Sacred Texts  Legends and Sagas  Celtic  Index  Previous  Next 

p. 210



"The storm that wrecks the winter sky
  No more disturbs their deep repose
Than summer evening's latest sigh
  That shuts the rose."

HE barn was cleared, swept clean, and fitted up with seats--deals placed on anything and everything capable of supporting them. On the middle of the floor was placed a table covered with a table--cloth, at the head of which was set an arm-chair for the minister. On the table was a quantity of bread and cheese, as well as of cut tobacco, with a number of new tobacco-pipes. Beneath the table were bottles and jars of whisky, with ale.

The people had been invited to the funeral, or "warnt," by a special messenger a few days before the funeral took place. On arriving, they were received by the nearest relative of the deceased, and conducted to the barn. Each, as he entered, if be was a smoker, laid hold of a pipe, filled and lighted it. When all arrived, and usually the arrivals lasted from one to two hours and even longer, prayer was offered up by the minister, and in his absence by an elder or any other that "had the gift." When the prayer was ended, the whisky was brought forward, and toddy was made in bowls, if the company was not very large, or if the friends of the departed were poor; but, if the company was large and the deceased well-to-do, it was brewed in the firlot. There have been those who were famous for their joviality in their lifetime giving strict orders on their death-bed regarding the quantity of whisky to be used at their funeral obsequies. When the toddy was made and tested, all glasses were filled and handed round. They were emptied to the memory of the departed. Bread and cheese followed. The glasses were again filled and drained to the toast, "Consolation

p. 211

to the friends of the deceased." Then came more broad and cheese, and a glass or two more of toddy. Such as preferred "a drap o’ the raw geer," or ale, to the toddy, received it. 1 When all had eaten or drunken in a manner befitting the station and means of the dead, prayer was again offered; not, however, always. It was then announced, "Gehn ony o’ ye wis t’ see the corp, ye’ll noo hae an opportunity." The company thereupon left the barn, and, one by one, went into the apartment of death, uncovered his head, and gently and reverently laid his hand upon the breast or brow of the dead, 2 frequently making a remark on the appearance of the body, as "He's unco like himsel," "She's a bonnie corp," or "He's sair altert;" or on the character of the departed, as "She'll be a sehr misst umman," or "He wiz a gueede freen t’ mony ane." It was believed that unless the body was touched the image of it haunted the fancy.

If the body was soft and flabby when the coffin-lid was closed, it was a sure indication that another corpse would at no distant period of time be carried from the same dwelling. 3

When the last look had been taken by all the coffin-lid was closed. Before this was done part of the winding sheet, commonly one of the corners, was cut off, and preserved with tender care beside a lock of the hair of the dead one. Sometimes it was made into a napkin, which was worn only on the occasion of a "kistan," or on a Communion Sunday. When all was ready, or, as it was expressed, "fin the beerial wiz reathy t’ lift," two chairs were placed in front of the door of the dwelling-house, and the coffin was tenderly borne forth, and laid upon them. The spokes were then adjusted under it. The coffin was covered with the mort-cloth, or, if the friends of the deceased were too poor to pay for it, with a plaid. The coffin of a boy or a girl was often covered with a sheet, and a child's almost always. The coffin of a full-grown person was carried on spokes by eight

p. 212

bearers, who relieved each other, not at regular intervals, but as fancy struck them, the one nearest the coffin retiring. In the Highlands the coffin was sometimes carried shoulder-high, as the more honourable mode of being borne to the grave. The "first lift" was taken by the females of the family and near female relatives or friends that were present.

In some of the fishing villages the coffin of a young unmarried woman was carried to the grave by her young companions, dressed in white, with a black ribbon round the waist. 1

The chairs were overturned as soon as the coffin was lifted off them, and were allowed to lie, in some places till sunset, and in others till one of those that had attended the funeral returned, when they were lifted, and carefully washed. If not overturned, the spirit returned from the unseen world.

