Bruntsfield Links and the plague epidemic in Edinburgh

editorial image
Have your say

For generations of Edinburgh people, Bruntsfield Links has always been more than just another of the city’s scenic parks.

Quite apart from its fine vistas across the Meadows to the historic Edinburgh Castle, it is also recognised as the world’s oldest short-hole golf course, with the Burgess Golfing Society founded in 1735.

But children learning to putt balls over the seemingly innocuous grassy slopes of the links are often told of what – or perhaps that should be who? – is said to lie beneath. Parents whisper that these green mounds are the burial sites of plague victims.

So are the victims of the disease dubbed the “Black Death” buried under these fields of green? The story has been repeated so many times that local people consider it a fact – and a trawl through the archives suggests it has some basis in truth.

Bruntsfield Links is the last remaining green space from the old Burgh Muir, a large tract of oak forest that once covered most of what is now south Edinburgh, and was used to isolate plague victims between the 15th and 17th centuries.

During this time Edinburgh and the neighbouring port of Leith were hit by almost a dozen plague epidemics. Town councillors had to take tough action to halt the spread of the disease and produced a growing raft of regulations, with penalties for disobedience including branding, banishment and even hanging.

When the plague struck, the Burgh Muir, which was then outside the city walls, was used to isolate the unfortunate victims, who suffered symptoms including fever, aches, swollen glands, gangrene and usually death.

In a 1929 article aptly headlined Plague and Pestilence, The Scotsman reflected on the measures taken by the Edinburgh town council to combat the plague.

“It appears that the practice of using the Burgh Muir for disinfection, and for burying persons dead of the Plague, had gradually grown up. All goods to be disinfected and corpses to be buried were to be removed between nine in the evening and five in the morning.

“Beggars and others who were excluded from the town had apparently taken up quarters on the Burgh Muir, which, therefore were ordered by the Town Council to be unroofed on 5th April 1520.”

The article adds: “It may seem paradoxical but the fact remains that epidemics are blessings in disguise, as they have always led to more stringent regulations relative to health.”

In his book Historic South Edinburgh, Charles J Smith agrees that the town council was ahead of its time in dealing with the disease. “From the earliest times there was an awareness of the need for isolation and quarantine, even though prevention and cure were unknown.

“Isolation on the Burgh Muir eventually became a well-organised municipal service. All known or suspected plague victims had to be reported to the authorities within 24 hours, or in later times, within 12 hours.

“Horse- or hand-drawn wooden carts conveyed the hapless victims out to the Burgh Muir. These primitive ambulances were preceded by ‘Bailies of the Mure’, voluntarily recruited men wearing black or grey tunics.”

Once on the Muir, Smith says that victims’ clothes were washed in huge cauldrons of boiling water in an attempt to disinfect them and bed gowns were issued.

He adds that the patients were taken to wooden huts around the Chapel of St Roque (or Roch/Roche, the patron saint of plague victims) at the west end of the burgh – which used to be on what is now the site of the Astley Ainslie Hospital – or to the Chapel of St John the Baptist in the Sciennes district at the east end.

“Many victims never reached these early hospitals but died en route and were buried by the wayside,” Smith notes, “hence the human remains unearthed in private gardens in the wide area which was once the Burgh Muir.”

Today there are few physical reminders of the plague epidemics that swept through the city. But a tombstone in a garden in Greenhill, a stone’s throw from Bruntsfield Links, bears the names of John Livingstone and his wife Elizabeth Rig, who succumbed to the plague in 1645. This was during an outbreak so virulent that half the population of Leith was wiped out and bodies were also buried in mass graves on Leith Links, another of the area’s historic golfing patches.

Perhaps today’s residents should be thankful their ancestors were prepared to take drastic steps to stamp out the disease.

In his article The Eleven Plagues of Edinburgh, published in the journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh in 2001, Professor W J MacLennan writes that the city’s approach to infection control was remarkably organised.

“If the decisions taken by Edinburgh council were translated into action, these should have tackled the plague with considerable efficiency. Measures included sealing off the town from the outside, clearing up the streets and closes, and destroying sources of infection.

“This is in ironic contrast to the reputation of 18th century Edinburgh for being one of the filthiest towns in Europe.”

And, hardly a mystery, their actions ensured that sufficient numbers of Edinburgh people survived to help create a city now regarded as one of the Continent’s most beautiful.