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No. IV. – On the Antiquity of Sepulchral Monuments and Inscriptions, 1st June, 1816, pp.436-443.

[Scottish Antiquities Contents]

“Antiquam exquirite matrem.”

[“Seek out your ancient mother.”]

(From the Introduction to the “SEPULCHRALIA SCOTIÆ.”)

   Respectfully inscribed to the Noblemen and Gentlemen constituting the Royal Society of Scottish Antiquaries. 


   AT a period when almost every species of literature is so assiduously cultivated and appreciated – when the diversified and multifarious ranges of antiquity are investigated with the ardour and energy of enterprise and research, it is matter of astonishment that the department embracing our sepulchral and ecclesiastical antiquities has undergone so little examination, and that the labours of the scholar or the antiquary have seldom or never been exerted on this interesting and important topic. An investigation of this nature is fraught with the greatest utility, and, if properly conducted, must certainly tend to throw much light on the earlier period of our genealogical and biographical history. 

   The life of man is finely depicted in holy writ, by “the path of an arrow through the air, which is immediately closed up and lost.”1 In a similar metaphorical view, the records of those well-earned meeds of honour and of virtue may be pourtrayed, unless some mean or other be speedily devised to give stability to that fame for which “a Hampden triumphed, and a Sydney died.” In England much hath been done towards the formation of a Sepulchralia. Their dormitories live on the page of the engraver, and their patriots breathe in the volumes of the antiquary, prompting, by their example, the laudable ambition of posterity, and inspiring then with ideas morally sublime. It were much to be wished, that a like spirit would diffuse its influence over our northern cemeteries and churches, to rescue, if possible, from the obliterating hand of time, monuments worthy of preservation, from the elegance and import of their classical designs and inscriptions, “so long as it is yet possible to trace the fast fading outline.”2 

   In this department, where is the nation that presents such an ample field for the investigation of the philosopher or the antiquary as Scotland. – On every hand her tombs and monuments lie scattered, like Persepolis in the desert, and, like those celebrated columns and colonnades, are venerably great even in ruins. “These illustrious marbles” seem to court, with melancholy expression, the recording pen of the historian and the artist, and, if properly executed, would form no mean specimen of the “Sepulchralia Scotiæ.” Let us fondly hope, that the era is not far distant, when the traveller shall not ask in vain for the graves of our Baliols or our Bruces, and that it may yet be possible to tell where the neglected relicts of our patriots and senators repose. 

   In investigating the sepulchral rites and ceremonies of any country, we are naturally carried back to the remotest period of its existence; for in that distant era, however rude their customs and uncivilized their manners, still we may trace ideas of something like a belief of immortality; and on this principle are founded the greater part of their sepulchral rites and ceremonies. The Indian of the western world arrays the bones of his fathers in his deerskin shroud, and decorates his humble dormitory with his warlike trophies. Over these is placed, with funeral pomp and ceremony, the white circle, as a monument of his former greatness; and his memory is bewailed by the women of his country.3 These ceremonies in general, assume an aspect suited to the period in which they are exhibited, and when aided by superstition or religious enthusiasm, are productive of the most deplorable consequences. Turn, for example, to modern India, what do we behold there? – hecatombs of victims immolated, from a mistaken principle of devotion, “and the funeral pile often serving to consume together youth and beauty with loathsomeness and corruption.” Undoubtedly the modes of sepulture in ancient times must have been similar, and the greatest simplicity and solemnity observed in all their ceremonies, till the infernal rites of that Hindoostanee Moloch, aided by his priests and sanctioned by their government, established it as an article of their creed, that “to burn voluntarily was to insure to the devotee a circle of uninterrupted enjoyments in a future state of being.”4 

   The sepulchral antiquities of former ages may be classed under the following divisions, viz. 

   Caves, or subterranean recesses, the earliest mode of sepulture on record amongst the oriental nations. 

   Carnes, or pyramidical piles of stones, the primary monuments or places of sepulture amongst the ancient Celtæ, the aboriginal inhabitants of western Europe. 

   Tumuli, or circular mounds of earth, raised over the more illustrious dead, and which in general refer to that period, the Roman government in Britain. 

