Graveyard tower hosts Edinburgh Art Festival shows

The Watchtower in New Calton Burial Ground. Picture: Jane Barlow
The Watchtower in New Calton Burial Ground. Picture: Jane Barlow
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It WAS built in the early 19th century to thwart a growing problem with “resurrectionists” – graverobbers who would sell freshly buried bodies to the city’s medical school.

The burnt-out building still looms over some of the city’s best-known landmarks, a forgotten relic of one of the grisliest episodes of Edinburgh’s history.

Christine Borland's Cast From Nature. Picture: Ruth Clark

Christine Borland's Cast From Nature. Picture: Ruth Clark

Now, almost 200 years after its construction, the three-storey watchtower built to protect the graves in a Calton Hill burial ground is to get a new lease of life.

The New Calton Burial Ground’s watchtower is being turned into a venue for this year’s Edinburgh Art Festival, for a show charting 200 years of “dereliction and decay”.

And heritage watchdogs hope a permanent use can be found for the B-listed building, which was once home to one of the city’s most celebrated architects.

The landmark – built at the highest point in the terraced graveyard for maximum effect – is being used by Ayrshire artist Christine Borland, a former Turner Prize nominee best known for her work exploring bodies and anatomy.

She will be collaborating with New York artist Brody Condon on a project inspired by Edinburgh’s old Trades Maiden Hospital, which was set up in the early 18th century. It was established as a boarding house for the daughters and granddaughters of guildsmen who had either died or become embroiled in difficult circumstances.

The watchtower’s reuse is being funded through the Scottish Government’s Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund, which has awarded the art festival £160,000 for various commissions, with the Edinburgh World Heritage Trust putting in £17,000 to clear debris, repair masonry and install a new timber roof in time for August.

A spokeswoman for the Edinburgh Art Festival said: “The circular tower is one of several such structures built in Edinburgh in the 1820s to address a growing problem with resurrectionists, who dug up recently interred bodies and sold them to the anatomy school for dissection.

“It provides a highly resonant site for the artists’ exploration of ideas around decay and dereliction from the 18th century to the present day.”

The New Calton Burial Ground is one of five historic cemeteries within the Edinburgh world heritage site which have been targeted for improvement after being added to a global danger list three years ago.

It was partly created to re-inter remains disturbed by the creation of Waterloo Place and is the final resting place of Robert Stevenson and his sons Thomas and Alan, the family of lighthouse designers, engineers and builders.

Fiona MacDonald, conservation architect for the Edinburgh World Heritage Trust, said: “We are delighted to be able to help repair this significant part of Edinburgh’s history, and to put it back into use for the Edinburgh Art Festival.

“Initially the building will be made safe and watertight, but we hope that this will be the first step to finding a future for the building.”

The cemetery watchtower will be reopened to host the Christine Borland and Brody Condon installation between 1 August and 1 September.

Landmarks lined up for city’s festival

THE Calton Hill cemetery is one of several unusual locations being lined up for this year’s Edinburgh Art Festival.

The 15th-century Trinity Apse is being brought back into use by Sarah Kenchington, who will be creating a brand new musical instrument out of hundreds of decommissioned organ pipes.

Edinburgh University’s historic New College will become home to a new “fire poem”, partly inspired by the city’s Beltane celebrations, which will be created in oak by Robert Montgomery and set on fire in front of the building, which sits on The Mound.

The National Galleries of Scotland, the Lloyds Banking Group, the City Chambers and the Canongate Kirk are among the institutions agreeing to fly simple “Hello” flags as part of a project instigated by Peter Liversidge to offer a city-wide greeting to visitors and explore the meaning of flags.

A series of “performative walks” are planned by Stuart McAdam along the Innocent Railway Path, which has been out of use since 1968, partly inspired by the 50th anniversary of the Beeching Report, which led to widespread cuts in Britain’s rail network.