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Reminiscences of Old Scots Folk
The Last of the Old Scots Burial Customs


JUST AS OUR FOREBEARS HAD THEIR own peculiar rites and customs at weddings and christenings, so when it came to the hinderend of all things, they had their strange ways at death. The stopping of the wag-at-the-wa' clock whenever the spirit had fled, to mind the company that for their dead friend at least all time was done; the laying of a plateful of salt on the body to preserve it; the opening of the door to let the spirit go its way to a better world; the burying of the boots to keep the ghost from walking—all these and many more weird habits of death were observed by the old Scots folk of long ago. And in many a back-lying parish or distant island round the coasts of Scotland you will find these dark ways in vogue to this very day.

But there is one weird death ceremony that is still observed in the old seaport town and in quiet country places. Dwellers in cities and those who have been born and bred in places whose roots of tradition do not reach away back into the past may never have heard of it. But still it lingers with us, and the very folk who observe it have not enough knowledge of ancient things to know the purely secular origin of its religious latter-day significance.

It is the ceremony of Chesting the Dead.

The coffin, or chest, having been made, the death kist is carried to the house of mourning, and there, in the presence of a great company of those who are related to the deceased, the body, having been already dressed in the shroud and prepared for burial, is lifted on broad bands of linen and placed in the coffin or kist. It is accounted the peculiar honour of the nearest relatives to take hold of an end of each band during the lifting process, and many a gruesome scene takes place when the little bairns greet and happy young folks are sent into the hysterics of fright if they happen to have to lend a hand at the lifting.

Then the minister reads and prays and improves the dark occasion, and after his back is turned, or, if he happens to be of a like mind in these sobering things before he leaves, refreshments are handed round, and the memory of the dead is solemnly pledged.

In ancient times, a kisting was a great occasion for gossip and whisky-drinking, and well do I mind seeing a glass of whisky spilled over a coffin. But the kisting is seldom kept now except in the old, ancient places like our own seaport town, which is full of hame-biding folks who hold hard by the coat-tails of the past. Be the household ever so irreligious, and despite the fact that the corpse when in life never had any trokings with the kirk, there must be both a kisting and a burial service, with a prayer from the minister at both.

So our religion is whiles two-thirds superstition, and many a decent body would be better laid away with a simple committal prayer than kisted and buried with all the show of honest religion at death where there never has been any in life.

But the strange humour of the custom is that the origin of this old Scots death ceremony of kisting lies in politics, and not in religion!

Before the Union of the Parliaments, when Scotland and England were commercial competitors, flax was grown and linen was very largely woven in both countries. The siccar members of the Scots Parliament, therefore, passed a law in 1694 enacting that every dead body should be shrouded in a sheet of plain home-spun linen, without lace or point. This was a measure of protection, in order to foster the languishing trade of home-made linen in Scotland. For at that time the English merchants threatened to flood the Scots market with imported linen. To make this Act a reality, the Scots Parliament passed another Act in the following year, 1695, enjoining that the nearest elder or deacon, with one or two neighbours, "should be present at the putting-in of the dead corpse in the coffin, that they may see the same done." The minister of the parish, being the chief official in all matters pertaining to parochial law, was always there, and being sweart to let the function go by without improving the occasion, offered up a prayer.

In the course of time, however, the linen industry in Scotland revived, and needed no longer the protection of law, but the woollen industry began to fail. So again, in 1705, the Linen Act of 1694 was repealed, and another Act passed, ordering that every corpse was to be swathed in plain Scots woollen cloth, with the same provision, that so many of the parish officials were to be present at the kisting to see the law carried into force.

Then, two years after, in 1707, came the Union of the Scots and English Parliaments, and all need for protective Acts was done away. But the parish minister by this time had become accustomed to the religious side of the ceremony of kisting; and when the political need for it was abolished, the religious aspect which he himself had imposed, remained.

So the minister and elders kept up the service, and in old places to-day the chesting ceremony still survives.

How little the douce folk that gather at a kisting, to hear the Scripture read and offer up a prayer, realise how materialistic and political and self-defensive this gruesome ceremony of the death chamber originally was. To foster trade, to keep the siller and the sales to ourselves, and to pursue a home-drawn policy for Scotland in its poor days against the riches and the merchandise of England—that was the true origin of chesting.