   Lastly, Tombs, or inscribed pillars of stone, incident to almost every nation, but of a more recent origin than any of the preceding monuments. 

   In the Jewish Antiquities, we are informed, that that ancient people raised neither carnes nor tumuli over the relicts of their departed friends, but that “they invariably buried their dead in caves, denominated sepulchres, and hewn, with infinite labour, either out of the solid rock, or scooped in the bowels of a mountain, over the mouth of which was placed an immense stone, to guard the bodies entombed there from the contamination of birds and beasts of prey.” This subject is beautifully illustrated in the story of Abram and Sarah, narrated at length in the xxiii Chap. of that important history, the Genesis of Scripture. It is there mentioned, that the field, and the cave which was therein, and all the trees that were round about the field, were made sure unto the Patriarch, for a burial possession for ever. In this cave was Abram interred beside his former wife, with his son Jacob, and the place was held in the utmost veneration, through succeeding ages, as the sepulchre of the Patriarchs and their numerous offspring. 

   These caves were seldom or never adorned externally, but a profusion of sculpture was enchased upon the interior, from subjects apparently connected with the lapse and re-auguration of man into the celestial paradise. The Jewish mythology was pregnant with topics of universal interest, and the grand machinery of angels and archangels, seraphim and cherubim, were adopted as ornamental emblems on their sepulchres and temples.5 – In after times, during the regal administration of Judea, we find Tombs erected of the most costly materials, of a pyramidal form, and adorned with all the elegance that art and labour could bestow: witness the tomb of Absalom, the imperial dome-covered tomb of Solomon, and innumerable others, to be found in a collection of highly-finished engravings, recently published, illustrative of the Sepulchralia, &c. of that interesting country. 

   The Egyptians, the next people in the order of time, deposited the bodies of their Pharoahs or monarchs, after embalming, in subterranean recesses, denominated catacombs, over which were piled those mighty monuments of human ingenuity, “the ever-lasting pyramids.” 

   These pierphei, or sepulchral temples, were incrusted from top to bottom with hieroglyphic lore, representing the more prominent features of the ancient mythology of Isis and Osiris, their mystical inaugurations and transmigrations, before their final admission into the Ha’mentei, or regions of perpetual beatitude.6 The immense caves at Elephanta, are in general supposed to have been intended as the receptacle of the dead, and are of such a nature as to astonish the beholder, both from the elegance and magnitude of their designs and construction; vast figures of men and animals are sculptured in the boldest manner, and the grand effect of the relievo is altogether astonishing. the Grecians, the most refined people of ancient times, and who seem to have paid the greatest attention to their rites of sepulture, (as we learn from Dio. and Pliny,) raised at first a humble mound over the relicts of their departed friends; this tumulus, in after times, assumed a form and size proportioned to the merits of the deceased. Such a tomb is recorded to have been erected by Achilles over his friend Patroclus, and likewise in the VIth Iliad, where Andromache, speaking of her sire, replies, 

“They placed his corpse upon the funeral pile, 

Then raised a mountain where his bones were laid.” 

   The Grecians, in contradistinction to almost every other people, placed the body upon its back, with its face towards the west – an emblem of the of human life, as it does not appear that they possessed any innate ideas of a future immortality. Even in the very earliest periods of Greece, it was customary to erect tomb-stones in memory of the deceased. These, at first, were composed of the rudest materials, which by degrees, assumed a more splendid and magnificent appearance. 

   The greater part of Roman cemeteries were accustomed to be placed as near the highway as possible, in the midst of which were erected tumuli, mounds of sepulture – a custom which, in all probability, was derived Greece, as the first monument of the nature which we find erected in Italy, was that raised by Æneas over the ashes of his father Anchises and his nurse Caieta. This people adorned their cemeteries with statues and inscriptions, regulated, however, by an express law of the empire, called the “Jus Imaginum,” by which every person was prohibited from erecting statues, or other monumental record of his ancestors, either upon his tomb, or in the porticoes of their dwellings, unless the deceased had rendered himself illustrious either in the senate or in the field. The sepulchres of their more renowned citizens were frequently encircled with garlands, and crowned with coronets or chaplets of laurel, interwoven with “those flowers that love to blow amid the dead.” Before them were placed small altars, on which libations were made, and incense burnt to the manes of the deceased. These tombs were frequently illuminated with sepulchral lamps, and a keeper appointed to watch them through the night.7 Over the bust or statue of the defunct were placed the particular insignia of his house, impaled with those to whom he was spousally allied. – Such are the origin of the armoriæ gentilitæ, or family ‘scutcheons, blazoned upon tombs and other sepulchral monuments, and which served to discriminate the cemeteries of one chieftain from another, without the fortuitous aid of pleonastic eulogy. 

