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Running towards skulduggery


Like many people, I immersed myself in the sport of running during lockdown. Not to shed the pounds accrued through stress-eating comfort food (the most practical thing I ever inherited from my parents was a high metabolism), but rather to stop me from having a mental breakdown. And credit where it’s due, it worked. However, this story is less about the pros of physical exercise and more about a curious, yet remarkable part of Edinburgh.

By way of frequent running, I quickly became sick of the same old routes; The links, Holyrood Park, old railway paths etc… and wanted to find new, quieter places to calm my head.

I’ve always had an obsession with graveyards. Not for any particular macabre reason, rather I like how the graveyard gates act as a valve that denies the hustle and bustle of the surrounding city. I like how the lush grass, old Yew trees, and mossy smell contrasts with the grey concrete and fumes of the city roads.

To build up my stamina I’d pick a new graveyard to run to every time I went out. After a couple of months, I decided to try to link a bunch together in one big run. I psyched myself up, turned on ‘The Cure’ (apt) and left the flat.

The plan was to run to Eastern Cemetery then on to New Calton Burial Ground, Rosebank Cemetery, North Leith Burial Ground and finish at Seafield Cemetery. However, by the time I had reached the gates of North Leith Burial Ground I was utterly dead on my feet (sorry), so decided to explore the medieval burial ground instead.

The gnarly skull and crossbones gravestones at the back of the site demanded a closer inspection. As I studied them, sweaty and panting, I was approached by a friendly old man. “YE interested in the history of the graves?” he said, catching me off guard and causing me to yank my headphones from my ears.

He went on to explain that the occupant of the grave that I was photographing was missing a skull. Tantalised, I bit. I had some questions of my own: Had he any clue as to why the poor sod was headless? And how did he know? To my delight, he was able to explain why they were decapitated, and in great detail. The story went like this.

As an 8-year-old, the elderly gentleman to whom I spoke was playing pirates with two pals in a rowboat on the Water of Leith many moons previous to our encounter. They pulled the boat ashore beside the burial ground in order to re- paint it (there was ‘hee haw’ fencing back then apparently). It was then that the scallywags decided that their boat was missing a Jolly Roger. With that the 8-year-old first mate was sent to the closest grave and, following captain’s orders, exhumed a skull and some bones for the boat.

When the kids grew tired of playing pirates, the skull was wrapped in a jute sack and hidden under the young boy’s bed. Some weeks later, the grim discovery was made by a curious mother more furious than Blackbeard himself.

Before we parted ways I asked if the man was ever reprimanded for his skulduggery by anyone other than his mother. He turned, tilted his head slowly to meet my gaze and said, “Son, I’m well into my 90’s, there’s nothing that the polis could do to me now for playing pirates 80 odd year ago.” Then, smiling wryly, he continued… “But, just in case, I’ll no tell ye ma name.” And with that he shuffled out through the gateway.

As it turns out, that ridiculous anecdote was the energy-shot I needed. Not only did I make it to Seafield cemetery, but I also managed to continue running until I got home.

As I neared my flat, I passed a woman sitting in the one square metre of the morning sunlight that her tiny garden received. It seemed the sun was over the yardarm as she appeared to be enjoying a glass of rosé with her knitting. I said hello and asked her what she was making. She explained she was making a cardigan and only had two weeks to finish it. ‘Why only two weeks?’ I asked. She stopped clanging her needles long enough to explain.

“Coz pal, that’s how long a Scottish summer is.” ■


The gnarly skull and crossbones gravestones at the back demanded closer inspection


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