The Howff Graveyard of Dundee

The History of the Howff

Once the Monastery and grounds of the GreyFriars Order in Dundee, after the Reformation of 1560 the grounds were given to the Town of Dundee by Mary, Queen of Scots to be used as a town Graveyard.

The Story

The Ground

The site of the Howff was originally the garden of the Grey Friars Monastery, founded by ‘Devorgilla’ mother of King John Baliol. She was also the granddaughter of David, Earl of Huntingdon who was gifted the town of Dundee by his Brother King William the Lion in 12 The monastery was situated on the outskirts of the original burgh on the east side of what became Friar’s Wynd, now Barrack Street. The monastic buildings were thought to be large and consisted of a convent and a church. During the invasion of Scotland by the English under Henry VIII in 1547 the town of Dundee was stormed and the monastery was laid in ruins, during the subsequent reformation the monastery was still in a ruinous condition, it along with other religious houses in Scotland, confiscated by the Crown. The town council took possession of the buildings, removed the stonework for using in other new buildings in the town and the site was cleared. The council had the yard enclosed by restoring the walls, for a while the ground lay neglected and local people were used to using it as a short-cut to other parts of the town and they were in the habit of climbing over the walls. To prevent this, the council passed a law inflicting a fine of eight shillings Scots on all persons apprehended for ‘louping the dykes’.
Charter from Mary, Queen of Scots

At this time the existing Dundee Burial grounds of St Clement’s and St Mary’s Churchyards within the town boundaries were overcrowded and unhealthy so Mary, Queen of Scots on the 15th April 1567 granted a charter to the town for the use of the grounds of the Greyfriars monastery, just outside the boundary wall of the town, to be used as the new burial place.

The Howff Burial Ground

By the late Colin Gibson

HUNDREDS of people, indeed thousands, pass the Howff burial ground every day, but not many give it more than a passing glance.


Some may notice its trees and flowering shrubs burgeoning in Spring, or pause in their step to admire a weeping ash or elm caught in a glory of Autumn sunlight. But to the majority it is just an old graveyard of moss-grown tombs, shut off by a tall railing from the bustle of traffic in Ward Road, and hidden away by a massive wall in the narrows of Barrack Street.

The Howff is well cared for, nobody could deny that. Its paths are kept trim, its grass well cut. But for much of the year it glooms in the shadow of the tall buildings that hem it in on the east and south, and even in the midsummer sun, when the shadows are hiding behind the stones, it remains a grim and rather unat­tractive place.

Visitors wonder to see a burial ground, crowded with tombs of all shapes and sizes, set like this in the very heart of the city. Townsfolk merely accept it, they are vaguely aware of some his­torical significence. Yet it can be claimed that the Howff at Dundee is one of the most interesting and historic graveyards in Scotland, second only to that of Greyfriars in Edinburgh.

To explain its significance, we must go back through the cen­turies to those far off times when the Howff was not the "old" burial ground but the "new". And that means going back to the middle of the 16th century, to a Dundee very different in size and scene to the city we know now.

The date, 11th December, 1564, is given on the charter of Queen Mary by virtue of which the Howff burial ground came into existence. In this charter, the Queen gave to the people of Dundee, as a burial ground, "that place and yarde quhilk some time was occupyet be the Gray Cordelier Freris outwith and asyde the toun".

Up to the time of the Reformation, when both were destroyed, there were two monasteries in Dundee. That of the Grey Friars lay to the east of Friars' Wynd (now Barrack Street), and that of the Black Friars lay to the west of it. The original burying ground was not here, but alongside St. Clement's Church, which stood where the City Square now is, and was the parish church before St. Mary's.

By 1560, St. Clement's was also a ruin, possibly burned by the English twelve years before, and its kirkyard may well have been wanted for some secular purpose. Part of it was already let by the Provost and Bailies to Robert Wedderburn. But, ostensibly, it was abandoned as a burial ground for reasons of public health.

According to the charter I have mentioned, it was situated too near "the common traffique of merchandis". "The deid of the haill burgh is buryit and thro occasion of the said buriall pest and other contagious seikness is ingenerit, after infection it makes the same to perseveir and continew to ye great hurt nocht onlie to ye inhabitants of our said burgh but alswa of ye haill realme."

One can see the Queen's hand in this charter, for it goes on to say that in France and other foreign parts "there is na deid buryit within borrows and gret townis, but have their bureall places and sepultures outwith ye same for evading of the contagious seikness forsaid".

Now, until they were destroyed, the walls of the monasteries alongside Friars' Wynd had formed part of the town's defences, and the Council were rather worried about the insecurity of that side. In the Autumn of 1566, people were forbidden "to clyme the dykes of the burial place in time coming under the pain of the unlaw (fine) of eight shillings". But little was done to repair what was left of the walls till the town's defences were overhauled at the time of the scare over the Spanish Armada in 1588. That year, the Friars' Wynd Port, or gateway, (which had presumably been left exposed by the destruction of the monastery walls) was brought back into line with the town's defences. But it was not until 1601 that it was fully enclosed. In that year, the Council reserved "that sufficient dykes be biggit about the common burial place in sub-stantious manner", and that "ane honest and cumlie yett (gate) be put upon the burial place".

