Harry Potter, Edinburgh and the Search for the True Lord Voldemort

For there, not far from the hustle and bustle of Victoria Street – the sweeping two-story terrace is credited with inspiring Diagon Alley of the wizarding world – rests the decomposing remains of Tom Riddell, the long-dead captain of Edinburgh’s navigators, who is said to have inspired the hero’s nemesis , Lord Voldemort.

While for countless others, the 17th-century churchyard’s moss-covered stones, eerie atmosphere, exotic carvings and ornate mausoleums – plus its links to famed Skye terrier Greyfriars Bobby – have made it one of the capital’s most-visited attractions.

However, it turns out that some visitors to the old churchyard had a far scarier experience than others.

The toll of tens of thousands of pairs of feet, soil erosion and climate change are said to cause what’s underfoot to flee. And during centuries of ground shifting, some of the approximately 500,000 underground residents have encountered more than they might have hoped.

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Too many visitors who stray from the churchyard’s steadier paths onto soft ground are blamed for bones of long-dead residents “dipping through”.

The alarming problem is said to have prompted emergency repairs to address problem areas.

However, the worsening effects of climate change and the Kirkyard’s growing popularity with tour groups and Potter enthusiasts mean there remain concerns that more needs to be done to avoid the terrifying sight of more Greyfriars residents.

The intriguing problem emerged as a three-year project aimed at uncovering the mysteries of the churchyard is coming to a close.

The project has not only shed new light on the meaning and origins of some of its most exotic and sometimes grisly carvings, but also uncovered previously unknown details of the lives of its deceased residents, including that of Capt Tom “Voldemort” Riddell.


The newly discovered information about his ties to colonialism and slavery, including meeting controversial Endeavor researcher Captain James Cook and marrying the daughter of a Jamaican plantation owner, will be used to create educational materials to bring the issues to life for children growing up make to the Harry Potter stories.

The Making Lasting Impressions Project, run by Edinburgh World Heritage, also used laser scanning and photogrammetry technology to create 3D models of seven of the Kirkyard’s most fascinating monuments from the 40th and 17th centuries.

The images allow the structures to be viewed from all angles and offer a unique perspective of the aging stones, carvings and features.

As a result, researchers were able to unravel the meaning of specific carvings and link specific emblems to specific stonemasons, helping to reveal more about knowledge and life in the 17th century.

However, the work has also shed a magnifying glass on the extent of damage suffered by Category A listed monuments and the work required to protect their future.

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A monument alone, an ornate Roman-style temple and a statue honoring seal-maker John Bayne of Pitcairlie is said to require around £200,000 of work.

The remarkable structure, with a ceiling carved with two angels and panels carved with skulls and crossbones, has been damaged by the roots of invasive buddleia plants and plagued by trash and graffiti.

A fundraiser will now be launched to cover the cost of the work.

The churchyard, overlooked by The Elephant House café, where Rowling is said to have written parts of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, attracts an estimated 700,000 visitors each year, many of whom are looking for names associated with the Potter books connection.

As well as Thomas Riddell, who died in November 1806 at the age of 72, the cemetery is the final resting place for ‘the worst poet’ William McGonigall – a Professor McGonigall who also appears in the wizarding tales – a family known as the ‘Potter’ and historical figures from Life in Edinburgh, including Encyclopaedia Britannica printer and author William Smellie, geologist James Hutton and Scottish architects William Adam and John Adam.


Tom Riddell’s grave at Greyfriars

Poet Allan Ramsay, New Town architect James Craig and Sir Walter Scott’s father Walter Scott are also buried there, along with policeman John Gray whose faithful dog, Greyfriar’s Bobby, stood guard at his grave for 14 years. The Skye Terrier is buried just outside the gates.

The National Covenant, calling for changes in the way Scotland was governed, was signed in the churchyard in 1638 while part of it served as a prison for Covenanters defeated by government forces at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge in 1679.

One of the most sombre mausoleums houses the remains of Bloody MacKenzie, who rounded up the 1,200 Presbyterian Covenanters and is said to have killed nearly 18,000 people over an eight-year period known as The Killing Time.

Chris Cooper, Treasurer of Friends of Greyfriars Kirkyard, which was established as a result of the Making Lasting Impressions Project, said some of Greyfriars’ most valuable structures have suffered from years of neglect while the Kirkyard is now under increasing pressure from climate change and large visitor numbers, who often gather in groups as part of organized tours.

He said: “The Kirkyard is the third most popular free entry tourist attraction in Scotland and you can have a group of 30 people stomping around and bump into another group of tourists all trying to squeeze past each other.

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“Foot traffic continues to increase and this is causing real pressure on sidewalks, grasslands and soil erosion.

“We’ve had cases of bones popping through the floor.

“It happened in the last year or so and has been rectified – to their credit the council has responded but the budget is limited and the avenues for a number of people getting through are still tight.

“These issues are an ongoing struggle and there is a real problem in dealing with large numbers.”

Edinburgh City Council raised concerns in the churchyard in 2020 in a tweet tagging writer JK Rowling and was accompanied by a photo showing muddy ground and imprints from the soles of boots and sneakers.


It said: “Greyfriars Cemetery is suffering from significant erosion of the ground around the grave of Tom Riddell (Tom Riddle) due to 100,000 visitors. It’s great that the cemetery is so popular, so we’re looking at solutions.”

dr Susan Buckham, Graveyards Project Manager at Edinburgh World Heritage, said: “Greyfriars has an unrivaled collection of 17th-century carvings and monuments.

“With so few 17th-century sculptures surviving, Greyfriars is Scotland’s leading resource on the period – it is our outdoor museum collection.

“But many of the earliest and most important tombstones suffer from serious stone deterioration. All face significant ongoing threats from weathering and erosion.

“We’ve barely scratched the surface to understand the ideas that sparked their creation, their purpose, and the impressions they have left in people’s minds over time, leading to them being valued or neglected became.

“The new 3-D digital models will play an important role in preservation, providing the most accurate means to study the carvings and construction of the monument and to monitor changes in its condition in the future.”

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A spokesman for the City of Edinburgh Council said: “As Council, it is our duty and responsibility to provide safe spaces and poignant places of remembrance and reflection, and to manage, protect and safeguard our historic World Heritage-listed cemeteries for the future receive.

“While we welcome the fact that our cemeteries are appreciated by so many, the significant foot traffic at some of our cemeteries, such as Greyfriars, is causing erosion of paths and roadsides that require regular repairs.

“We conduct regular inspections and rehabilitation work at Greyfriars Kirkyard and are addressing the issues highlighted in our Cemetery Management Plan and have also recently begun work on a specific Greyfriars Conservation Management Plan. We have also put in place a tour guide registration system and code of conduct to assist in the management of the cemetery and to ensure that we are preserving and caring for the cemetery for generations to come.”

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