   In examining the sepulchral inscriptions or monumental records of modern times, however valuable, both in a graphical and historical point of view, the investigator looks in vain for that entertainment and instruction he had been accustomed to derive from the “Carmina Sepulchralia” of the Grecian and Roman anthologies. The compositions of the ancients in this department are in general characterised by a pathos and simplicity, by a tenderness and delicacy of sentiment, expressed in language at once elegant and refined. 

   Those of the moderns are frequently laboured and formal, expressed with a quaintness and an antithese which completely destroys the effect intended to have been conveyed to the mind of the reader. The Grecian epitaph boasts a superiority in this respect, over that of every other nation; the images arise before the imagination arrayed in all the charms of the most tender and pathetic description, and, like the elegies of inspiration, “warbles and bleeds in every line.” These delicate morceaus have been transfused into our language in a manner which does honour to the critical taste, and classical abilities of Cumberland, Bland, and Moore.8 One of the finest specimens of epitaphical force and elegance, to be met with perhaps in the volumes of antiquity, was that composed by Simonides, on Megistias the soothsayer, who fell gallantly fighting at the battle of Thermypolæ. 

“This tomb records a warrior’s honour’d name, 

Who nobly stood for Sparta’s fading fame; 

Tho’ past and present open’d on his eye, 

He scorn’d the impulse that forbade to die; 

Swell’d with his blood the patriotic tide, 

And, for his country, with his general died.”9 

   Various inscriptions of a like nature may be found in any page of these anthologies, and which plainly indicate the great care and attention bestowed on this species of composition by the ancients. Several beautiful expressions are to be met with in the Elegies of Tibullus,10 and in the Culex of Virgil. 

   Instances, however, may be brought from modern inscription, to prove there is a possibility of equalling ancient poets in this difficult department. In the Lusus Poetici of the learned Dr Jortin, we meet with the following beautiful example of anthological elegance: 

Quæ te sub tenera rapuerunt, Poeta juventa, 

O, utinam me crudelia fata vocent; 

Ut linquam terras invisaque lumina solis; 

Utque tuus rursum corpore sim posito. 

Tu cave Læthæo contingas, ora, liquore; 

Et cita venturi sis memor, ora, viri, 

Te sequar; obscurum per iter dux ibit eunti, 

Fidus amor, tenebras lampade discutiens.11 

Freely translated

Oh, thou cut off, by fate’s untimely storm, 

In all that youthful elegance of form; 

Had but the dart which clos’d thy silken eye, 

Laid me, oh Poeta, by thy side to lie. 

A few short years, and this frail conflict o’er, 

We yet shall meet, yes, meet to part no more. 

Conducted by the torch that love divine 

Still wav’d around thy lovely form and mine, 

I’ll seek my Poeta by that haunted wave, 

And, join’d for ever, scorn the hated grave. 

   There is not a more delicate and picturesque image of connubial love to be met with, and the sentiments it conveys are irresistibly pleasing. 

   In the Grecian anthologies various descriptions are given of their tombs and places of sepulture, from whence the following notices are extracted. 

   The body of the monument was chiefly supported by the Στηλαι, or pillars, on which were inscribed the names and relatives of the deceased, together with the tributary effusions of friends, &c., and were common to every monument of distinction. 

   The Σειξηνες, or images of Sirens, were ornaments, in general sculptured upon the tombs of poets, and newly-married person – an idea that the mournful melody of the Siren’s song would flow doubly pleasing to the manes of the deceased. – These emblems were sculptured upon tombs of Sophocles and Isocrates, and have served to soothe the pensive mind of widowed beauty ever since the days of Homer. 