On the funeral leaving--"the beerial liftin"--all the animals, such as the horses and cattle, belonging to the farm were loosed from their stalls, and driven forth. The funeral has been seen to be followed by the cattle in amazement, with wide nostrils, wild eyes, and much lowing. Such an occurrence was looked upon with awe, and was set down as an indication of brute sorrow and sympathy for the departed.

The funeral procession on no account took bye-ways, or moved a foot from the common path, but moved along the "kirk-road." The road which the deceased had walked to God's house must be the road along which the mortal remains were carried to God's acre.

In some parts the bellman went in front of the procession, and tolled a hand-bell, kept by the kirk-session for the purpose. In other places the church-bell was tolled as the procession neared the churchyard.

When the coffin is lowered into the grave and properly laid each present takes off his head-covering.

If the churchyard was at a distance, whisky was carried; and on the road was usually a fixed spot for resting and partaking of it. At this spot there was in some places a big stone, called "the ristin stehn," on which the coffin was laid. Fame has

p. 213

it that the quantity now taken in addition to what was formerly taken not unfrequently put not a few of the coffin-bearers into a state far from seemly, and that even old scores have been paid off by broken heads and faces.

When the grave was again covered over with the green sod, whisky was in many cases partaken of, when each took his way home. A few of the nearest relatives and intimate friends of the dead returned to the house, where a dinner was prepared.

The weather on the day of the funeral was most carefully observed. A shower on the mould of the open grave--the "meels"--was taken as an indication that the soul of the departed was enjoying happiness. 1 A hurricane told of some foul deed done, but never brought to light, or of a bad life, however fair to the eye, or of a compact with Satan.

A coffin more than ordinarily heavy was remarked; and there have been coffins of "a heavier weight than lead," which were with the utmost difficulty carried to the graveyard. Such a thing was spoken of with awe. 2

In B------, the night after the funeral, bread and water were placed in the apartment in which the body lay. The dead was believed to return that night and partake of the bread and water. Unless this were done the spirit could not rest in the unseen world. This curious custom seems to throw light upon what have been called "food vases" and "drinking cups," found in round barrows and in the secondary interments in long barrows, supposed to be of the "bronze age" and of the ancient British period.

A burial ought not on any account to be looked at from a window. The one that did so would soon follow.

Peculiar horror was manifested towards suicides. Such were not buried in the churchyard. It is not much over half a century since a fierce fight took place in a churchyard in the middle of Banffshire, to prevent the burial of a suicide in it. By an early hour all the strong men of the parish who were opposed to an act so sacrilegious were astir and hastening to the churchyard with their weapons of defence--strong sticks. The

p. 214

churchyard was taken possession of, and the walls were manned. The gate and more accessible parts of the wall were assigned to picked men. In due time the suicide's coffin appeared, surrounded by an excited crowd, for the most part armed with sticks. Some, however, carried spades sharpened on the edge. Fierce and long was the fight at the gate, and not a few rolled in the dust. The assailing party was beaten off. A grave was dug outside the churchyard, close beneath the wall, and the coffin laid in it. The lid was lifted, and a bottle of vitriol poured over the body. Before the lid could be again closed, the fumes of the dissolving body were rising thickly over the heads of actors and spectators. This was done to prevent the body from being lifted during the coming night from its resting-place, conveyed back to its abode when in life, and placed against the door, to fall at the feet of the member of the family that was the first to open the door in the morning.

The self-murderer's grave was on the boundary of two lairds' lands, and was marked by a single large stone or by a small cairn, to which the passing traveller was bound to cast a stone.

It was the prevailing idea that nothing would grow over the grave of a suicide, or on the spot on which a murder was committed. 1

After the suicide's body was allowed to be buried in the churchyard, it was laid below the wall in such a position that one could not step over the grave. This was done under the belief that, if a woman enceinte stepped over such a grave, her child would quit this earth by its own act.

The instrument by which the unfortunate put an end to life was eagerly sought after, as the possession of it, particularly the knot of the rope, if death was brought about by hanging, secured great worldly prosperity. This notion about the knot of a rope by which one was hanged did not attach simply to a suicide's rope, but to a criminal's.

