Women in Bygone Days
Funeral Customs and Practices
IN the year 1617 a pamphlet appeared
in London, written by "one who had accompanied James VI. on his visit to
Scotland." The author is severe in his remarks regarding that country.
"Their beasts be generally small, women only excepted, of which sort there
are none better in the whole world." Small praise, but it is the only
praise the writer gives. Of Scottish preachers and customs he had a poor
opinion. Of the preachers and sermons he writes :" Their discourses are
full of detraction, their sermons nothing but railing, and the conclusion
nothing but heresies and treasons. For the religion they have, I confess
they hold it above reach, and God willing, I will never reach for it.
"They christen without the Cross,
marry without the ring, receive the Sacrament without reverence, die
without repentance and bury without divine service."
Funeral sermons, once very popular,
were in 1638 prohibited; the services would thus become balder and poorer,
and strangers would still more think the Scots irreverent and indifferent
to the memory of the dead.
English travellers had much to
complain of, and in Scotland saw little to admire in the country, the
people or their habits.
Another Englishman, Ray the
Naturalist, a widely travelled man for his day, visited Scotland. Ray was
the son of a blacksmith, and had received a good education at Trinity
College, Cambridge, where he became a Fellow. In 1662, by the Act of
Uniformity, he was deprived of his Fellowship; he therefore determined, in
company with his friend Francis Willoughby, to make a grand tour
throughout the United Kingdom, in the course of which he visited Scotland,
but, like his predecessors, he was not favourably impressed with what he
saw: even the women seemed to him plain and insignificant" the women
generally to us seemed none of the handsomest," he complains.
"Plainness and want of religion"
were characteristics of the nation, according to him.
He thus describes a Scottish burial
:" When anyone dies, the sexton or bell-man goeth about the streets, with
a small bell in his hand, which he tinkleth all along as he goeth, and now
and then he makes a stand and proclaims who is dead, and invites the
people to come to the funeral at such an hour. The people and minister
many times accompany the corpse to the grave at the time appointed, with
the bell before them, where there is nothing said, but only the corpse
Another traveller, Thomas Kirke,
wrote a book in 1679 called, "A Modem Account of Scotland by an English
Gentleman." He, too, describes a Scottish funeral :" When anyone dies,
the bellman goes about ringing their passing-bell, and acquaints the
people therewith, in form following: Beloved brouthrin and susters, I let
you to wot that there is an fautful broothir lawtli departed awt of this
prisant varld, aut thi plesuir of Aulmoughti Good (and then he vails his
bonnet) his name is Volli Voodcok, third son to Jimmy Voodcock, a
cordinger; he ligs aut thi sext door vethin thi Nord Gawt, close in thi
Nawthwr Rawnd, and I wod yaw gang to hus burying on Thrusdau before twa
"The time appointed for his burying
being come, the bell-man calls the company together, and he is carried to
the burying-place and thrown into the grave (as Dog-Lyon was), and theres
the end of Volli. Few people are here buried in their Kirks (except of
their nobility), but in the kirk-garths, or in a burying-place on purpose,
called the hoof, at the further end of the town (like our Quakers),
enclosed with a wall, so that it serves not only as a burying-place, but
an exchange to meet in; perhaps in one part of it the Courts of Judicate
are kept; in another are butts to shoot at for recreation. All agree that
a womans tongue is the last member she moves, but the Latin proverb,
Mulieri ne credas, etc., seems to prove it after death; I am sure the
pride of this people never leaves them, but follows them to their long
homes (I was about to have said to the devil), for the meanest man must
have a gravestone full fraught with his own praises (though he was the
vilest miscreant on earth), and miserable
both in English and Latin, nay Greek too, if
they can find a Greek word for cordinger, the calling he was of, and all
this in such miserable Scotch orthography that tis hard to distinguish
one language from another."
These writers are none of them
complimentary to Scottish customs and manners.
No doubt the Scots were behind their
Southern neighbours in many ways. Scotland was a poor country and a
conservative one; people had little money to spend on improvements; they
were apt to think the customs of one generation good enough for the next.
