, the parish provided funds for a regular watch. In 1827, the parish built this tower. (I think the increasing level of precaution represents the increasing number of well-off people in the parish. The New Town was being built, and the Nor Loch was drained: St Cuthberts wasn’t an isolated country parish any more.)

By 1837, the law had changed, allowing a person to donate a cadaver to medical research, and from then on grave-robbing was no longer a profitable profession.

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