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Popular Superstitions of the Highlands
Funerals


"In some fond breast still lives the face,
Its wonted smile, the darling form,
Which awful death cannot efface,
However much it may deform."
W.S.

ON the third day after the defunct’s decease, if the person occupied no station above the ordinary level, the body will, be led to its destined abode. This sorrowful day is early distinguished by melancholy arrangements. Verbal warnings having been previously circulated to the male inhabitants of the district, large and timeous preparations are necessary for their accommodation and entertainment. While the seating of the apartments destined to receive the company occupies the men, the arrangement of the entertainment occupies no less the attention of the women. In the meanwhile, the relations and family of the deceased attire themselves in the best mournings their circumstances can afford, and prepare themselves for going through the duties of the day with all possible fortitude and decency. The arrival of the wooden house of death, and the deposition of its inhabitant, early call forth many a sigh and tear at the parting which is about to take place. But the closing of the coffin is deferred till the eve of removal.

About twelve o’clock, the company, or, to speak more properly, the guests, successively arrive in scattered groups, dressed in all the variegated colours of the rainbow; and are received by some near connection of the deceased, who conducts then to the place appointed for their station.

With becoming gravity they take their seats, condoling very freelingly with the present friends on their lamentable loss, and carry on for a while a conversation very suitable to the business which brought them together. They are each served on their arrival with what is called a dram of "dry whisky," and some fit person is appointed to keep the glass in active circulation. To him is also delegated a discretionary power of imposing extra penalties on late comers, who must compensate for their absence by drinking a double quantity on their arrival.

Thus, all equally well plied with the enlivening glass, the solemn aspect of the company is soon changed into a mixture of sorrow and joy. The moralist, who so recently uttered such sage reflections upon the shortness of life and its uncertainty, is transformed by some secret influence into the sprightly wit, whose humorous jokes and repartees continually agitate the risible powers of his audience. In short, the house of mourning is rapidly changing into a house of mirth; and such would be the opinion of any stranger who might visit the scene.

As soon as he approaches the door of the meeting-house, his ears are assailed with a confusion of sounds, which conveys to him the idea of entering a house full of bees. Seated in double rows, extending from one end of the house to the other, he finds it literally crammed, not with bees, but Highlandmen of every age and condition. In each end of the house he sees overflowing bowls, and, walking to and fro, a host of waiters, bearing the full and empty glasses of the company, followed by others with bread and cheese; which are liberally distributed amongst the guests. Being seated in the place befitting his rank or station, if curiosity leads him to a closer examination of the complexion of his company, he will not be a little amused at the diversity of feelings and conversation distinguishing the individuals composing it. If the visitor or stranger whom we have supposed, is of a serious cast of mind, and if he addresses himself to his elbow neighbour on the solemn character of the occasion, and laments the pitiful state of the family that may be thus deprived of their parent or provider—perhaps, if he listens for a moment with counterfeited seriousness, the sprightly sally of a rustic wit rings upon his ear, and a horse-laugh immediately shows the spectator he has no great relish for his subject. If, again, he addresses himself to one of a less Jovial temperament, who has not yet been so much affected by the general infection upon the same subject, he will perhaps acknowledge the justness of his observations with a significant shake of the head, declaring, at the same time, the poignancy of his sorrow for the deceased, who, "now peace to him, was the best of souls." But, at the same time, and in the same breath, he will make a digression to the alarming depreciation of agricultural produce, and the consequent inevitable ruin of poor farmers, if they do not immediately get a reduction of the one half of their rents; and the concern he evinces for both matters makes it difficult to determine which loss he considers the greater calamity. Listening to the various topics of conversation discussed by the company in general, he will find seriousness form no part of it. Having already sufficiently moralized on the evils of life, they are now resolved to confine themselves entirely to its goods. Death, low prices, and high rents, have now given place to balls, feasts, and diversions. One group is warmly engaged in scheming a "dry or a wet ball;" another group is warmly expatiating upon the good signs of the year, corroborated as they are by the "annual prognostic;" and others are as warmly engaged in recriminating each other for their notorious gallantries, and the like; while a good spring, a good harvest, and ready sale to sheep and cattle, are drunk by all with the greatest enthusiasm. All are become suddenly acquainted with the proverb," A pound of care will not pay an ounce of debt;" and therefore they are determined to spend life in friendship and good hopes. In obedience to this wholesome resolution, each crony, as he gives his neighbour the hand, will also give him the pipe or the "sneeshan mill," and would be very sorry to see him ill used in a "pley," or any such cause, without rendering him a helping hand.

