A little piece of exploration history

On a long walk on a very pleasant, warm, bright day I found myself at the Dean Gallery and decided since the light was so fine I would go to the adjacent Dean Cemetery. I’ve taken a lot of photographs there before, but it is a very large old boneyard and boasts a wide variety of different memorials and tombs in this rather posh part of Edinburgh, and I knew I had probably missed quite a few on my last visit, despite taking dozens of photos (there are quite a few famous names buried there, and some very elaborate and beautifully sculpted memorials and some very unusual ones, including to a Scots born Confederate officer from the American Civil War – not what you expect in an Edinburgh graveyard).

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And indeed I had missed a lot – in fact I will need to wander back some time to take more in – including this large memorial, a Celtic cross, which is richly inscribed with a very detailed history of the man and event it commemorates, Lieutenant John Irving, Royal Navy. Lt Irving was a member of Sir John Franklin’s famous 1840s expedition to find the fabled North West Passage. His ship HMS Terror and her sister ships HMS Erebus, became trapped in the ice of the far northern waters, with Franklin and many others losing their lives. Eventually the remaining crew were forced to abandon their ships and tried to reach a northern Canadian settlement on foot, but the cold and the lack of food would doom them. A later American expedition found the cold grave of John Irving and these explorers paid honour to their late predecessors by arranging for his remains to be returned to his native land, where this memorial was raised.

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Like many a boy when I was young I had books on the great explorers and loved those stories; that Victorian era is one of the great ages of global exploration, when the Royal Navy not only patrolled a worldwide empire as a military force but dispatched ships on missions of exploration and scientific endeavour – Darwin’s voyages on the Beagle being one of the more famous of those great world-spanning missions. Such expeditions pushed back the frontiers of our knowledge of our own world, but many of them came at great cost, a reminder that exploration and the gaining of knowledge is often demanding and dangerous. I had no idea this memorial sat there quietly in my city; it’s one of my simplest but greatest pleasures to find little historical gems like this tucked away (and to photograph it and share it) on my walks around Edinburgh, like little presents my city sometimes gives me as a reward for being curious enough to look around. And it’s always worth pausing and looking around you, because you never know when you might find treasure…

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