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Random Notes Anent the Antiquities, Traditions, Superstitions, and Old Manners and Customs of the Borders. – XII. – Death-Bed and Funeral Ceremonies, &c.

[Kelso Chronicle Articles Contents]

   IN ancient times it was the custom to ring bells when any one was on the point of death. This was called the soul bell or passing bell, which was rung (says Grose) for two purposes – one, to bespeak the prayers of all good Christians for a soul just departing; the other, to drive away the evil spirits who stood at the bed’s foot and about the house ready to seize their prey, or at least to molest and terrify the soul in its passage; but by the ringing of that bell (evil spirits being much afraid of them) they were kept aloof; and the soul, like a hunted hare, gained the start, or had what is by sportsmen called law. 

   In many towns of Scotland another, a hand-bell, called the dead-bell, was rung after the death of an individual. This was generally done by the parish beadle, who perambulated the streets, and after each ringing made a public intimation of the death. The following form of intimation was used in the town of Borrowstowness (see Sinclair’s Statistical Account):- “An’ brethren and sisters I let ye to wit, there is a brother (or sister) departed at the pleasure of the Almighty (here he lifts his hat) called ———. All those that come to the burial, come at — o’clock. The corpse is at ———.” In the town of Hawick, at no very distant date, the dead-bell was rung. An official walked through the town, and after ringing it, lifted his hat and made the following intimation with all becoming solemnity:- “I hereby take ye to wit that ——— our brother (or sister) departed this life at — of the clock according to the pleasure of our Lord.” After giving a public invitation to the funeral, the bell was taken to the house of mourning and placed in the bed beside the dead body. The Hawick dead-bell, it appears, was made by a Dutchman of the name of IAN BVRGVB in the year 1601. 

   In the records of the parish of Ednam, I find one or two entries to the effect that “the Big Bell was mended and the Little Bell repaired,” the latter most probably being that used as the dead-bell, or for making other public announcements when Ednam was “Long Edenim,” and much more populous than now. 

   When a person died it was customary in the southern counties of Scotland wo wash and cleanse the body, after the eyes and lips had been closed by the nearest relative present. The limbs were then composed, and the body was stretched out on a board, called a streeking board, and wrapped up in a winding-sheet or linen shroud. All the cats of the house were carefully locked up, the looking glasses covered, and the clock stopped; after which the ceremony of saining was proceeded with, which was performed as follows:- One of the oldest women of the company was selected, who lighted a candle and waved it thrice round the body. This done, she took three handfuls of common culinary salt, which she put into a pewter or an earthenware plate, and placed it on the breast of the corpse, which, it was thought, prevented it from swelling, or rising from the bed of death. Next, three empty dishes were arranged upon the hearth, as near as possible to the fire. The attendants then walked out of the room where the body was laid, either to the door or into another apartment, whence they instantly returned backwards and placed their hands in the dishes, repeating at the same time a rhyme of saining. Sometimes a sieve was placed between the dishes, and she who was so fortunate as to put her hands into it was said to do most for the saving of the soul; but if they all missed the sieve it augured ill for the soul of the newly dead. 

   The dishes were placed near to the fire, as it was supposed that the soul represented a flame, and it was firmly believed by many both among the ancients and moderns that it hovered there a certain time before it took its departure to the land of shades. 

   In some localities the dishes were set upon a table near to the bed where the dead was laid, or on a bunker (long chest) close to the side of the death-bed, and while the people had their hands in them, they spaedi.e., told each other’s fortunes, practised incantations, uttered mystical rhymes, &c. On such occasions, it is reported the dead arose from their beds and frowned, and put their cold hands into the same dish with one of the company – a warning that she would soon follow the recent dead to “that bourne from which no traveller returns.” 

   The candle for saining was frequently procured from a person suspected of witchcraft, or from one who had scloof feet (plain-soled), or ringlet-eyed (cat-eyed), or long lippit (having thick projecting lips), or from the elleree or seer – such persons being all reckoned unlucky, and light procured from them was accounted fortunate in the extreme. The following lines are descriptive of some of the ceremonies of saining:- 

Thrice the torchie, thrice the saltie, 

Thrice the dishes toom for loofie, 

These three times three ye must wave round 

The corpse till it sleep sound. 