As the drinking continues, the company become still more noisy. Repetitions of toasts, the vacant laugh, and incoherent exclamation, mingled with a few little oaths, are what perpetually burst upon the ear; and the sequel of such unhallowed carousals exhibit but too frequently a scene of the most improper levity. [Let not the Highland reader be led to view this description of a Highland funeral as casting any reflection on his moral or religious character. Whatever ill-timed levity he may manifest on such an occasion, the blame must be ascribed, not to him, but to that evil spirit, the usquebaugh, the real cause of it. We cannot, however, help regretting, that either the ill-judged hospitality of the entertainer, or his own social habits, should expose him on this particular occasion to the unruly influence of his demoralizing countryman.]

Far different, however, are the feelings and conduct of those mournful individuals, who occupy another apartment, where the affectionate widow or fatherless orphans are now assembled, to take the last and long farewell of the relics of love. In deep dismay, behold the sorrowing group bending over the dear remains, absorbed in frantic woe, bathing with their tears unfeeling death, insensible to all their sorrows.

When the weeping relatives have severally bade the corpse the last adieu, by imparting the farewell kiss to the cold and pallid lip of death, (which, nevertheless, is perhaps the sweetest we ever impart,) the dearest form is for ever concealed from their view.

"Long on the lip the kiss will dwell,
And
on the ear the mournful sigh,
Which seal’d the last and fond farewell,
And forg’d a bond time can’t untie."

The necessary arrangements being effected, the coffin is brought forth, surrounded by the bereaved friends, and bound on the hanspecks on some convenient supports at the door; and when time will no longer permit the guests to indulge in their hilarity, an unwelcome summons invites them to their duty. Issuing forth tumultuously, they surround their charge; and all the riders being provided with their horse’s, the signal for setting off is given. The female relations, according to the custom of some countries, get the first lift, and the supports on which the body was bound being carefully overturned, for some reason best known to the wise men of the day, the multitudinous procession takes the road.

At this moment a scene presents itself to the cool spectator, wholly without a parallel. The various habiliments of the company—riders and pedestrians mingled together—the sound of the horses—and the united clamour of the multitude—are altogether striking. At one time, the expressions of mirth predominate; while, at others, the heart-rending lamentations of the female relations of the defunct prevail, and in their turn vibrate upon the ear. The women, at length unwillingly disentangled from the body, return home with mournful wailing, and the procession continues its course to its destination. Too many of the, company are sometimes more intent upon their own pleasures than mindful of their business, roving about in scattered parties; while others exhibit, in their attention, a pattern of correctness and decorum; and, warmly enumerating the good qualities of the deceased, descant on the happy change he has made—at the same time walking with a careful step, lest an unfortunate fall beneath the body should doom themselves to share his enviable lot. [A fall sustained by a person, while supporting the body, is ominous of the person’s speedy death. It may also be remarked, that it is considered very imprudent to look at a passing funeral from the door of the house, or from a window having a stone lintel.]

At length, arrived at the mansions of the dead, the body is lowered into its drear abode, amidst the sorrowing of some and the insensibility of others. The slate planted on the grave terminates its earthly career, and consigns it for ever to the land of forgetfulness.

"Yet, though consign’d to death’s dark shade,
And ever hid from mortal view,
Still constant Love, by Fancy led,
The dreary scene will oft review."

THE END.

Printed by George Ramsay & Co.
Edinburgh, 1823.


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