The Great Greyfriars Fire

On a cold winter’s morning in January 1845, the firemen of Red Watch took up position at the tow-bar of their fire engine, and waited for the order to head for Greyfriars kirkyard.

Picking up the drag ropes as soon as the doors swung open, the firemen began hauling the heavy red-painted vehicle equipped with hoses, ladders, picks and shovels out into the High Street.

The 200 year old rough stone building standing in Greyfriars kirkyard consisted of two churches divided by a partition. Earlier that morning, Mr Mackie, the beadle, had shovelled coal into the two stoves standing either side of the pulpit before going home for breakfast. Not long after he left the building, one of the stoves began to overheat, setting fire to a wooden beam.

An hour later, Miss Munro, a policeman’s daughter who lived in a building overlooking the kirkyard spotted a flame flickering through a side window on the gable end of the church. Waking her father, he immediately pulled on his boots, and  wearing only a night shirt, he headed at top speed for the police station to raise the alarm.

Fire engineBy ten o’clock four engines from the city’s district fire stations arrived at the kirkyard. Although the firemen speedily connected their hoses to the fire-cocks at Heriot’s, Candlemaker Row, the Grassmarket and Park Street, it took over an hour before the pressure had reached the level required to supply water to the engines.

The Castle Esplanade, Victoria Street, George IV Bridge and the narrow lane leading to the main gate of the kirkyard were packed with men, women and children who had flocked from all over the city, attracted by the dense clouds of smoke. A detachment from the Castle garrison had been sent to assist the firemen by manning the pump handles on the engines and to control the townspeople who had been allowed into the kirkyard.

A strong easterly wind was blowing through a small circular window high up on the gable end of Old Greyfriars, driving the flames towards New Greyfriars.  Supervised by Firemaster Hardie, the firemen directed their hoses into the burning building, while teams of volunteers risked their lives by carrying out the communion plate, bibles and cushions belonging to the two churches.

As showers of red hot sparks landed on the roofs of the buildings in Candlemaker Row setting fire to the soot in the chimneys, the tenants began moving chairs, tables, carpets and various items of furniture from their flats into the street.

By two o’clock the fire was under control and the flames had begun to die down, but although firemen climbed on to the wall on the north side of the building and directed their hoses into the church, the roof of Old Greyfriars had been completely destroyed. Three hours later Fire Master Hardie ordered his men to stand down. Hauling their engines through the main gate of the kirkyard after picking up the drag ropes, the exhausted firemen headed back to their stations.

New Greyfriars had survived the outbreak, but Old Greyfriars where the National Covenant had been signed in 1638 had been reduced to a burned out shell.

(Header picture from and the fire engine is credited to The Edinburgh Museum of Fire)


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