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Issue 72 - Strange burials

Scotland Magazine Issue 72
December 2013


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Strange burials

Hamish Brown describes how gravestones can indicate the strange, macabre and even amusing in their inscriptions.

One of the things I’ve noticed wandering round Scottish kirkyards is the extraordinary number of curious ways people have managed to meet their end. All coastal burial grounds have sad reminders of the dangers of the sea. At Elie there used to be a ‘lang grave’ for a drowned sailor found on the shore with arms outstretched and, superstition forbade the breaking of the arms to fit in a conventional coffin.

In a cemetery like East Wemyss on the Fife coast we find not only examples of disasters at sea but many from working in the coal mines, with pit names now fading into folk memory: the Rosie, Frances, Michael, Isabella, Victoria, Wellsgreen …
The saddest stone I’ve found telling of a mining disaster is at Polmont where a stone reads, ‘In loving memory of Colin Maxwell, aged 58 years. Also his two dear sons Walter, aged 28 years, and Colin, aged 17 years, who all died in the Redding Pit Disaster on the 25th September 1923’.

While these are sad, they are not unusual. In East Wemyss too, I nearly walked past a standard marble figure of a cherub except my eye caught the words ‘who was done to death’. I followed up the story which, briefly, told of a popular lad, Michael Brown, who was sent by tram to Buckhaven from the linen mill to collect the week’s wages and was brutally ‘done to death’ on the way back - in 1909. Even in the midst of the horror there were elements of humour. Wanted posters were displayed throughout the country and many perfectly innocent young men who unfortunately looked like the wanted man were arrested or hauled off to police stations. The posters however had their effect. A pedlar in Manchester went to a police station to renew his licence and saw one. “Hey, that’s the queer cove in my lodgings. Seems to pay for everything in half crowns.” Up Glen Lussa in Mull there is the lonely grave of a packman. When nobody else would help he did so for a smallpox-smitten family in the Ross and then went on his way only to be struck down in turn. He died in this spot beside the river and was buried there, pack and all, the site marked by a small cairn topped by a rusting rustic cross, noting, ‘John Jones, died 1 April 1891, aged 60 years’.

Cholera, like smallpox, was greatly feared everywhere in years gone by, particularly in coastal areas where one infected boat could lead to the devastation of an area. At Ardnoe Point, out from Crinan Harbour in Argyll, there is a solitary grave in the jungle below the trees which illustrates this. The inscription reads, ‘Erected by Isabella Estoh in memory of her husband John Black, Feuar and Fish Cliver of Greenock, who died of cholera on his schooner Diana and is buried here, 28th July 1832, aged 45 years’.

Johnnie Turner was a packman/shepherd in Dumfries-shire and he had a horror at the thought of the Resurrectionists getting his body so he ‘made siccar’ that he’d be left in peace. He chose the top of a hill, Bennan, (NE of Crocketford) where he carved out a grave in solid rock and made arrangements for the prepared hefty monument to be raised on top when he died.

Pedlars were often popular as they carried news to remote areas but they do seem to have had a high risk occupation. A 19 year old John Elliot was ‘barbarously murdered’ near Eskdalemuir in 1820. The known culprit was run to earth in Nairn and eventually tried and executed in Dumfries. The big stone carries the whole story in great detail. The wording ends: ‘The inhabitants of Eskmuir in order to convey to future ages their abhorrance (sic) of a crime which was attended with peculiar aggravations, and their veneration for those laws which pursue with equal solicitude, the murderer of a poor, friendless stranger, as of a Peer of the realm, have erected this stone. 1821.’ At least he managed to avoid any errors. You’d be surprised how errors appear. At West Wemyss a child Johan Salmond, and at Sanquhar, a woman Isabel Gilmour both are shown as dying on April 31st. Kirkwall has a stone to a man who died on February 30th. And George Ramsay, at a wee coastal cemetery near the Elephant Rock south of Montrose has, ‘Born 1859. Died 1840’.

Just over the entrance stile into the Nether St Cyrus graveyard is a grave surrounded by spiked iron railings which marks the grave of a young lawyer, George Beattie, who shot himself after being rejected by the lady he loved. Suicides were not buried in graveyards at that time but a new church with a kirkyard had been built up in St Cyrus so this had become redundant. But he is still only just inside the walled enclosure. At the far end of the seaward wall is a small building, a watchhouse which, with his grave heavily defended, points to the dangers of grave robbers, here with the sea an all too easy raiders’ route.

If you look down from the rooftop car park over Kirkcaldy’s shopping centre to a large building with good clean lines there is a monument in view, a canopy over the bust of a man, John Hunter. He was a Victorian cabinet maker who bought what was St Brycedale House from the provost and, when he died, left his home to become a hospital. I wonder if he had a horror of grave robbers or what because he asked to be buried in an upright position? When they converted the hospital into today’s sheltered housing they might have confirmed this claim: trenches came very near to the monument where he is interred.

The extreme of what I call vanity burials has to be the nicknamed Craigentinny Marbles, just off the Portobello Road in Edinburgh. This colossal feature towers over the bungalows which now surround it and is the burial place of one Christie Miller, of Craigentinny House. He was called ‘Measure Miller’ for, as a book collector, he carried a rule to measure likely purchases. A bit of a recluse he was born when his father was 91 and there were doubts cast about his sexuality. Was he in fact a she? We are unlikely to know: he made sure he was buried under 20 or 40 feet of concrete (architectural guides vary) and had this 40 foot mausoleum erected on top of that. There are rather fine carved marble panels on it showing ‘Pharaoh coming to grief in the Red Sea’, and the ‘Song of Moses and Miriam’.

My favourite vanity site has to be the little Greek temple which sits at Harris on the west coast of Rum, the most incongruous of sights in, admittedly, a most glorious site. Rum was bought by the John Bullough (who already owned Meggerny Castle in Glen Lyon), a wealthy industrialist who was succeeded by his son, George who was the typical Edwardian with money. His charitable work during World War One however justified a knighthood. Sir George built this mausoleum at Harris. His widow sold Rum to the then Nature Conservancy Council and lived into her nineties.

I had a school party staying at the Harris bothy in 1966 when she was brought there for burial. As I sometime did to challenge such gangs, one night I chased them out after supper, along with their sleeping bags, to find somewhere to shelter for the night. When I looked out in the morning there were two of them lying like marble effigies on the two Bullough sarcophagi. Taxed with this they replied with simple logic that it gave somewhere flat to lie on and gave shelter from the dew. A few hours later the cortege came down the glen.

I came on another humble cairn like the Glen Lussa one by Ronas Voe, the deep fjord below Shetland’s highest point, Ronas Hill. A plaque was inscribed ‘Hollanders’ Grave 1674’. A Dutch East Indiaman was forced by gales round the north of Britain and slipped in here for shelter and to repair storm damage. Gales pinned the ship in over winter but her presence was made known and in February three naval frigates took her as prize after a one-sided engagement. The small number of Dutch sailors killed were buried at this lonely spot.

My all-time favourite strange burial however has to be the one in the small graveyard below Esha Ness in Shetland, for Donald Robertson, who was born 1785 and died 1848, aged 63 years. ‘He was a peaceable quiet man and to all appearance a sincere Christian. His death was much regretted which was caused by the stupidity of Lawence Tulloch in Clothister (Sullom) who sold him nitrate instead of Epsom Salts by which he was killed in the space of 5 hours after taking a dose of it.’