Only part of the west wall now remains. You can see it in Barrack Street, massive and sombre-grey, varying in height and coping, with decorative features almost obliterated. The centre portion of the west wall is new, having been built when the old wall was set back in 1833 or '34 to widen the road.
The north wall (opposite the Post Office) was removed and the railings put in its place also in 1833 or '34. The east and south walls were removed when the buildings on these two sides were erected.
Now, how did this burial ground alongside Friars' Wynd come to be called the Howff, which implies a meeting place?

It was, in fact, used as such for many years by the Crafts — bakers, weavers, shoemakers, glovers and so on, who had previously held their meetings in the Gray Friar Kirk until that building was destroyed.
The first mention of the burial ground as a meeting-place comes on 30th September, 1576, when the bakers met there. Then, on 13th June, 1585, the weavers are recorded as having "convenit within ye Holff and comowne burriall". Notice the spelling there. "Holff" seems later to change to "Howff", yet in the game we play on our links "Gowff" seems to have changed to "Golf"!

Thereafter, the Crafts met regularly in the Howff, and pro­bably each Craft had its own part of the walls. At any rate, we know that the weavers met alongside the north wall, for before the stonework on this side was demolished it carried the inscription,"This is the braboners' head roum".

The Incorporation of the Nine Trades had also its appointed meeting place, and for the privilege of meeting in the Howff, the Crafts paid £5 12/- to the Town Council.

This was the way of things until 1778, when a new hall ("The Trades Hall") was built at the head of the Murraygait, on the site of a former shambles or slaughterhouse. Incidently, this slaughter­house had been built in 1560 from the stones of the old Gray Friars Monastery.

So, on 24th September, 1778, the Crafts met for the last time in the Howff, and with their Convener (William Bisset) at their head, they marched to the new hall.

The Trades Hall continued to be their regular meeting place until 1864, when they sold it to the Clydesdale Bank, and since then, they have had no special meeting place of their own.

The Burial Ground

Now, for how long was the Howff actually used as a burial ground? It served for about 300 years, from the middle of the 16th century to the middle of the 19th.

Notice that all the old stones are in the western half of the ground, which was the land of the old monastery. The eastern half was included in the cemetery later. You may find comparatively recent stones in the west, but you will find no really old stones in the east.

Many of the oldest stones are decayed and broken, and much of this damage has occurred in the last hundred years. There are practically complete lists of the tombs and their epitaphs in two books which can be seen in the Public Library. These are, Thomson's "Book of the Houff", compiled over a hundred years ago, and (a more recent work) Lamb's "Book of the Howff".

Studying Thomson's collection of epitaphs it is clear that the tombs must have been in a far better state of preservation in his day than now, unless, of course, he depended greatly on previous collections. At any rate their decay is continuing, and it will continue unless something is done to preserve the stonework, especially of some of the oldest and most interesting stones. Nothing would appear to have been done in this way since 1834, when Peter Dron, Hospital Master, had the cemetery "re-arranged" and some of the tombs revised.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the fashionable place for burial was the Parish Church. The Scrymgeour Constables, the Provosts, and some of the wealthiest citizens were buried there. Subject to this, however, the Howff contains the tombs of most of the import­ant people, including the 18th century Provosts, and in spite of neglect, many of these tombs are in remarkably good condition.

The stones are numbered in north-south lines, starting from the gate in the south-west corner. Lamb's "Book on the Howff" has a plan, showing by their numbers the positions of many of the tombs. There is also a booklet, prepared for the British Association Meeting, in Dundee, in 1892, containing brief descriptions of the more important tombs, with pictures of several of the most interesting. It is possible here to mention only a few typical stones, illustrating the general character of the graveyard, and to describe how they may be found.

Entering at the south-west gate, the archway just to the north was the burial ground of the Lyells, when they owned Blackness in the 17th century. About fifteen yards along the path which runs north from the gate, and on the west side of it, notice the clearly marked erect stone to James Small, and immediately behind it, the large table-topped tomb (No. 80) to the Forrester family. The Forresters were prominent Dundee merchants, and later they acquired the estate of Milnhill.

Opposite the Forrester tomb and about six yards east of it, is a well-marked standing stone (No. 238) erected in 1813, to his mother, by James Keiller. He was, of course, the founder of the firm of James Keiller and Sons, and the inventor of the marmalade.

Immediately behind is the oldest tomb in the Howff (No. 226). a flat stone inscribed to James Muir, Burgess of Dundee, who died in 1577. The Latin inscription can still be read with the greatest of ease.
If we now proceed further north along the north-south path, there is, on the right, the handsome modern tomb to David Blair of Cookston, the "Justice" Blair of Henry Harwood's Dundee picture of the "Executive". He was Stamp-master of Dundee.

