Death in the Festival City | Institute of Continuing Education (ICE) skip to content

Institute of Continuing Education (ICE)


I have just spent a week with my family at the Edinburgh Festival. The city was absolutely buzzing with creativity, festival-goers and tourists buying kilts and fake bagpipes. There was plenty on offer for us all: my husband went to see stand-up comedy and sampled whisky, my children met Barney from Blue Peter, and there was plenty of fascinating history all around me. The nearest church was no less than Canongate Kirk and buried in the kirkyard were the moral philosopher and political economist Adam Smith (1723-1790) and the poet Robert Fergusson (1750-1774).

Adam Smith published An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations in 1776. He was the founder of political economy and hugely influential to shifts in intellectual thought about the nature of the market. Smith’s magnificent tombstone might have been aggrandised in the 1930s. Such ideas are important to my research on the history of poverty and attitudes towards the poor, which underwent radical change over the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Nassau Senior (1790–1864), Drummond Professor of Political Economy at Oxford, was architect of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. The principles of the New Poor Law were centralisation, uniformity, less-eligibility, and the workhouse test.

The poet Robert Fergusson was frequently impoverished. He published his poems in the Weekly Magazine and a collection Poems in 1773, while his other poems were published posthumously. By late 1773 he was very ill, possibly with syphilis. Seven months’ later he fell downstairs and became delirious; he was committed to Edinburgh’s Darien House Asylum, where he died, aged just 24, on 17 October 1774. He was buried two days’ later in the Canongate churchyard in an unmarked grave. Fergusson was Robert Burns’s favourite Scottish poet, and Burns paid for a headstone for Fergusson’s grave, with the epitaph:

No sculpturd Marble here nor pompous lay
No stoned Urn nor animated Bust
This simple Stone directs Pale cotia’s way
To pour her Sorrows o’er Poets Dust.

The statue pictured here is a much more recent addition (2004) and was sculpted by David Annand.

Edinburgh is also famous for the serial killers William Burke (1792-1829) and William Hare (1792/1804-?), who committed at least fifteen murders in the city in order to sell the bodies to the surgeon Professor Robert Knox (1791–1862) for dissection. He gave them between £8 and £14 for each corpse. They were discovered and arrested. Hare turned king’s evidence and was released; Burke was hanged on 28 January 1829 at Lawnmarket and faced the same fate as his victims: his corpse was dissected. The surgeon was Knox's rival, Sir Alexander Monro. Burke’s body was viewed by 30,000 people and his skeleton preserved and displayed in the anatomical museum of Edinburgh University. It was reported that Hare took employment at a lime kiln and that, when his identity became known, other workers threw him into the lime, which blinded him, and that he became a beggar with a dog on Oxford Street, London. The medical profession required a steady stream of corpses to dissect for the training of medical students, drawn from convicted murderers, the dead poor, and (sometimes) grave robbing.

If you, too, are interested in social history, then you might like to study local history at the Institute. You can find a full list of the Institute's local history courses on our website.

If you would like to undertake your own research then you might be interested in the Undergraduate Advanced Diploma in Local History.

Dr Samantha Williams, ICE University Senior Lecturer and Academic Director in Local History

Sign up for email alerts

By signing up to our mailing list we will email you occasionally to keep you up-to-date with courses, events and other activities here at the University of Cambridge Institute of Continuing Education.

Sign up now »

You can unsubscribe at any time. See our privacy notice for more information on how we take care of your data.