Dark with mystery, at the very best, is the Away-going at last for us all. And in the olden days our forebears, who had the uncanny, wistful sense of the unseen, used to indulge many a freit and norie about death. A cock that kept crowing more than usual at night was so sure a sign of death that any who heard it would go out to the hen roost and see in what airt its head was pointing. The howling of dogs, or the shying of horses in the dark; birds like the robin tapping at the window on a winter's morning; the laughter of a screech-owl—all these things were foregangs of death.

But the real foregang was the corpse candle, or the will o' the wisp, which travelled in the direction of the person whose doom was foretold, and always took the road which the funeral was afterwards to follow.

Professional beggars usually swarmed at funerals, and after the mourners themselves had been refreshed with ale and shortbread and oatcakes before the lifting the poor folks were fed with what had been specially provided for them; and this custom gathered great numbers of beggars and gangrels to funerals ' old Scots days. The bellman would pass through the village with a tinkle of his bell and shout an invitation to all and sundry to come to the funeral. In the ancient town of Providence and the Pressgang the beadle went up and down the streets with the dead-bell proclaiming as follows: "All brethren and sisters, I let you to wit there is a brother departed at the pleasure of the Almighty"—here he lifted his hat—"called Andrew Duguid. All those that come to the burial come at two o'clock. The corpse is at Corbiehall." And at the funeral itself the beadle walked before the coffin ringing the dead-bell.

Here is an ancient account of the expenses for a funeral in the year 1795, and the paper on which it is written is very old and frail and brown to-day:

10 March 1795, Ane account of the funeral charges of John Muirhead my father for—

the Coffan 1 15 00
To Bread 3 10 02
To Wines 2 09 08 ¾
To Rum 1 02 00
To Whiskey 0 10 00
To Bear 0 2 06
To mortcloth 0 02 06
Total 9 11 10¾

Little wonder that an observant Englishman once declared that a Scots funeral was merrier than an English wedding. For at the beginning of the eighteenth century the women, clad in their gayest and brightest dresses, walked as far as the kirkyard gate, leaving the men to go to the grave. And if the goodman of the house had lost his wife, it was an old custom in Scotland that he of all the company should stay at home; for James Boswell wrote in 1789, after the death of his wife: "It is not customary in Scotland for a husband to attend the funeral of his wife; but I resolved, if I possibly could, to do the last honours myself." And when the good wife lost her husband, the door of the house was painted black, and all bedecked with great white pear-shaped commas to represent the tears shed for the departed.

So strong was the desire of Scots folk in olden days to have a wise-like funeral that in high life we know of a dying laird whose last words to his son were,"For God's sake give them a hearty drink"—and in lowlife, where the family of the deceased was very poor, the Kirk Session, rather than see the humble folk beat, sup-plied the festivities themselves out of the kirk funds, paying for ale and tobacco and pipes, and adding £2 to the relatives. A respectable funeral and a decent shroud were so essential to the frugal Scots mind that a woman spun her own winding-sheet when preparing her bridal clothes, took it out every year with reverence and aired it, and laid it again in the aumrie among the lavender-scented clothes.

To Slocken The Thirst

In remote times and places there was seldom any religious service at the grave, because after the Reformation the stern Scot was afraid of any religious act in connection with death that savoured of Popery or superstition. The funeral, therefore, was treated as a civil act, and the minister, whether an Episcopalian or a Presbyterian, had no professional part at a burial, although his presence was usual.

After the refreshments at the house were over, the company set out for the kirkyard, carrying the coffin in relays and raising a little cairn of stones at each resting-place. It is to be feared that each rest very often meant another refreshment, for it is on solemn record that when the mother of Forbes of Culloden was buried, the whole company arrived at the grave only to discover that the corpse had been left behind.

Then on the return of the relatives to the house there was another feast called the Dredgy, which was a survival of the old popish word Dirige.

But these things are like a sough from another world to us now. The last sound of the sough is the chesting of the dead, which, like other gruesome rites of the ancient Scots burials, will soon be altogether a thing of the past. We go more doucely and soberly to our account now, and it is of God's own mercy that we hap up our beloved in the old kirkyard with simple reverence and certain hope of a resurrection to come through our Lord Jesus Christ.


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