Turning east for a few yards along the east-west path, there is, on the south side, a well-preserved flat stone (No. 365) to Robert Peebles, a leading merchant and one of the Dean of Guild's assessors in 1570. Just opposite this stone is a handsome tombstone, badly damaged but with its lettering clear. It is to Gilbert Guthrie, who died in 1674, and his wife, Christian Wright. The Guthries were related to the Guthries of Guthrie, a notable Angus family. Guthrie Street is named after Gilbert Guthrie, and in 1650 he was appointed to oversee the "beiting and repairing of the town's fortifications". He was the donor of Guthrie's Mortification for the education of the poor, and orphan, children.

If we return to the north-south path, we shall now find (just north of the crossing on the west side of the path) the flat, easily-read stone of Provost John Pitcairn, who died in 1800. Just beyond this are three stones close together (Nos. 263, 264, 265). These are to David Wat, James Wat and John Baxter, all Burgesses of Dundee early in the 17th century.

Just opposite these, on the east side of the path, is the more recent tomb of George Duncan of the Vine (No. 285/2), a Dundee merchant who represented the town in Parliament from 1841 to 1857. He died in 1878, and was probably the last person to be buried in the Howff.

A yard or two to the north is a flat stone (No. 270) to the wife of Thomas Vichtane, Notar (notary public) and Burgess. Vichtane took the place of Sir Alexander Wedderburn as Town Clerk of Dundee in 1648, when the latter was removed from that post as a result of the Act of Classes, and his support of the Engagement. But he held office only for two years, Sir Alexander being reinstated after the coronation of Charles II., on 1st January, 1651.

On the west wall, slightly to the north of this, is the memorial to the Mudie family. Some of the letters are easily read and the merchants' marks just decipherable. It was erected by 17th century bailie, James Mudie. son of Henry Mudie, admitted burgess in 1555, and brother of George Mudie, bailie in 1592 and repre­sentative of the town in the Committee of Estates, held in Edinburgh in 1594. This memorial is dated 1602, and so must have formed part of the wall, when originally built.
Just north of the Mudie memorial is the tomb of Alexander Duncan of Lundie, the Latin inscription not easily read. He was Provost from 1681 to 1685, and it was he who, in the absence of the Provost, James Fletcher, took command when Claverhouse attacked Dundee, on 13th May, 1689. He was the father of Alexander Duncan, Provost, 1717 to 1719, the grandfather of Alexander Duncan. Provost, 1744 to 1747. and the great-grandfather of Admiral Viscount Duncan, who defeated the Dutch in the famous battle off Camperdown, on 17th October, 1797.

The next stone in the wall is to Alexander Riddoch, Provost for seventeen years between 1788 and 1818, and practical ruler of the town during the whole of that period. Here was a man who got things done! To him we owe the opening up of Crichton Street, Castle Street and Tay Street, and the widening of the Nethergait.

A few yards east of Provost Riddoch's tomb, is a broken, but readable tomb to Dr. David Kinloch (No. 117), who died in 1617. Dr. Kinloch travelled much in Europe as a physician, and on one occasion was arrested by the Inquisition in Spain. Because of a marvellous cure he performed on the Inquisitor General, he was rewarded with his freedom. Later, he returned to Dundee, acquired wealth and the estate of Aberbrothrie. He was an ancestor of George Kinloch the Reformer, who was M.P. for Dundee in 1832.

Taking now the next north-south path, the second from the west wall, about twenty-five yards from its southern end, is the tomb of James Chalmers, best remembered as the inventor of the adhesive postage stamp. He also played a very prominent part in the life of the town. He died in 1853.James Chalmers stone

Almost opposite is the stone of John Glas, Minister of Tealing, who was deposed by the Synod of Angus and the Mearns for unorthodoxy in 1728, and founded the sect of the Glasites or Sandemanians.

Further north, across the east-west path, is the Wedderburn memorial. The Wedderburns were the most distinguished Dundee family of the 16th and 17th centuries. Alexander Wedderburn, Town Clerk from 1576 to 1585, was the first of a long line of Wedderburn Clerks, who held office practically continuously for 160 years. Many Wedderburns were also Members of Parliament for Dundee.

A yard or two further north of this, and about six yards west of the path, is a tomb to James Fletcher, who died in 1584. The Fletchers were another very notable Dundee family. James and Alexander were prominent merchants, and were parties to the "Merchants' Letter" of 1515. Sir Andrew was a Senator of the College of Justice with the title of Lord Inverpeffer. Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun was a violent opponent of the Union of 1707. Three Fletchers were Provosts of Dundee, and two represented Dundee in Parliament.

Close by is a stone (No. 491) to the wife of Patrick Zeman, elder, Burgess of Dundee, died 1603. The Zemans (or Yeamans) were prosperous merchants, and at various times acquired the estates of Dryburgh, Balbeuchly and Blacklaw. Three Yeamans were Provosts of Dundee. It is worth recording that from 1742 to 1762, except for five years, the Provost of Dundee was a Yeaman.

Transcribed by, Friends of Dundee City Archives

Iain D. McIntosh, 2020