They were superstitious and
believers in omens. If a sick person was thought to be dying, no person in
the house might sleep. When the death took place the house clock was at
once stopped. When the body was shrouded the mirror and glass in the room
were covered up, and a bell was placed under the head, and a small vessel
with earth and salt laid upon the breast. If a person died in any house,
woe befall them should a cat cross the dead body, and then proceed to the
roof of the house. That was a certain sign that the days of the master of
the house were numbered.
The General Assembly of 1576 ruled
that "burials should not be made in the Kirk." [Chamberss
Domestic Annals of Scotland.]
The offender who refused to comply with this order was liable to
excommunication. But the Scots, a naturally conservative people, did not
readily obey the behest, and landowners and gentry long continued to bury
in the church. In the Presbytery of Lanark, on March 31st, 1625, John Mure,
Laird of Ancistoun, was called to answer for his sins; he "confessit his
fault both in taking the key of the kirk door of Symington from the
minister, as also in burying his father within the samyn." He was
dismissed with an admonition, on being bound "to abstain from all kirk
burial in tyme coming."
The Laird of Shieldhill, another
offender, appeared before the Presbytery on March 28th, charged with "burieing
his wyffe in the Kirk of Quothquan, by forcibly entering the structure."
This misdeed the Laird did not deny, and he was publicly sentenced to
"avow his fault" in the presence of the congregation. Doubtless the
congregation would be a full one; they would thoroughly enjoy the sight of
the Laird standing up before everyone to confess "his fault."
The bell-ringing was a survival of a
custom common in Roman Catholic times. In Alloa the beadle received
thirteen shillings and fourpence, Scots, for ringing the bell.
An entry reads :" I, James Home,
Burges of Aberdene and Kirk officer thereof, grants me to have received
the soume of aucht pounds, Scots money, for tolling of the kirk-belles of
Aberdene, at the burial of Sir Robert Farquhar of Mowney."
In the beginning of the eighteenth
century, Ramsay tells that at funerals Scottish ladies made their first
appearance at burials. The gentlemen drew up on one side of the street and
the ladies on the other. Before the procession began, the men stepped over
to pay their compliments to their female acquaintances.
The habit which long prevailed in
Scotland of inviting friends to the "coffining," when the Minister offered
up prayer, was said to be a relic of the old Lykewakes. It might also have
originated in an Act of the Scottish Parliament of the year 1695, which
ordained that "the nearest elder or deacon of the parish, with one
neighbour or two, be called by the persons concerned and be present to the
putting of the dead corpse in the coffin, that they may see the same done,
and that the foresaid order anent specified material for the winding sheet
The "Lykewake" meant sitting in the
room with the corpse during the night or nights previous to the funeral;
on such occasion those present generally drowned melancholy in deep
potations. Receipts for the various expenses incurred in connection with
funerals are now extant.
"I, John Cormack, schoolmaster in
Aberdene, grant me to have receaved two rex (rix) dollars, for reading at
Sir Robert Farchar and his Lady their Lykwakes, as the custom is in this
place. As witness this my hand, at Aberdene, the nynteen day of Januarie,
1766 yeares. Jo Cormack."
Different customs prevailed in
different parts of the country, but in general funerals were occasions of
family gatherings and lengthy rites, often ending in dances or some form
of merrymaking. If the person who died was poor, a protracted Lykewake was
shunned, and burial soon after death took place. But if the person whose
death was being celebrated was rich or well-to-do, the correct time for
the coffined bodies to remain uninterred was a week, and during this time
hospitality was freely given. The Lykewakes of people of quality lasted
from one to three weeks.
The dances following the funeral
rites were largely attended by women. Indeed, women seem to have taken
their share in all funeral festivities. To mark King George II.s death,
the people of Aberdeen in 1760 gave a mourning concert. It is thus
described in the Aberdeen Journal :" On Tuesday night last there
was a mourning concert at the Concert Hall, on account of his late
Majestys death. There were upwards of one hundred ladies, all in deep
mourning, besides a great number of gentlemen. There were anthems sung,
and the music solemn and suitable to the occasion; and the whole
performance was reckoned by connoisseurs exquisitely good and gave great
satisfaction to the audience."
