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Kirkintilloch Town and Parish

In 1813 a consignment of rags reached the Broomielaw of Glasgow from Ireland, being one of a number that had preceded it. In consequence of some error in the consignment papers, the rags were allowed to lie for some days, when the effluvia from them became so great as to compel the authorities to examine the cause. Every person was horrified to find that a number of human bodies had been packed among the rags, and investigatiori soon proved that the bodies had been sent to be sold to the hospital for the purposes of dissection, and that from £10 to £20 were paid for each. The Irish traffic then, of course, ceased, but in the interest of anatomical science it was necessary to procure “subjects,” and the axiom that “supply follows demand" held true here. Medical students balloted among themselves, and those chosen had to go to graveyards in town and country, and uplift or dig out the corpses of parties recently buried, and, in particular, those who had died of diseases not well defined.

Sir Robert Christison says:—“A hole was dug down to the coffin only where the head lay, a canvas being stretched around to receive the earth, and to prevent any of it spoiling the smooth uniformity of the grass. The digging was done with short, flat, dagger-shaped implements of wood, to avoid the clicking noise of iron striking stones. On reaching the coffin two broad iron hooks, under the lid, pulled forcibly up with a rope, broke oft a sufficient portion of the lid to allow the body to be dragged out; and sacking was heaped over the hole to deaden the sound of the cracking wood. The body was stripped of the grave clothes, which were scrupulously^buried again; it was secured in a sack, and the surface of the ground was carefully restored to its original condition, which was not difficult, as the sod over a freshly-filled grave mu3t always present signs of recent disturbance. The whole process could be completed in an hour, even though the grave might be six feet deep, because the soil was loose, and the digging was done impetuously by frequent relays of active men.”

As soon as this practice became generally known, however, the general public took alarm, and devised measures to defeat the surreptitious abstraction of the bodies; possibly of friends or relatives. Parties were organised to watch the graveyards night and day, and many who could afford it had their family “lairs” covered over with strong iron bars to prevent them being tampered with.

About this time a girl called Marion Cowie, daughter of William Cowie, farmer, Oxgang, observed three men in the churchyard of the Old Aisle busily digging with spades. Her suspicions being aroused, she ran down the Haw Loan Road, and gave the intelligence to the first person she met, the news thereafter flying like wildfire to Kirkintilloch and Waterside. Very soon the inhabitants streamed from these places towards the Old Aisle, but the three men had, in the meantime, disappeared. The people, however, divided themselves into search parties for the purpose of unearthing the scoundrels, who might be under hiding.

Their exertions for a while were fruitless, but at length one of them called Robert Kinniburgh or Kinney who was examining a drain, happened to tread on the hand of a man who lay concealed, which made the fellow cry out. He was urged with furious threats to tell where his two companions had gone, but indeed he had nothing to tell, as all three had acted, each for himself, and absconded on the first alarm.

The crowd, which was now very great, and much excited, was divided in opinion as to what should be done with the prisoner; some demanding that he should be hanged on a tree near the belfry of the Old Aisle, where they were congregated. Better counsels prevailed however, and it was resolved to take him to the Tolbooth of Kirkintilloch, whither he was escorted by the whole crowd. The journey was a severe one for the captive, as many were exasperated against him, and tore up the fences on the roadside to furnish weapons with which they belaboured the poor wretch at intervals. At last he was lodged in jail, and the crowd dispersed, but he was removed early next morning for greater safety, and afterwards tried for the offence; receiving a few days’ imprisonment as punishment.

The three men had managed to exhume the body, which was the object of their operations; and had doubled it up, and forced it into a sack, which they had placed against the west side of the boundary wall of the old cemetery. The two men who escaped were never afterwards captured. The body was that of Mrs. Murdoch, known better by her maiden name of Jennie Scobbie.

A tragedy of greater import happened about this period, when the inhuman deeds of Burke and Hare were shocking the ears of the people of Scotland. Arthur Walker, who was then carrier between Kirkintilloch and Glasgow, was a thriving industrious man, and had built the property known as “The Beehive” in Townhead: he went daily to Glasgow with his cart.

A simple and inoffensive old man, who was generally accounted half witted, lived in what was known as “The Back Row.” His name was James M'Kenzie, but he was known best by the appellation of “Daft Jamie.”

Jamie had formed a strong attachment for Arthur Walker, his horse, and his occupation; and was in the habit of going every night along the road to Glasgow to meet Arthur coming home; and Jamie not only returned with him, but helped him to unload his cart and deliver the parcels which had been entrusted to his care. Jamie’s services did not end here, however, for not until the horse was fed, groomed, and littered down for the night, would he consent to retire homewards.

One night Jamie went to meet his friend as usual, but he never appeared to Arthur, who came home alone. The alarm got abroad and search was made for poor Jamie in every direction, but without avail, he was never seen or heard of afterwards; and the belief then and since entertained is, that he was kidnapped and murdered and his body sold.

In St. Mary's or the “Old Church” burying-ground, the body of a Mrs. Dickson had been interred; and her son, Thomas Dickson, flesher, was keeping watch along with other friends, he being armed with his butcher’s-axe or cleaver. Hearing some sound they rushed out and saw a man clambering over the wall; when Dickson gave him a stroke with his weapon wielded with all his force, but the fellow disappeared. It was currently reported to have been a Campsie man thus nefariously engaged; as he did not reappear in Campsie for some weeks after, and then with a wooden leg.

We give the following from an active agent and eyewitness, A girl named Duncan died, and was buried in the Old Aisle. Shortly afterwards her father was told that the body had been stolen, and he became so uneasy that he went along with a friend (our informant) and exhumed the coffin which was found to contain the body all right. Very soon after a rumour spread that the head was stolen, and the father along with the same friend made another examination, this time finding the report true, for the head had been sawn off and abstracted.

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