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Issue 3 - To that dark inn The Grave

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 3
July 2002


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To that dark inn The Grave

The village churchyard is an accurate map of the common man from years gone by in danger of disappearing. Words and pictures by John Hannavy

The village churchyard seems a quintessentially British creation. It figures strongly in literature, the frequently chosen setting for a variety of liaisons far removed from those which necessarily took place at the graveside. It has played host to scenes of horror, and romance – both fictional and real. Elegies have been written in it and about it, and it has been, for centuries, the final hallowed resting place of the great and the good – alongside the not-so-great and the not-so-good!

It has played host, in life as well as in death, to those who defined the various faces of Britain, both public and personal. Today, often under overgrown shrubs, surrounded by deep and virtually impenetrable tall grass, lie countless accounts of family histories carved in stone. By chance as well as by design, an intimate picture of a Scotland past is laid before the churchyard explorer. If recently published statistics suggest anything, they show that this delightful aspect of historical research will largely be denied to our successors. Today, over 70 per cent of all funerals end not at the family tomb in the local churchyard, but at the crematorium.

Future researchers will find out about us not by clearing weeds and mosses away from half-forgotten slabs of stone, but by accessing vast amounts of data on some as-yet-to-be-assembled universal database of births deaths and marriages. It will be a lot cleaner, a lot simpler and a lot more informative no doubt, but nothing like as interesting, as romantic or as absorbing.

The gravestone, that ubiquitous marker of the final resting place, may trace its origins back to primitive civilisations, and a tradition of erecting a small hut as a temporary resting place in which the spirit or soul of the deceased could stay until the temporal body returned to dust. In some cultures, that hut was replaced by a special stone, and it may well be that the gravestone is the logical successor to that hut or that stone.

It is said that death is the great equaliser, but even a casual look around Scottish churchyards disposes of that idea in moments. Once just the resting place for bodies, marked with simple stones, the graveyard long ago developed into something much more elaborate. We may not be able to take it with us, but for those with the money, that final statement could be a significant one! The size and design of the tombstone, and the quality of the materials used, all became significant in displaying in death the status the person or his family had in life. Stand in any churchyard and granite or marble one-upmanship is all around — the large lavish visual statement being raised almost to an art form by the ostentatious Victorian nouveau riche.

Gravestones tell much more than just the name of the person lying beneath. With artistic devices denoting the profession or craft of the deceased, and inscriptions reminding future generations of the late lamented’s lifetime achievements, graveyards are a storehouse of fascinating information about the past.

In many parts of the world, the graveyard was created in a designated area away from the village or town. In Britain, however, the graveyard traditionally grew around the church. This idea of consecrated ground as a burial site became part of the Christian tradition – with non-Christians refused burial within the perimeter of the consecrated churchyard. Consecrated ground carried with it the concept of complete safety – of separation from all matters secular, from pursuit and persecution.

Out of that grew the idea of the churchyard as a safe haven for the living as well as a consecrated resting place for the dead. The idea of sanctuary stones marking out the area wherein there was safety from the law was one of the roots of conflict between mediaeval church and state over several centuries. Few of these markers still exist, but the concept of sanctuary within the boundary of the church precinct still has a strong emotional appeal – if no standing in law!

One church still to have some of its sanctuary markers, Torphicen Preceptory near Bathgate in West Lothian, was once a powerhouse of the Knights Hospitaller.

Many early tombstones excite children into thinking they have found pirates’ graves – a boldly carved skull and crossbones being a typical motif found on Christian stones of the 11th to 16th centuries – but other motifs can be read for just what they are.

While some tombstones celebrate the crafts, professions, or allegiances of those lying beneath them — bearing farm implements, masonic insignia, and other motifs — some men preferred to be remembered for other achievements.

In Innerpeffray Churchyard near Crieff, a tombstone, carved by the man to whose memory it was later erected, commemorates his life’s achievement. To either side of crude carvings of himself and his wife, and apparently standing on each other’s shoulders, are effigies of the 10 children of whom he was so proud in his lifetime! For quite a number of people, a large family seems to have been their single noteworthy achievement, for similar monuments can be found in other churchyards throughout the country.

Despite death’s reputation as the great leveller, somehow the rich and famous often seem able to dominate small graveyards – even if it just the fact that there is a well worn track to their side. With their huge monuments they seem to retain in death the status they acquired in life.

But the real enchantment of the churchyard is the possibility of discovery — of pulling aside the weeds and grasses and finding a concise history of the common man, preserved forever in stone.

Discovering that history in the future – by staring at a flickering computer screen – seems to me a much less satisfying pastime.

But ruffian stern, and soldier good,
The noble and the slave,
From various cause the same wild road,
On the same bloody morning trode,
To that dark inn, the grave