The Church dignitaries, presbyteries
and councils disapproved of dancing, as indeed they disapproved of all
things that brought happiness and brightness into the lives of the people,
though dancing and funerals seem in opposition; but the people did not
share their feeling, and dances at funerals long remained popular.
Sometimes men danced, and women
looked on, or men danced with men and women with members of their own sex.
Apparently it was a less heinous offence to dance in this way than to
stand up with partners of the opposite sex. In 1755 an Act was passed
which forbade "promiscuous dancing at burials and other occasions." Some
people apparently did not consider it was promiscuous dancing "if one sex
sat out and watched the other sex perform." But few ministers countenanced
this definition, and various addresses and pamphlets are extant exhorting
presbyters and people to discourage funeral dances.
Synods and Presbyteries thundered
away, but in spite of disapproval dancing was popular and the funeral
dance long continued fashionable.
In the Highlands, [Chamberss
Domestic Annals of Scotland.]
funerals of the chiefs were attended by thousands, the processions being
one to three miles in length. At these processions, the coronach or
lamentation was chanted at intervals. This coronach was later superseded
by the pibroch.
Amongst old records and family
accounts are entries of all kinds, including such items as candles,
torches and all other necessary funeral furnishings. On September, 1733,
there is an account from the Earl of Sutherland to Archibald Dunbar of
Newton for forty-eight flambeaux, furnished at Elgin for his grandfathers
funeral, weighing eighty-seven and a half poundsprice £13 2s. 6d.
The following letter describes the
funeral of the Duchess of Buckingham, and was written by a Scottish
gentleman to a friend in Scotland (9th April, 1747). From it it is
apparent how much a grand funeral was prized: "The fracas of the Duchess
of Buckinghams parade through the streets you will see in the prints.
Yesterday was a very cold day, and she kept many thousands waiting the
show, by which she killed more since her death than she did while alive
with all her charms. For the effigy of her taken in wax work, and carried
on the pall above the coffin, was eminently beautiful, according to her
orders, although that figure was taken while on her death bed. At that
time she sent to the Duchess of Marlboro for a sight of the pall used at
the Dukes burial; to which her Grace made answer that she would not,
since she believed she intended it as a pattern of her own, and it did not
become her Grace to be buried with the same magnificence as the Duke of
Marlboro. To which Duchess Buckingham returned for answer, she only
wanted to see it that hers might not be of the same fashion with her
fathers page. In short, the many idle, vain and ridiculous stories we
hear of her Grace just now would fill a quire of paper."
Funeral letters were written on
large foolscap paper having an edging of black, sealed with the family
Funerals were cheery affairs in
those days. The funeral festivities closed with a dance, with bagpipe
music. Burt says that if the deceased be a woman, the
widower leads off the first dance;
if a man, the widow. At a much later period, Somerville of Jedburgh, [Life
and Times, 1741-1814.] talking of his young
days, says : "The last duties to the dead were accompanied by some
observances which have now fallen into disuse. Thus, in all the towns I
was acquainted with, every death was immediately made known to the
inhabitants by the passing bell. This was usually done by the beadle or
kirk officer, who walked through the streets at a slow pace, tinkling a
small bell, sometimes called the dead-bell, and sometimes the
passing-bell, and, with head uncovered, intimated that a brother (or
sister) whose name was given had departed this life. A few years ago, the
officer in Jedburgh was obliged to make this announcement at once, however
unreasonable the hour. A lykewake, too, (the watching the dead
body) took place in the night, or during the several nights intervening
between the death and the funeral. As the intimation made by the passing
bell was understood to be a general invitation, great crowds attended the
funeral. I may add, that at the time to which I refer, several of the
female relatives walked in the rear of the funeral procession to the gate
or threshold of the churchyard, where they always stopped and dispersed."
