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Issue 89 - Roddy Martine's View

Scotland Magazine Issue 89
October 2016

 

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Roddy Martine's View

Roddy Martine has intimations of grave mortality

It was one of my father's rather more eccentric foibles in his retirement to visit the graveyards of our ancestors, and I often accompanied him.

Throughout Scotland there are excellent church records that provide a fascinating treasure trove for genealogists. Nevertheless, there remains an uncomfortable taboo about visiting those who have gone before us.

I find it intriguing. Perhaps it is the all too poignant reminder that we are all heading in the same direction, those of us who choose not to have our dust scattered into the wind. The fact remains that while we celebrate our heroes and heroines with monuments and festivals, and we visit their birthplaces, we rarely go to have a look at where they ended up. With the recent discovery of the remains of Richard III of England in a car park in Leicester, and the identification of the true skull of Mary, Queen of Scots' husband Lord Darnley, it seems to me ironic that the physical remains of those men and women who during their lives exercised such power and controversy should be so entirely ignored in the great scheme of things. I was thinking about this when my political historian friend David Torrance asked me if I knew where the former British Prime Minister A. J. Balfour was buried. As it happened, I did: at Whittingehame, in East Lothian, within a peaceful family cemetery surrounded by trees. We therefore went to pay our respects to the mortal remains of the man who during the First World War promised British support for the creation of a Jewish homeland.

On a previous occasion, I had visited the Necropolis, Glasgow's hauntingly beautiful hill of the dead, where I came across the extravagant memorial to Sir Charles Tennant, the bleach tycoon whose great granddaughter Margot married Balfour's political rival H. H. Asquith. My great-great-grandmother is rather more modestly interred at the foot of the same hill. Similarly, I heard recently that a friend had been to see the grave of John Graham of Claverhouse, 1st Viscount Dundee, who – although leading the winning side – died at the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1868. He is buried at St Bride's Kirk, Blair Atholl. His great kinsman James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, was rather less fortunate. Having been horribly executed in 1650, his limbs needed to be subsequently retrieved from Glasgow, Perth, Stirling and Aberdeen for internment at St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. His heart, alas, was somehow mislaid in transit between India and France. Meanwhile, Robert the Bruce's bones are at Dunfermline Abbey while his heart is interred at Melrose. Robert Burns has a Mausoleum in St Michael's. Churchyard, Dumfries.

Some years back, I was invited to read a poem at a St Andrews Night celebration in St Mary's Church in Haddington. Rather mischievously I chose
The Grave, published in 1743 by the largely forgotten Reverend Robert Blair, Minister at Athelstanford where he is buried close to Adam Skirving, author of the post-Battle of Prestonpans ballad Hey Johnnie Cope, and Adam's son Archibald, the celebrated portrait painter.

See yonder hallow'd fane; – the pious work
Of names once fam'd, now dubious or forgot.
And buried midst the wreck of things which were;
there lie interr'd the more illustrious dead.

Blair's poem runs to 767 lines and, as might be deduced from the above, is not exactly a barrel of laughs. However, it does make the point that everything is transitory. In the churchyard of St Cuthbert's in Edinburgh is the stone of the essayist Thomas de Quincy, and at Dryburgh Abbey, near Melrose, I found Sir Walter Scott.

Such discoveries are as close as I will ever get to these luminaries in life.