Gravestones and Memorials in Scotland.

Surprising as it may seem there were not many gravestones for the common man or woman before the Reformation,  only some temporary markers and perhaps the occasional `chest` type of tomb  of a local laird or merchant who could not secure a coveted space inside the kirk.  Those with status and money would be buried within the church itself, perhaps  donating a side chapel or aisle  in memoriam of their loved ones with continued use by the family. A prime example are the magnificent Queensberry Marbles the Duke of Queensberry memorial in Durisdeer Kirk. At another extreme is the cringingly sycophantic memorial to Archbishop James Sharp, murdered in 1679. Otherwise at this time most common people were buried in unmarked graves which overlaid earlier burials. Indeed prior to the Reformation the churchyard was not necessarily regarded as  hallowed ground and used for many civil or social activities including musters (wappinschaws), archery practice, fairs  and market places.

In Stones - 18th Century Scottish Gravestones, (Canongate Pub. Edinburgh 1978) Betty Wiltshire and Doreen Hunter explain in depth the treasury of Scottish monuments. They point out that the development of grave memorials reflected the stone mason`s art and was more apparent in England in the 17th century where J Weever, in A Discourse  of Funerall Monuments (London 1631)  described  the then practice

In all ages people flock to look  at monuments and ruins. ... they put us in mind of our own mortality and consequently  bring us to an unfained repentance. Neither can we pass by but with yearning hearts look upon that famed soile ...

Sepulchres should be made according to the quality and degree of the deceased person ... persons of a plebian sort shall be bvuried without any tomb or gravestone or epitaph; persons of the meanest sort of gentry a flat gravestone. Gentlemen of more eminence.... effigies and representations cut upon a terme or a pedestal, but no arms.Noblemen and princes and kings had their sepulchres raised aloft and their personages delineated, carved, embost, the full length and bigness in alabaster, rich marble .... epitaphs were only for such as were of virtue, wisdom , valour

It was only in the early 17th century that marker stones became more common amongst the relatively well-to-do in Scotland. This was both a realisation and acceptance of the reformed faith that the individual could approach God direct. It was no longer the belief and practice to seek intercession through the Catholic church. A second and important factor was the relative improvement in earnings and development of a social order. This saw the common man scrimping together money to buy a stone and have it ornamented by a mason; this also led to development of a pictorial shorthand that amongst other things, expressed the donors views, hopes of eternal life, and their trade eg merchant. As the markers evolved to one at the foot and another at the head, so did the idea that commemorative inscriptions and emblems could be applied to the head stone.  It was the middle of the17th century before the common people were able to afford to set up monuments. The larger commemorative stones of winged angels and the like beloved of the Victorians did not emerge until the 19th century.

The increase in the number of memorials after the Reformation perhaps reflects the growing importance of individual identity as well as personal wealth. The 16th and 17th centuries saw many outbreaks of plague, including the Black Death or bubonic plague, which called for very quick internment often in unmarked lime pits away from the town. Other killer diseases which flourished in the heavily populated and unsanitary slums of towns and cities were cholera,  typhoid and smallpox. These took a terrible toll, especially among the children over half of all children died before they were twelve years old. Adults were commonly dying in their early forties overtaken by sheer hard work of eking an existence, probably suffering from bouts of consumption (Tuberculosis) and the gravel ( stones in the urinary tract) which was very common through poor diet. Throughout the 17th century tens of thousands died from military service, both killed in battles and from `camp fever` (usually typhus), imprisonment and deportation as prisoners of war.

The earliest graves outside the church are usually to be found on the south side , on either side of the path and near the nave and chancel walls. As this area filled with memorials, burial spread further away from the church, around the east and then the west end. Finally, the north side was used, when necessity overcame a belief that it was unlucky and associated with the Devil. Gradually there began to be a cluster of family plots that often reflected several generations of the local community. In the the Old Dalgarnock Kirk Yard for example there are many graves of the Covenanting family  - the Harknesses.

The decoration of grave stones for the common man evolved through the 17th century as it became custom and practice to erect a stone. It reflected to some extent an increasing wealth as family graves and family monuments were commissioned, and also a gradual divergence from the strictures of the kirk.  There was also a sea change in attitudes as the Reformation and Presbyterianism took hold. This saw a change of the type of emblems that were used on gravestones. Pre Reformation they were symbols of Mortality such as the Deaths Head; skull and cross bones; Father Time; the weapons of death - bow, arrows, scythe; a corpse wrapped in its winding sheet; snakes perhaps with an apple signifying the Fall of Man. There was also the bell the `Deid Bell` as it was called, which was rung at funerals. The main church bell could be rung on payment of a fee, otherwise a hand bell was used. The Reformation ushered in an awareness of equality of man in the sight of God and the right to communicate directly with Him. The emblems then began to change to those of Immortality overcoming Death reflecting the certainty of the Resurrection and eternal life through Christ Jesus. The emblems of Immortality included  the winged soul or cherub ; angels of the Resurrection with trumpets flying through  the air; the Glory or Radiance of God  as portrayed in sunbursts and sun rays; torches which if upward and flaming were of eternal life, and if inverted the end of earthly life; the Agnus Dei; the Phoenix, and the Pelican denoting piety as it feeds its young with its own blood. There were many other used in decorations such as the rosette, the scallop shell of the pilgrim, the Crown (of Righteousness);  the palm, bay leaves and laurel  of victory over death;  the heart as a symbol of the soul and the Resurrection, and the scales for weighing the soul come Judgment Day.  Towards the end of the 17th century there was considerable use of tools of trade in the memorials and reflected the growth and eventual primacy of the Guilds over the merchants. However, their use, died out in the 18th century.

Increasing population, the industrial revolution and growth of larger towns and cities no doubt contributed to pressure on available space in kirkyards. As a result there was the development of the necropolis with its `lairs` - a purpose built burial ground often intended for the `better classes`. The common people  were buried in cemeteries, open for all denominations. Over time the wish to erect memorials would not have helped the overcrowding and has contributed to modern day demolition and clearances. What we are now seeing is the disappearance of much of our heritage as even fairly modern memorials are destroyed by vandals, including the development vandals who can hardly wait to build another parking lot or superstore. Much good work is being done by the Council for Scottish Archaeology whose web site at  is well worth a visit. It is a voluntary membership organisation which works to secure the archaeological heritage of Scotland for its people through education, promotion and support of local initiatives.

The Scottish Covenanter Memorials Association was established in 1966 with the objective of preserving the graves and memorials of the Covenanters. Also a voluntary membership registered charity it is well worthy of your support. Their web site and contact details are at .

Further Reading:

Betty Willshire Understanding  Scottish Graveyards (Council for British Archaeology Scotland 1985)
Anne Gordon, Death is for the Living. (P Harris,Edbh 1984.)

 Back to Old Mortality.


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