Although Scotland was a very poor
country, no money was spared at a funeral; enormous expenditure was
incurred and great sums of money disbursed, money that could ill be
spared, the expenditure of which often crippled an estate. An example of
such wasteful expenditure is shown in the funeral expenses of Lachlan
Mackintosh of Mackintosh, when the funeral entertainments lasted a whole
month. [Chamberss Domestic Annals of
Cooks and confectioners were brought
from Edinburgh to Inverness-shire at great expense, to provide viands for
the guests, and liquors were set flowing in the greatest profusion. On the
day of the interment, the friends and dependents of the deceased made a
processiona distance of four miles. It is scarcely surprising to read
that the family in consequence were impoverished for many a day. The
expense of funerals was enormous, extending sometimes to a full years
rent of the estates.
Money might be and was grudged for
the education of children, especially of girls; it was grudged upon the
improvement of property, luxuries and elegancies of all kinds, but nothing
was considered too extravagant for a funeral; there expenditure was upon a
lavish scale. Vast sums were paid for funeral carousals. There is an
account of a Laird of the North, Hugh Campbell of Calder, who died in 1716
:There was a charge of £5515s. 0d. to
buy one cow, one ox, five kids, two wethers, eggs, geese, turkeys, pigs
and moorfowl, besides £40 for brandy, £25 4s. od. for claret to one
merchant, and £82 6s. 0d. to another, and £35 for waters, that is whiskey.
Another merchant presented an account of £407 8s. 4d. for 22 pints
brandy at £8 per pint, 18 wine glasses, 6 dozen pipes, and 3 lb. cut
tobacco, 2 pecks of apples, 2 gross corks, one large pewter flagon at £6,
and one small at £3; currants, raisins, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, ginger,
confected carvy, oranges and citron peel, two pairs of black shambo gloves
for women, and two or three other small articles. There was £40 for flour,
£39 12s. 0d. to cooks and baxters, and to malt brewed from the said Sir
Hughs death to the funeral, sixteen bolls and one half, £88. (Sir Hughs
body lay from the 11th to the 29th March, and during these eighteen days
there was ale for all.) The outlay for oils, cerecloth, and frankincense
used for the body was £60, for two coffins, tables and other work, £110
13s. 4d., for the hearse and adornments, £358. With the expenses
for the medical attendant, a suit of clothes for the minister and some few
other items, the whole amounted to £1647 16s. 4d., Scots money. The
quantity of liquor consumed was enormous at this funeral, and indeed upon
all such occasions. Persons of all ranks drank to excess. Excessive drink,
feasting and waste characterized a funeral.
At the Laird of Abbotsburghs burial
[John Ramsay. Scotland and Scotsmen.]
the company appeared so rosy and merry in the kirkyard, that some English
dragoons quartered at Falkirk said to one another: "Jolly dogs! A Scots
burial is merrier than our weddings."
In the Bride of Lammermoor
there is a description of the funeral of Lord Ravenswood about the year
1700. After the funeral, " the mourners returned to the tower, there to
carouse deep health to the memory of the deceased, to make the house of
sorrow ring with sounds of joviality and debauch, and to diminish, by the
expense of a large and profuse entertainment, the limited revenues of the
heir of him whose funeral they thus strangely honoured. It was the custom,
however, and on the present occasion it was fully observed. The table swam
in wine, the populace feasted in the courtyard, the yeomen in the kitchen
and buttery; and two years rent of Ravenswoods remaining property hardly
defrayed the charge of the funeral revel."
Disgusting as this description is,
such things were characteristic of the times.
About a hundred and fifty years
later, a Scottish minister [The Rev. Robert Story.] writes :" At
funerals, four round of whiskey were considered due to wounded affection
and departed worth, and respect was shown to the dead by the intoxication
of the living."
Drinking heavily was the badge of
birth and manhood; drunkenness was reckoned no disgrace, and indeed to be
"muzzy" was "only respectable."