Sleep sound and frown nane 

‘Till to heaven the soul is gane; 

If ye want that soul to die 

Get the torchie frae the Elleree. 

But gin ye want that soul to live 

Between the dishes place a sieve, 

And it shall have a fair, fair shrieve. 

It was usual for one of the relatives and a stranger to watch the corpse while it remained in the house, and they were relieved by turns by another relative and an acquaintance. Of the watching was during the night it was called a latewake, or lykewake – of while the sun shone, a sitting. 

   The coffining of the body was usually called the chesting chest. or kist being the name for a coffin in most places in Scotland. Besides the assistants and male relatives it was generally women who were invited to attend. When the body had been laid in the coffin it was customary in some places to strew flowers over it. When all was over, wine or whisky, along with sweet biscuits, were handed round, when the memory of the deceased was drunk in solemn silence. n former times tobacco pipes were also presented to the company, who soon after left the house of mourning and retired to their several homes. 

   During the time in which the body remained in the house after coffining it was watched as before night and day till the period of interment. 

   Instead of giving a formal account of the customs at funerals in the days gone by, I prefer quoting a description of one which occurs in the diary to which I have had recourse so often, and which is invaluable as showing the manners and customs which prevailed nearly a hundred years ago. 

   “1785. May 10th. – The Laird o’ the Overtown died about a week since, an’ sic a company an’ gilravishin’ as there has been up at the Ha’ has been out o’ a’ decency. Howsomever, the least said is sunest mended, sae I will confine mysel’ to an account o’ the grand funeral which took place yesterday at ten o’clock, or rather at ane o’clock, for it was that time afore a’ the folk was assembled, and a’ the funeral ceremonies in use on sic grand occasions were gane through. There were twa services – ane up at the Ha’ for the gentry, an’ anither in the barn for the farmer bodies and their cottars. After the first service was owre, the coffin, a’ covered wi’ black claith an’  sparklin’ wi’ gowd an’ siller ornaments, was brought out an’ set on a lang table in the middle o’ the barn, where we were a’ assembled. refreshments in galore, consistin’ o’ sweet cakes, an’ bread an’ cheese, an’ whisky had been set on anither end o’ the table, an, till the coffin was brought in, ilka ane was at liberty to help himsel’ to whatever he likit best: the whisky seemd to be the favourite, an’ mony a gude quaichen-fu’ was drained, just to drown our grief for the loss o’ the auld Laird, poor body, and to show our respect to his memory. We whiles away the time wi’ crackin’ to ane anither, an’ tellin’ storied about the sain’s and doin’s o’ the Laird – an’ a’ to his praise – for naebody in this part of the country wad be sae hard-hearted as to speak ill o’ ony body – either gentle or semple – till he is fairly aneth the swaird. at lang an’ last the coffin was brought in, and alang wi’t cam’ the parish minister wi’ lang crape on his hat, a snaw-white handkerchief in his hand, an’ his een a’ red like as if he had been greetin’. We a’ took aff our hats an’ stood up in honour o’ the deceased. then, when a’ was composed, the minister put up a most fervent prayer, in which he improved the occasion to the best o’ his ability. ‘Amen’ was hardly out o’ his mouth when the “servers’ cam’ round us a’ wi’ the refreshments, an’ naething was spared o’ either meat or drink to make the company as blithe an’ comfortable as it was possible to be under the circumstances. The minister gaed back to the Ha’ an’ left us a’ to take care o’ oursel’s, which we did in a manner I’ll no soon forget. A wee while afore we lifted, Johnnie the elder, thinkin’ that something was required o’ him, on account o’ his standin’ in the parish, gaed away up to the coffin an’ made a speech to the company, in the course of which he made some very affectin’ remarks about the shortness o’ life, the certainty o’ death, and the virtues o’ the Laird; an’, takin’ a quaichen in his hand, he invited the company to join him in drinkin’ to the health o’ the deceased. This was done wi’ a’ due decorum, after which six stalwart bearers took up the corpse a’ carried it out o’ the barn, followed by the hale assembly, wha were soon joined by a’ the gentry frae the Ha’, an’ we a’ filed off to the family burying-place in the kirk-yard o’ Cleuchburn, about twa Scots miles away. When we cam’ to the first milestane we halted, an’ the coffin was set down on a level place o’ the muir, an’ while we a’ took a rest, quaichens o’ whisky were served round frae a keg which had been brought alang in a cart in the rear o’ the funeral. Havin’ refreshed baith our inner an’ our outer man, the coffin was again lifted, an’ the procession set forrit in the same order as afore, an’ about three o’clock we arrived at the desolate an’ neglected kirk-yard o’ Cleuchburn, where nane but some o’ the neighbourin’ lairds an’ auld residenters are now interred. The kirk-yard was nearly filled wi’ folk, an’ though we a’ couldna get a last look at the grand coffin, yet we a’ heard the mools rattlin’ on the lid, and kenned that the dust had returned to its kindred dust. when a’ was owre we left the kirk-yard and wended our ways hame, crackin’ about the events o’ the day wi’ greater glee than became the occasion, an’ mair like a party returnin’ frae a merry-makin’ than frae a funeral. When we cam’ to the restin’ place the cart an’ the keg were still there, an’ we a’ had anither drap or twa i’ the byegaun as a fareweel bumper to the memory o’ the auld Laird, and anither, of course, to the health o’ the young ane, which had the effect o’ sendin’ some amang us reelin’ hame, singin’ wi’ might an’ main some o ‘our gude Scots sangs, an’ amang the lave, ane which was owre true, viz. – 