   The Κξωσσος was a particular species of funeral urn, differing materially from the Ossuaria and the Cineraria. The latter were invariably deposited beneath the monument; the former was generally placed in some conspicuous situation, but most commonly on the top of inscribed pillars. This was the case with the famous Trajan pillar at Rome, which was surmounted by a Knosstos, till superstition overthrew it, to make way for statue of St Peter.12 In the Grecian mythology there was a particular spirit, or guardian angel, assigned to watch over the sepulchre of the just and good, denominated Δαιμονες Σεπυλκραλιαι, or the genii of the tomb. When the spirit of its earthly companion had undergone the nine interfusions of the Styx, the umbra of the genius (for he too was supposed be mortal) continued to hover around the spot where the terrestrial remains were interred, and to watch in silence and solitude over the ashes of the departed. The friends of the deceased poured out libations of milk and wine to the genius of the sepulchre, and scattered flowers on the tomb, rendered sacred by his presence.13 

   The barbarous nations of the north, the Danes, the Norwegians, and the Germans, though they generally consumed the bodies of their dead, yet erected cairnes and tumuli over the arns that contained their ashes, and consecrated with barbaric pomp and cruelty the rituals of their warlike chieftains. Whole hecatombs of victims were sacrificed to propitiate the manes of the deceased, and to form a competent retinue for his accommodation in the land of souls. Amongst the Boreal nations it was customary to deposit in the graves of the slain, weapons of war both offensive and defensive, but more especially the sword, to accoutre their shades for the battle in the tremendous day of Valhalla. The favourite war-horse, that had borne him to the conflict, was sacrificed on the same pile with his master, and on this spectral animal he was supposed to emerge from the confines of mortality.14 This custom seems to have been imported from the oriental regions, whence these warlike Assae are known to have migrated in ages vastly prior to the introduction of christianity, as the burning of wives with their husbands, and servants with their masters, is in general practised even at this day.15 – The sepulchral monuments of this astonishing people were, like their manners and customs, rude in the extreme; immense masses of rock piled upon one another, with fantastic figures and runic letters cut upon them, served to perpetuate the memories of their fallen heroes; and the mighty Tumbon has been piled over the ashes of whole armies, who, despising death, had rushed with a savage ferocity to the consummation of their earthly wishes. 

   In the northern parts of Britain, the cairne has always been looked upon as the most prominent sepulchral monument of the ancient Celtæ; and, whether designed as a token of infamy or respect, was accustomed to be augmented by a stone from every passing traveller. Hence the enormous size of such cairnes as happened to situated near to any place of public resort, often consisting of several thousand cart-loads, brought by voluntary contribution from a great distance.16 These cairnes were some times erected as places of execution, where the criminal underwent the awful punishment of lapidation, as we learn from the antiquarian history of the world, but more especially from the tenor of the Celtic imprecation, “Soil leam nach raibh do luath fui charne” – I wish your bones were under a cairne; and also from their being frequently called “carne vruyder ac carne lhadaom” – thief and traitor’s cairnes. The Gael addressing his chief in terms of respect, generally exclaims “Cuirdh mi clach ad charne” – I will add a stone to your cairne, in testimony of the estimation in which you, as my superior, are held. 

   In after ages, when christianity had arisen, like the sun, to enlighten the interminable wilds of Pagan Caledonia, a different mode of sepulture, from that hitherto in use, was generally adopted. Instead of the revolting idea of burning the bodies of their deceased relatives, they beheld them committed unconsumed to the bosom of their parent earth, and the four gray stones became the humble memorial of the great of other times. -These, from their rude and native shape, gradually assumed a more elegant and refined appearance, and the altar, canopy, or obelisk tomb, rose in every place of sepulture throughout Scotland.17 

   Epitaphs or sepulchral inscriptions are of the most remote antiquity. – The lacrymatories and funeral urns of the ancients were generally inscribed with these siglæ lamentations, or “mourning cypheres,” and frequently bore reference to the names and quality of the deceased. 