In a letter to Archibald Dunbar of
Duffus, Esquire, the writer begs leave to be excused from attending a
funeral because of his intoxicated condition. Whether or not his fellow
mourners would have been in a condition to note his state is doubtful. He
"My DEAR SIR,
"I told you that I could not do
myself the honour to witness the interment of your worthy father. This is
to tell you that I have been drinking this whole day, with our Magistrates
and Town Council (God bless them), and am just now almost unfit for your
conversation; and therefore choose to go home rather than expose myself;
which I hope you will approve of. I hope that you will ever believe that I
am, with the greatest faith and truth, my dear sir,
Yours to serve you,
Dean Ramsay tells about an aged
spinster in Strathspey who, on her death-bed, summoned her favourite
grand-nephew and heir, and charged him that as much whiskey was to be used
at her funeral as had been drunk at her baptism. He being unaware what had
been consumed upon that occasion, allowed everyone to drink what he
pleased. The result was, when the funeral party reached the churchyard, a
distance of ten miles from the place of starting, the sextons enquiry of
the chief mourner, " Captain, whaurs Miss Kitty? aroused the company to
the recollection "that at the last inn where they had rested, they left
the body on a dyke, and had started without it." A similar instance is
recorded about the mother of Lord President Forbes. So hospitably were the
mourners on that occasion entertained, so long did they sit and drink,
that when the signal was given for setting out to the churchyard, they
staggered along, and only on their arrival there did they recollect that
the corpse had been left reposing in the chamber of death.
At the funeral of the Hon. Alexander
Fraser of Lovat, in 1815, several persons overcome with liquor fell into
the vault; and the carousals which in 1817 attended the funeral of The
Chisholm were accompanied with some fatal accidents. [Social Life in
The keeping of the deceased for long
periods was common, and the grandeur of the processions were remarkable.
Chambers tells that Campbell of Lochnell died about January 10th, 1714;
his son, a Jacobite, kept the corpse unburied until the 28th, in order
that the burial might be turned to account for political purposes. It was
understood that those who attended the funeral were making a masked
demonstration in favour of the exiled Stuart.
Those of the opposite inclination
deemed it necessary also to attend, in order to be a check upon the
Jacobites. Hence on this occasion, the burial was attended by two thousand
five hundred men, well armed and appointed, five hundred being of
Lochnells own lands, commanded by the famous Rob Roy, carrying with them
a pair of colours belonging to the Earl of Breadalbane, and accompanied by
the screams of thirteen bagpipes.
The following letter by John,
fourteenth Earl of Sutherland, to attend the funeral of his lady, is an
example of the customary form of invitation :
"DUNR0BIN, the 29th July,
"The Lord having upon the 29th
instant removed my consort from her pilgrimage to her eternal rest in the
bosom of her Redeemer, and purposing through His good will to have her
corpse interred at Dornach, upon Tuesday, the 10th of August, I do intreat
your worship may be here at Dunrobin, by 8 oclock the day foresaid, for
doing her the last honour by convoying her corpse to the said burial
place, which will do me a singular courtesy, and engage me to do the like
upon occasion; and remains, right worshipful,
Your worships servant and cousin,
Printed elegies were common at the
close of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. In 1700
Lord Elcho had the misfortune to lose his young and
beautiful wife, the result of an accident by which her dress caught fire.
He, it is to be hoped, found comfort in these lines
"Only well-grounded hopes of her
Can his excessive agonies abate,
And the two hopeful boys she left behind
May mitigate the sorrows of the mind."
Notices of death, as intimated in the press in the
eighteenth century, tended to be more interesting than the bald
announcements of a later period. The following examples are all from the
Scots Magazine of 1785. Though all the notices did not apply to
Scottish women, they were all contained in the Scots Magazine
"At Studley Green, Wiltshire, on
March 23rd, died Ann Simms in her 113th
year. Till within a few months of her
death, she was able to walk to and from the seat of the Marquis of
Lansdowne, near three miles from Studley. She had been, and continued,
till upwards of a hundred years of age, the most noted poacher in that
part of the country; and frequently boasted of selling to gentlemen the
fish taken out of their own ponds. Her coffin and shroud she had
purchased, and kept in her apartment more than twenty years."
"At Braemar, Inverness-shire, Mary
Cameron, aged 130 years.
She retained her senses to the last, and was a member of the Episcopal
Church. She remembered the rejoicings at the restoration of Charles II.
Her house was an asylum to the exiled Episcopal clergy at the Revolution,
and to the gentlemen who were proscribed in the years 1715
and 1745.Upon hearing that the
forfeited estates were restored, she exclaimed, Let me now die in peace,
I want to see no more in this world."