“The maut’s abune the meal thi night 

Wi’ some, some, some.” 

To conclude the whole, there was a grand funeral entertainment up at the Ha’ for the neighbourin gentry an’ a’ the frien’s and relatives o’ the family, even down to cousins ten times removed, at which it is said that the young Laird” … … … … By some Goth a leaf of the diary has been torn out here, and nothing more can be ascertained about the great funeral feast of the Overtown, but it is not to be doubted that it would be in all respects worthy of the times when it cost less to portion a daughter than to bury a dead laird. 

   The funerals of the poor were, of course, conducted with much less magnificence and expense, but yet the desire of having a decent funeral, which was, and is to some extent still, exceedingly strong, led to much waste and woful want in many an industrious family who forgot the claims of the living in their mistaken zeal for the honour of the dead. 

   Some of my readers may be inclined to think that Peter Galbraith’s description of the Laird’s funeral is a tissue of exaggerations; but they have only to peruse the following brief extracts to be convinced that they are strictly consistent with truth, and quite in accordance with the manners and customs of his day. 

   “The whole parish is invited at 10 o’clock in the forenoon of the day of the funeral, but it is soon enough to attend at three o’clock in the afternoon.” (Stat. Account.) 

   “Every one is entertained with a variety of meats and drinks. Not a few return to the dirge, and sometimes forget what they are doing and where they are. (Ibid.) 

   “The minister advanced into the middle of the chamber, where he made a funeral oration, during which, it is to be remarked, that there stood upon the coffin a large pot of wine, out of which every one drank to the health of the deceased.” (Jorevin.) 

   “In these days, while the manners were simple, it was no small honour to be a server at a funeral. However distant any part of the parish was from the place of interment, it was customary for the attendants to carry the corpse on hand spokes.” (Stat. Account.) 

   At the funeral of a Highland chief the attendants – to the number of many hundreds – had several resting stations on their way from the mansion to the place of burial, and when they arrived at the churchyard about sunset, it was discovered that they had been so much busied in ministering to the comforts of the inner man – that the dead was entirely forgotten – and the coffin was left standing on a brae by a burnside several miles behind. (Tradition.) 

   “Our ancient funerals, as well as some modern ones, were closed with merry makings, at least equal to the preceding sorrow – most of the testators directing, among other things victuals, and drink to be distributed at their obsequies.” (Gent. Mag., 1780.) 

   I had intended to add a few notes on church yards, tombstones, &c., but I have exceeded my space already, and must defer these to a future number. 

J. G. S.      


To the Readers of the Random Notes. 

   In reply to several enquiries, and to prevent any more from being made. I have to state that both Peter Galbraith and his diary are fictions – fabricated by the writer for the purpose of bringing before the reader in as real and vivid a manner as possible the superstitions, manners, customs, &c., of the last century. 

J. G. S.      

– Kelso Chronicle, 30th October, 1863, p.3.

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