   The earliest mention we have of these sepulchral inscriptions, is recorded in the laws of Solon and Lycurgus, where it is expressly mentioned, “that no epitaph or inscriptions, either in prose or in verse, was to be placed upon the cippus, or grave-stone, unless the person had fallen in battle.” – Of the funereal vessels, inscribed with these siglæ, there were two kinds, the Ossuaria and the Cineraria, the one for holding the large bones, the other the ashes and half consumed fragments of the pile. These were invariably inscribed with certain symbolical characters and representations, that bore a sort of indistinct reference to the families and fortunes of the defunct, and which were used in the funeral obsequies of the illustrious Grecians. Round these sepulchral urns were inscribed the following siglæ, in Roman capitals, D.M.S – “Diis manibus sacrum.” D.O.M – “Dedit ollum merito.” O.E – “Olla emit.” D.O.A.V – “Dato olla a viro.” O.O – “Olla ossuaria.” – Several of these ancient monuments have been dug up, marked with the following pathetic sentences in characters: S.T.T.L – “Sit levis terra tibi” – May the earth lie light upon thy breast. O.M.C – “Ossæ molliter cubarent” – May his bones in peace. – After the introduction of christianity, those professing that doctrine, though they continued the Pagan siglæ, or verbal contraction, deviated considerably from the original construction and import. Thus, instead of D.M.S – “Diis manibus sacrum,” I.O.M.S – “Iovi optimo maximo sacrum,” the general tenor of their cemeterial inscriptions began with D.O.M – “Deo optimo maximo,” or H.J – “Hic jacet,” and ended with “Requiescat in pace,” as testimonials of their esteem and veneration for the memories of the deceased. 

   The earlier epitaphs made use of in this country were accustomed to be engraven upon long plates of lead, and placed around the coffin of the deceased; such was the celebrated one of Prince Arthur, mentioned by most of our ancient chroniclers, and which ran as follows:18Hic jucet sepultus inclytus Rex Arthurius.” As also those found upon the coffins of James V. King of Scotland, and his Queen Magdalen, on an examination of the vaults in Holy-rood Abbey, A.D. MDCIII;19 and which Monteith, in the II. part of his “Theatre of Mortality,” has erroneously supposed to have been cut out of the stone in the south end of these vaults. 

   Such are the general outlines of the origin and antiquity of sepulchres, with their epitaphs and inscriptions, and which present an ample range for the study of the engraver or the antiquary. For want of proper encouragement in the delineation of this interesting department, our regal monuments are become as though they had never been, and the inquisitive traveller asks in vain for the sepulchres of our illustrious countrymen, reposing in inglorious obscurity. 

   With this view, and to preserve to what is worthy of preservation, the writer of this has undertaken to publish the “Sepulchralia Scotiæ,” with etchings of those beautiful and interesting monuments of antiquity, as they exist in the various places of sepulture in North Britain. Many of these are highly interesting, both in a graphical and historical point of view, and, unless speedily preserved, will, in short period, “leave not a wreck behind.” Views of ancient churches will likewise be given, especially those which are remarkable for their style of architecture, ecclesiastical history, &c. Several of these churches, hitherto unnoticed, possess a style both of external and internal decoration, altogether astonishing. 

   Several respectable antiquaries have been inclined to place Alcluid, the ancient capital of the Strathcluyd Britons, at Dunglass, on the Frith of Clyde, and near Dunbarton. Its natural situation in some measure gives stability to this assertion, being founded upon a rock in the estuary of the Clyde, and may, without any contortion of language, bear the significant appellation Pietra Cloithe; but here the similarity vanishes, and Dunglass has no other pretension to this antiquated honour. The derivation of the names of these important stations are from dissimilar sources, and consequently imposed by different people. Alclyid, Pietra Cloithe, Aab-cluith, Dune-brittan, Dum bretain, may all be traced in the same Celtic idiom. Al-sig, a rocky cliff; and Clyd, the Clyde; Pietra is a rock; Dun, a fort; and Brettan, a people – the fort of the Britons; Dum, the ridge on the height; Bretain, the Britons. While, on the other hand, Dunglass is derived solely from the Gaelic, and signify the Gray fort, from Dun, a fort, and Ghlas, gray; so that from every argument we have yet seen adduced, Alcluyid must remain, or the Dun-brettayn, till dispossessed by some superior demonstration. 