Not only were these interesting
tales of long-lived old ladies recounted, but just under the last notice
there is a startling tale of a poor woman who dropped down dead as she was
gathering a few chips. "Two of her neighbours who observed her fall, ran
to her assistance, but her pulse was totally stopped. On Monday she was
put in her coffin, and just as the joiner was about to do the last office
the corpse changed colour, and had all the appearance of returning to
life; notwithstanding which, they carried her to the grave and buried
At London, on August 2nd, Miss Payne
of Walkers Court, Soho, died. "On the very day she died, being in perfect
health, her nuptials were fixed upon for Sunday, which by a melancholy
reverse was the day of her burial."
On the 16th of the same month, Mary
Singleton died by a fireball which fell in the house, and as well as
killing Mary hurt her mother.
The following verses describe the
sad event :
Here lies interred the body of
a young maiden of this parish,
aged 9 years;
born of Roman Catholic parents,
and virtuously brought up.
who being in the act of prayer,
repeating her vespers,
was instantaneously killed by a flash of lightning,
August the 16th, 1785.
"Not Siloams ruinous towers the
Because above the many sinnd the few:
Nor here the fated lightning wreakd his rage,
By vengeance sent for crimes maturd by age;
For whilst the thunders awful noise was heard,
The little suppliant, with its hands upreard,
Addressd her God in prayers the priest had taught,
His mercy cravd, and his protection sought.
Learn, reader, hence, that Wisdom to adore
Thou canst not scan, and fear his boundless power.
Safe shalt thou be, if thou performst his will.
Blest if he spares, and more blest should he kill."
Miss Elizabeth Mure, in her
reminiscences, describes her fathers funeral. He died very early in the
eighteenth century. She writes : "The Magistrates and Town Council were
invited to every persons (burial) of any consideration: 1500 burial
letters were wrote, at my fathers death. The Assembly were sitting at the
time and all the clergy were asked; and so great was the crowd, that the
Magistrates were at the grave in the Greyfriars churchyard before the
corpse was taken out of the house in the front of the Advocates close."
The funeral that she describes was a
handsome one, her father being a man of position and note. She adds some
interesting information about the attire of women at funerals.
"A few years before this it had
ceased to be the fashion for the ladies to walk behind the corpse, in high
dress with coloured clothes, but formerly the chesting (that was, the
coffining of the body) was at the same time, and all the female relatives
were asked who made part of the procession."
Women in the eighteenth century
regarded a funeral as an occasion to wear their best clothes; they usually
walked to the kirkyard gate, leaving the men to follow to the grave.. If a
husband had lost a wife, the custom was for him to remain at home,
presuming he was too overcome with grief to be able to follow the
procession In 1789, Boswell, upon the death of his wife, writes
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."
So strong was the desire of Scots
folk to have a grand funeral, and so general the feeling that, if they
were poor, the Kirk Session would come to their rescue, supplying money
for the festivities out of the Kirk funds.
Adorning the dead was an important
trade; so important was the work considered (the dressing of the corpse),
that materials used for this purpose were specially protected. Acts of
Parliament were regularly passed in favour of woollens or of linen.
By an Act of Charles II. every
curate in England had to report, under a penalty of £5, all persons
being buried in woollen clothes. From the earliest days edicts were
promulgated, attempting to limit the expenditure of mourning habits. One
edict ran for "the reformation of apparel for greater estates of women in
the tyme of mourninge"; then followed in detail, according to the rank of
the mourner, what they were allowed to wear. Advertisements in the papers
of the day provide us with curious insight into the customs of the time.
We read of mantua-makers who combine the occupation of making cloaks for
the living and dressing dead corpses. Then there is one who dresses dead
corpses in all the newest and best fashions, and she possesses a stock of
At Edinburgh, a lonely graveyard at St. Leonards
Hill was apportioned to suicides. These were ordinarily buried on the
march between two counties, on mountain tops, and at low-water mark on the
The earliest registers of deaths are
those of Aberdeen, which commence in 1560, Perth beginning in 1561. Death
registers in rural parishes, generally defective, began in the eighteenth
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