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Reminiscences of a Highland Parish
Churchyards and Funerals


THE Highland churchyard is a spot which seldom betrays any other traces of human art or care than those simple headstones which mark its green graves. In very few instances is it enclosed; its graves generally mingle with the mountain pasture and blooming heather, and afford shelter to the sheep and lamb from the blast of winter and the Beat of summer. But although not consecrated by holy prayer and religious ceremony, these are, nevertheless, holy spots in the hearts and memories of the peasantry, who never pass them without a subdued look, which betokens a feeling of respect for the silent sleepers. To deck a father's or mother's grave, would be, in the estioration of the Highlander, to turn it into a flower-garden. He thinks it utter vanity to attempt to express his grief or respect for the departed by any ornament beyond the tombstone, whose inscription is seldom more than a statistical table of birth and death.

Many of those Highland churchyards, so solitary and so far removed from the busy haunts of men, are, nevertheless, singularly touching and beautiful. Some are on green islands whose silence is disturbed only by the solemn thunder of the great ocean wave, or the ripple of the inland sea; some are in great wide glens, among bracken and blooming heather, round the ruins of a chapel, where prayers were once offered by early missionaries, who with noble aim and holy ambition penetrated these wild and savage haunts; while others break the green swards about the parish church on ground where God has been worshipped since the days of St Columba.

One of the most beautiful I ever visited is on a small green island in Loch Shiel in Argyleshire. The loch for nearly twenty miles is as yet innocent of roads on either shore, so that the tourist who visits the place has to navigate the lake in a rude country boat; and if he attempts to sail, he must probably do so with blankets attached to the oar, and then trust to a fair wind. Yet what can be more delicious than thus to glide along the shore with a crew that won't speak till they are spoken to, and in silence gaze upon the ever-varying scene —to skim past the bights and bays with their reedy margins—the headlands tufted with waving birch —the gulfy torrents pouring down their foaming waterfalls and "blowing their trumpets from the steeps"—with the copse of oak and hazel, that covers the sides of the mountain from the deep dark water up to the green pasture, and beyond, the bare rocks that pierce the blue.

Not unlikely the crew, when they take to their oars, will sing "Ho Mhdrag," in honour of Prince Charlie, "the lad wi' the philabeg," who on the green diluvial plain at the head of the loch—where his monument now stands — first unfurled his banner, to regain the British crown; and if you don't know this romantic episode in history, the boatmen will point out with pride the glens where the; Camerons, Macdonalds, Stewvarts, and Macleans poured down their kilted clans, the last "old guard" of the clan times, to do battle for "the yellow-haired laddie;" and unless you cordially believe (at least until you leave Loch Shiel) that you would have joined them on that day, with the probability even of losing your head and your common sense, you are not in a fit state of spirit to enjoy the scene.

Half way up this lake, and at its narrowest portion, there is a beautiful green island, -which stretches itself so far across as to leave but a narrow passage for even the country boat. Above it, and looking down on it, rises Ben Reshiepol for 2000 feet or more, with its hanging woods, gray rocks, dashing streams, and utter solitude. On the island is an old chapel, with the bell,—now we believe preserved by the Laird,—which long ago so often broke the silence of these wilds on holy days of worship or of burial. There lie chiefs and vassals, fierce cateran robbers of sheep and cattle, murderers of opposing clans, with women and children, Catholic and Protestant, Prince Charlie men, and men who served in army and navy under George the Third. How silent is the grave-yard! You sit down among the ruins and hear only the bleat of sheep, the whish-whish of the distant waterfalls, the lapping of the waves, or the wind creeping through the archways and mouldering windows. The feuds and combats of the clans are all gone; the stillness and desolation of their graves alone remain.

But "the parish" churchyard is not much less picturesque. It is situated on a green plateau of table-land which forms a ledge between the low sea-shore and hilly background. A beautiful tall stone cross from Iona adorns it; a single Gothic arch of an old church remains as a witness for the once consecrated round, and links the old "cell" to the modern building, which in architecture—shame to modern Lairds—is to the old one what a barn is to a church. The view, however, from that churchyard, of all God's glorious architecture above and below, makes one forget those paltry attempts of man to be a fellow-worker with Him in the rearing and adorning of the fitting and the beautiful. There is hardly in the Highlands a finer expanse of inland seas, of castled promontories, of hills beyond hills, until cloudland and highland mingle; of precipice and waterfall, with all the varied lights and shadows which heathy hill sides, endless hill tops, dark corries, ample bays and rocky shores, can create at morn, noonday, or evening, from sun and cloud,—a glorious panorama extending from the far west beyond the giant point of Ardnamurchan, "the height of the great ocean," to the far east, where Ben Cruachan and "the Shepherds of Etive Glen" stand sentinels in the sky. No sea king could select a more appropriate resting-place than this, from whence to catch a glimpse, as his spirit walked abroad beneath the moonlight, of galleys coming from the Northland of his early home; nor could an old saint find a better, if he desired that after death the mariners, struggling with stormy winds and waves, might see his cross from afar, and thence, in extremis, snatch comfort from this symbol of faith and hope; nor could any man, who in the frailty of his human nature shrunk from burial in lonely vault, and who wished rather to lie where birds might sing, and summers sun shine, and winter's storms lift their voices to God, and the beautiful world be ever above and around him, find a spot more congenial to his human feelings than the kirkyard of "the parish."