1  Job. 

2  Fuseli’s Lectures on Painting. 

3  The Indians use the same ceremonies to the bones of their dead as if they were covered with skin, flesh, and ligaments. – It is but a few days since I saw some return with the bones of nine of their people, who had been two months before killed by the enemy. They were tied in white deer-skins separately, and when carried by the door of one of their houses, they were laid down opposite to it, till the female relations convened, with flowing hair, and wept over them about half an hour. They then carried them home to their friendly magazines of mortality, wept over them again, and then buried them with the usual solemnities. the chieftains carry twelve short sticks, peeled white; these being formed into a circle, were placed over the grave, and denominated “the white circle, or circle of remembrance.” – Adair’s History of the Am. Indians

The Musqueto Indians when they die are buried in their houses, and the very spot they lay over when alive. Their hatchet, harpoon, lances, and mushelaw, with other necessaries, are buried with them, to form a competent armoury for their spirits in the land of shades. – Lintot’s Mosqueto Indians. Chalevoix’s Travels

4  From a late investigation, it appears that the number of women who sacrifice themselves within thirty miles round Calcutta every year, is, on an average, upwards of two hundred. The Christian world may shortly expect to hear of the abolition of this opprobrium of Christianity, “the female sacrifice,” which has subsisted, to our certain knowledge, ever since the time of Alexander the Great. – Buchanan’s Let. on India

5  Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews. – Niebhund Pococke’s Travels. Bryant’s An. Mythology. Shaw’s Travels. 

6  On this belief the inhabitants of Egypt founded the whole of their sepulchral rites and ceremonies. The bodies of their dead, after being washed, were placed upon a couch in an upright posture, round which were seated the priests or patriarchs of the people. A solemn inauguration was then held, in order to know whether the deceased had deserved the honour of being laid in the pierphei, or sepulchre of his fathers. They embalmed the body, in hopes that the spirit would again revisit it, after a transmigratory period of 3000 years. These tenets, together wioth the doctrine of their Hamenti, or celestial paradise, are beautifully illustrated in the 11th Æneid of Virgil. – Vide Niebhur, Bruce, and Valentia’s Travels. Pococke’s Ant

7  Vide Nicolaus de Sig. Vet. MDCIII. – Buxtorf’s Inst. Ep. Heb. Mon. Illustra, a Fierabenolt, MDXXX. Sir Th. Brown on Ant. Fun., &c. &c. See also Hom. Il. where this species of monument is denominated Τύμβον εν Σηηα, and Virgil’s Æneid, where it is called Tumulus and Tumuli, both signifying a heap, a sepulchral mound, &c. 

8  Vide “Carmina Sepulchralia, a Reiske.” Trans. ut sup. 

9  Leonidas, the Spartan hero, immortalized by the pen of Glover, in a classical poem of great beauty and interest. 

10  Vide Tib. lib. I., eleg. VIII. beginning “Quod si fatales jam nunc explevimus annos,” &c. Also in Hor. lib. I. vol. XXVIII. Me quoque devexi,” &c. 

11  Lusus Poetici, et Mes. Obsevat. a Jortin, vol. I. 

12  Greek Anthology, 309. 

13  Vide Notes to the Genius of the Thames, 148. Servius ad Æneidos, Tom. VII., 743. Bryant, &c. 

14  Vide Keysler’s Selecta Antiqua. “Charissima vivis gladius supellex ante omnia mortuos debebat Comitari.” Gothrici et Roffi Historia. Val. Max. Tac. M. Ger. – “Klester var abolit leiddr. mid ollu reidi. 

Myth. Edd. XLIV.    

15  Buchanan’s letters on India. Hodge’s Indian Scenery. 

16  The Mercurial heaps in Greece were accustomed to be augmented in a similar manner, and not a few with stones brought from the distance of many miles. 

Dyd. Not. de Iliados, et Ody, 1542.    

17  In various parts of this country, single erect pillars of stone are to be met with, called Cadh, or Cat Cunes, “battle stones,” and were commonly placed over the spot where any celebrated leader or warrior had fallen. Innumerable monuments of this nature are to be found in every quarter, but more especially in Scotland, and her dependant islands. 

Vide King’s Mun. Antiq.   Borlasis Corn.    

18  Vide Sax. Chron. Matt. Paris. &c. 

19  MSS. in Bibl. Senatoris Edin. W. 3. 15. 

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