Still-born children and children that died without baptism were buried before sunrise, from the belief that, unless this were done, their spirits were not admitted into Heaven, but floated

p. 215

homeless through the regions of space. In some places they were buried in such a position that one could not step over their graves.


There is a great reluctance in burying the first body in a new graveyard, and as groat reluctance in leaving the old churchyard after a beginning of burying has been made in the new one. It is told that, when a graveyard on the east coast of Aberdeenshire had to be in a great measure closed, nothing would induce the inhabitants of one of the villages of the parish to bury their dead in the new one. What was to be done? A shoemaker, whose shop was the meeting-place of many of the people of the village, was equal to the difficulty. One night, when a few of the villagers were in the shop, the shoemaker announced that there were "yird swine" in the old graveyard. All were aroused, but hoped that what the shoemaker said might be a mistake. "No mistake, said the man, "I can show you one that was got in the very place." The cry was "Lat's see ’t." A water rat was produced. "An’ that's a yird swine, is ’t, the creatir it eats the dead bodies?" said the men, standing at a distance, and looking in horror on the abhorred beast. "Aye, that's the real yird-swine." The news spread like fire through the village, and many visited the shop to convince themselves of the dreadful truth. The fate of the old graveyard was sealed in that village. 1

Graveyards and ill connected with them--the earth or "meels" and the gravestones, and the coffin and the mort-cloth--were looked upon with awe. Human bones were objects of dread, and there were those who would have left a house had human bones been in it. No one would have carried off a piece of the wood of a coffin that had been cast up in opening a grave and thrown into a corner of the churchyard, for it was a custom so to treat coffins after they had fallen to pieces on the grave being re-opened to admit new tenants.

Many of the churchyards were reputed as haunted by ghosts--the ghosts of those who had committed some great crime, and had died without its being detected and without their revealing

p. 216

it, but who now could not rest in their graves till their souls were disburdened of the load, and they appeared nightly in hope of coming in contact with some living person bold enough to meet them, and to whom they could make known their sin, and to whom they could tell what to do for them to remove the load, and thus allow them to rest in peace in their graves. Such graveyards were avoided after nightfall, and such graveyards made many a benighted traveller take a roundabout way home if it lay before him in his journey

Those who sold themselves to the devil to acquire supernatural powers had to go to the churchyard at twelve o'clock at night, and in the silence of the night, in the abodes of the dead, make their infernal compact, and give their souls for the price.

Those who wished to acquire the power of "arresting" man or beast on their journey, had to go to the churchyard, and, at twelve o'clock at night, uncover a coffin, and take from it one of the lid-screws, repeating at the same time the Lord's Prayer backwards. Such a screw screwed into a human or animal foot-print from left to right, with the repetition of the Lord's Prayer backwards, stopped the further progress of the man or animal.

The mould of the churchyard--"the meels"--was used in acts of sorcery. Thus "meels" taken at the hour of midnight from the graveyard and thrown into a mill-race caused the wheel to stop. The following extract shows another use to which "meels" were put:--

"And anent Issobell Traylle, her consulting with Walker, the witch, shoe confessed the said witch had hir tack ane moldewort hillock and muild out of the church yard, and putt it vnder hir gait twys, and that wold mack hir aill to sell. But shoe denyed shoe requyred it at the said witch, or that shoe practised it." 1


211:1 Choice Notes, p. 121; Notes and Queries, 5th series, vol. iv. pp. 326, 397, vol. v. p. 218.

211:2 Cf. Henderson, p. 57.

211:3 Cf. Henderson, p. 50; F. L. Record, vol. i. p. 51 (169), vol. iii. pt. i. p. 127.

212:1 Notes and Queries, 5th series, vol. v. p. 364.

213:1 See p. 90.

213:2 See p. 136.

214:1 F. L. Record, vol. i. p. 17 (67).

215:1 Cf. Henderson, p. 121.

216:1 "Extracts from the Presbytery Book of Strathbogie," p. 5. Spalding Club, Aberdeen. A.D. 1843.

Next: Glossary