The Celt ;ias a strong desire, almost amounting to a decided superstition, to lie beside his kindred. He is intensely social in his love of family and tribe. It is long' ere he takes to a straneer as bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. When sick in the distant hospital, he will, though years have separated him from home and trained him to be a citizen of the world, yet dream in his delirium of the old burial-ground. To him there is in this idea a sort of homely feeling, a sense of friendship, a desire for a congenial neighbourhood, that, without growing into a belief of which he would be ashamed, unmistakably circulates as an instinct in his blood, and cannot easily be dispelled. It is thus that the poorest Highlanders always endeavour to bury their dead with kindred dust. The pauper will save his last penny to secure this boon.

A woman, for example, from "the main land," somewhere in Kintail, was married to a highly respectable man in one of the Hebrides which need not be specified. When she died, twelve of her relations, strong men, armed with oak sticks, journeyed sixty miles to be present at her funeral. They quietly expressed their hope to her husband, that his wife should be buried in her own country and beside her own people. But on ascertaining from him that such was not his purpose, they declared their intention to carry off the body by force. An unseemly struggle was avoided only through the husband being unable to find any one to back him in his refusal of what was deemed by his neighbours to be a reasonable request. He therefore consented, and accompanied the body to the churchyard of her family.

This feeling is carried to a length which, in one instance I have heard of, was too ludicrous to be dignified even by the name of superstition. A Highland porter, who carried our bag but the other day, and who has resided for thirty years in the low country, sent his amputated finger to be buried in the graveyard of the parish beside the remains of his kindred! It is said that a bottle of whisky was sent along with the finger that it might be entombed with all honour!—but I don't vouch for the truth of the latter part of the story. I never heard who dug the grave of the finger—whether it was "I, says the owl"—nor who attended the funeral, nor what monument was erected over the respected member. But there, nevertheless, it lies, and I doubt not that the porter will one day lie beside it.

This desire of being interred with kindred dust or with "the faithful ones," as they express it, is so strong, that I have known a poor man selling all his potatoes, and reducing himself to great suffering, in order to pay the expense of burying his wife in a distant churchyard among her people; and that, too, when the minister of his parish offered to bury her at his own expense in the churchyard of the parish in which the widower resided. Only a year or two ago a pauper in the parish of K—, begged another poor neighbour to see her buried beside her family. When she died, twelve men assembled, carried her ten miles off, dug her grave, and paid all the expenses of her funeral, which, had she been buried elsewhere, would have been paid by the parish.

It is still a very common belief among the peasantry that shadowy funeral processions precede the real ones, and that "warnings" are given of a coming death by the crowing of cocks, the ticking of the death watch, the howling of dogs, voices heard by night, the sudden appearance of undefined forms of human beings passing to and fro, &c.

It has also been the custom of the poorest persons to have all their dead clothes prepared for years before their death, so as to insure a decent orderly interment. To make these clothes was a task often imposed upon the ladies, or females in a parish who were good at their needle. The pattern of the shroud was a fixed one, and special instructions were given regarding it by the initiated. Such things are common even now among Highland families who have emigrated to Glasgow. A short time ago a highly respectable lady in that city, when she found that her illness was dangerous, gave a confidential servant the key of a box, where, in the event of death, all would be found that was required to dress her body for the grave.

The old wrapping of the body was woollen cloth, and the Gaelic term used to express it, (ollanachd,)which may be translated "woollening," is still used to describe the dressing of the body before burial. The old stone coffin is dug up in the Highlands as elsewhere, but the coffins hollowed out of the solid log—one of which was discovered a few years ago in Lochaber—seem, as far as I know, to have been peculiar to the Highlands. The Gaelic term still in use for a coffin (caisil chrd,) the "wattle enclosure," points to what we doubt not was equally peculiar to the Highlands, that of surrounding the dead body with slender branches of trees, and bending them firmly together with witks or twisted rods of hazel or willow, and thus interring it.

From the time of death till that of interment, the body is watched day and night. A plate of salt is always placed upon the breast. Candles are also frequently lighted around it. These are the remains of Roman Catholic customs. When the body, on the day of funeral, is carried a considerable distance, a cairn of stones is always raised on the spots where the coffin has rested, and this cairn is from time to time renewed by friends and relatives. Hence the Gaelic saying or prayer with reference to the departed, "Peace to thy soul, and a stone to thy cairn!"—thus expressing the wish, that the remembrance of the dead may be cherished by the living.

The bagpipe is sometimes still played at funerals. Five or six years ago a medical man, greatly beloved and respected for his skill and kindness to the poor, died at Fort William from fever, caught in the discharge of his duties. The funeral was attended by about 1400 people. Strong men wept, and women threw themselves on the ground in the agony of their impassioned sorrow. Three pipers headed the procession, playing the wild and sad lament of "I'll never, I'll never, I'll never return."—The whole scene has been described to me by those present as having been most deeply affecting.

But after these digressions I must return to the churchyard of "the parish."

There are two graves which lie side by side across the ruins of the old archway I have spoken of. The one is an old stone coffin, the other a grassy hillock—and I shall tell what I have heard, and what I know about their inhabitants.


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