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Scottish 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 laid in."

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 aclock,’ etc.

"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 there’s 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 woman’s 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 memento moris, 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." [Chambers’s 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 be observed"

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 Majesty’s 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, [Chambers’s 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 grandfather’s funeral, weighing eighty-seven and a half pounds—price £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 Buckingham’s 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 Duke’s 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 father’s 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 arms.

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. [Chambers’s Domestic Annals of Scotland.]

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 procession—a 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 year’s 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 £55 15s. 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 Hugh’s death to the funeral, sixteen bolls and one half, £88. (Sir Hugh’s 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 Abbotsburgh’s 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 Ravenswood’s 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 writes :—

"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,

WILL FORBES."

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 sexton’s enquiry of the chief mourner, " Captain, whaur’s 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 Scotland. Rogers.]

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 Lochnell’s 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, 1658.

"RIGHT WORSHIPFUL,

"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 o’clock 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 worship’s servant and cousin,

J. SUTHERLAND."

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 blest state
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 her."

At London, on August 2nd, Miss Payne of Walker’s 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

MARY SINGLETON,

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 Siloam’s ruinous towers the victims slew,
Because above the many sinn’d the few:
Nor here the fated lightning wreak’d his rage,
By vengeance sent for crimes matur’d by age;
For whilst the thunder’s awful noise was heard,
The little suppliant, with its hands uprear’d,
Address’d her God in prayers the priest had taught,
His mercy crav’d, and his protection sought.
Learn, reader, hence, that Wisdom to adore
Thou can’st not scan, and fear his boundless power.
Safe shalt thou be, if thou perform’st his will.
Blest if he spares, and more blest should he kill."

Miss Elizabeth Mure, in her reminiscences, describes her father’s funeral. He died very early in the eighteenth century. She writes :— "The Magistrates and Town Council were invited to every person’s (burial) of any consideration: 1500 burial letters were wrote, at my father’s 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 Advocate’s 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 ready-made crape.

At Edinburgh, a lonely graveyard at St. Leonard’s 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 sea beach.

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 century.


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