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History of the Parish of Banchory-Devenick
Parish Churchyard


The probabilities are that simultaneous with the erection of the first church, the ground immediately adjoining had been set apart as a place of sepulture. Undoubted evidence could be furnished that for long it formed the only public place of interment in the parish, and so largely had its capacity been taxed, that in 1783 it was found to be “ in such a crowded state as to cause serious danger to the church walls.” Prior to this any parishioner was entitled to secure burial space within the church, on payment of a small fee, but an Act of Session was then passed that “in future none excepting an heritor or his family, and the minister of the parish shall be buried within the church.” Since then three separate extensions of the burial-ground have taken place, the last one being of such a substantial character, that there is now ample space available for the requirements of the parish for many years to come. Up to the present time it may safely be computed that upwards of 15,000 persons have found their last resting place in this hallowed spot.

In the beginning of the present century, owing to each student of medicine being required before qualifying as a doctor to furnish a body for dissecting purposes, various expedients were fallen upon to meet the demand. The usual one followed, however, was that of exhuming and stealing newly interred bodies out of the country churchyards. The persons engaged in the nefarious trade went by the name of “Resurrectionists,” and such a feeling of terror and alarm did they instil in the minds of the common orders throughout the country, that in the end it became imperative, not only for the Legislature to pass strong measures of repression, but for each parish, independently, to take steps for guarding the graves of their newly buried dead. So expeditiously, and at the sametime so secretly were the thefts committed, however, that in spite of all the vigilance of watchers, bodies were repeatedly lifted and carried off. On a dark and wintry night in the year 1813, three medical students from Aberdeen visited the churchyard of Banchory-Devenick for the fixed purpose of removing a body, which had that day been interred. The relations of the deceased, however, were on the outlook, and secured the three, after a stiff tussle. They were carried to Stonehaven, and committed to prison on the double charge of attempting to steal a dead body, and for an assault upon the watchers. At the trial, which afterwards took place before the sheriff, their guilt was clearly established, and they were ordered to pay a fine of 20. This amount having been recovered, the procurator-fiscal handed over a considerable proportion of the fine for behoof of the poor of the parish.

For the comfort and protection of watchers a small building was erected on the south side of the churchyard, where it still stands, being now used as a tool-house by the sexton. As many poor people could not afford to pay the expense of “watching,” the late Mr. George Barclay, builder, Cults, designed, and got cast two massive iron chests or safes—coffin-shaped—each weighing about nineteen hundredweight, for placing around the coffin when lowered into the grave. The iron safe was lowered by block-and-tackle, and being correctly set, the grave was filled up. Six weeks later, when it was considered that decomposition had made such progress as to preclude the chance of a visit from the “body-snatchers,” the grave was again opened and the safe removed. These safes of Mr. Barclay’s were likewise used in many of the neighbouring churchyards, but by the passing of the Act of Parliament, ordering all unclaimed bodies to be delivered up for purposes of dissection, their further use was happily unnecessary. One still lies in the churchyard and forms a source of considerable attraction to visitors. Till within comparatively recent years it was usual, on the morning of an interment, for a lighted candle to be placed near the dead body, and left to burn itself out. Another custom was to stop all clocks in the house at the moment a death occurred, and not to set them in motion again till the corpse had been removed from the house. In some instances there was placed on the breast of the deceased person a platter containing a small quantity of salt and earth, unmixed, the earth as emblematical of the corruptible body, and the salt as symbolical of the immortal spirit. These customs, however, together with the treating of the funeral party to refreshments, are now rarely observed, and the funeral rites usually followed are of the simplest possible character,

Of instances of longevity which have occurred in the district, the following are perhaps the most remarkable :—

1759. 27th March. Died, William Cushnie, from an attack of the measles, aged about 100 years.

1761. Feb. Died, George Forbes, a farmer in the adjoining parish of Maryculter, aged 106 years.

1764. 30th April. Died last week at Wardhead of Countesswells, in the 98th year of his age, Robert Williamson, who was married 74 years previously, to Isobel Wagrel, who is now left a widow in the 100th year of her age, and in so good a state of health that she has for these last two weeks attended the weekly market in Aberdeen, selling her butter, poultry, and eggs.

1771. 1st April. Died, George Keith, who resided on the south side of the parish, in the100oth year of his age. He followed his ordinary business till within twenty days of his death, and continued sensible to the last. Thirty-eight of his children and grand-children, and fifteen of his great-grand-children, followed his remains to the grave.

1823. In this year there died at Greenhead, in the neighbouring parish, the widow of a farmer, aged 102. She is interred in the churchyard of Maryculter.

Some of the inscriptions on the present tombstones are given in the Appendix.

The old churchyard of Nigg, from its proximity to Aberdeen, and secluded situation near the bay of Nigg, was frequently visited by body-snatchers. On 22nd December 1808, the remains of Mrs. Spark, an aged woman who had died in Aberdeen, were ferried across the Dee, and decently interred in the churchyard. Next morning it was discovered that during the night the body had been taken up, and carried off. The grave was left in a most gruesome fashion—broken pieces of the lid of the coffin, tatters of grave linen, and marks of blood, being left scattered about the grave. It was afterwards discovered that the perpetrators of the outrage were medical students belonging to Aberdeen. They had evidently been disturbed in their transporting of the body, and, to avoid detection, had hid it in the sand on the north side of the bay of Nigg. A storm subsequently arose and washed it out to the bay, where it was discovered and again interred.


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