Scottish Death Traditions & Customs

[Video Research]

Registration of death was begun in 1855 when it became mandatory for any death to be noted with a civil registrar. It was really the churches of the parishes that recorded the deaths of parishioners prior to this. 

   RITES OF SEPULTURE. That tender and sincere affection which subsists among near relations and dear friends through life, hath, in all ages and countries, disposed the survivors to pay certain honours to their deceased friends, and to commit their remains to the earth with some peculiar rites and ceremonies. These funeral rites have been very different, in different ages and countries, and have sometimes varied considerably in different parts of the same country… The sepulchral urns of the ancient Britons were, for the most part, deposited under barrows, or large circular heaps of earth and stones. But as the bones of men being at full length, and without any marks of burning, have been found in some barrows, it appears, that on some occasions the ancient Britons of the south buried their dead without burning. This was the constant practice of the Caledonians, or Britons of the north; whose manner of burying their dead is thus described, by one who had the best opportunities of being acquainted with their customs: “They opened a grave six or eight feet deep; the bottom was lined with fine clay, and on this they laid the body of the deceased; and if a warrior, his sword and the heads of twelve arrows by his side. Above they laid another stratum of clay, in which they placed the horn of a deer, the symbol of hunting. The whole was covered with a fine mould, and four stones placed on end, to mark the extent of the grave.” There are many allusions in the poems of Ossian to this manner of burying the dead; from which we learn these further particulars:- That the bows of warriors, as well as their swords and arrows, were deposited in their graves:- That these graves were marked sometimes only with one, and sometimes with two stones; and that sometimes a cairn or barrow was raised over them; the favourite dogs of the deceased were often buried near them. But the most important and essential rite of sepulture among the ancient Britons, was the funeral song, containing the praises of the deceased; sung by a number of bards; to the music of their harps, when the body was deposited in the grave. To want a funeral song was esteemed the greatest misfortune and disgrace; as they believed that, without it, their spirits could enjoy no rest or happiness in a future state. 

– Caledonian Mercury, May 25th, 1771, p.1. 


   Her ladyship [Lady Lovat] contemplated the approach of death with great fortitude, and, according to the custom of many Scottish ladies of her time, made preparations for her own funeral. Not only were her grave-clothes ready, but she had been long in the habit of having the stair of her house annually white-washed and painted, in order that it might make a decent appearance to the company who should assemble at her obsequies. When on her death-bed, her son asked if she wished to be buried in the family-vault at Beaufort Castle. She answered, “Deed, Archy, ye needna put yersell to ony fash about me, for I dinna care though ye should lay me aneath that hearth-stane!” 

– Scots Magazine, August 1st, 1825, p.144. 

1  Traditions of Edinburgh; or Sketches and Anecdotes of the City in former Times. By Robert Chambers. Edinburgh, 1825. William Chambers. 


     MR EDITOR, 

   HAVING read with much interest the communications of some of your former correspondents upon the popular customs and superstitions of Scotland, (particularly those from Clydesdale and the How of Angus,) I have been induced also to draw up a few pages of a similar description, for the honour of my native district, which I now transmit for your instructive Miscellany; and which, if approved of, I shall follow up with a second and concluding article. – You and your readers will, I trust, pardon defects of style, as I am not in the habit of writing for the press; my only object is to assist in preserving those peculiar traits of our national character and customs which are so speedily wearing out under the all-pervading influence of commerce and civilization, but which, however rustic or ridiculous, we still love to associate with many pleasing and delightful remembrances. 


   Birth, marriage, and death, are important eras in the life of every man, whatever may be his rank or station; but, among the common people, they are generally attended with more eclat when the situations in life are compared. At death, many practices were formerly adopted and opinions held which are now almost forgotten. 

   Until of late years, it was not only common, but admitted of few exceptions, for a great number of persons to assemble together at night in the house where the corpse lay, and there hold the lykewake. The part consisted generally of young people of both sexes, where almost every species of rustic amusement, except singing and dancing, was entered into with avidity. Rural sports and games were adopted, and generally so contrived, as to produce forfeits, which gave a good pretext for tousling and kissing the lasses. The company was regaled with bread and cheese, beer and a dram; and the mirthful hilarity of the party was generally as unlike the occasion of their meeting as it is almost possible to conceive. A new squad assembled next evening, and the same scenes were repeated nightly until the corpse was interred. 

   When a boy about fifteen, I recollect of being one among twenty at a lykewake, and so excellent were the sports, and so keenly did they engross the attention, that I and one or two more attended two successive nights, without having had any sleep through the intermediate day. I conceive this fact as sufficiently illustrative of what was generally going on upon these occasions. The house was often so full, that there were not seats for the company; and I have seen the bed-side where the corpse lay uncoffined occupied by two or three, from the want of other accommodation. An old friend of mine related to me a whimsical anecdote that occurred at a lykewake where he was present. 

   The company being short of sitting room, two young fellows were seated on the front of the bed, where the corpse was stretched; according to the fashion of the times, one of the young men had a leathern belt about his waist, buckled over his jacket; his companion, an arch wag, recollecting that the deceased had a crooked finger, slily and gently lifted up the dead man’s hand, and fastened the crooked finger in his companion’s belt; then rising with an air of easy indifference, he walked to the door, from which, with counterfeited emotion, he called to the company that a house in the village was on fire; all got up attempting to rush out; among the rest the man on the bed-side also arose, but felt himself suddenly pulled back, and as he supposed by the dead person behind him: so powerful was the impression, that he fell backwards across the bed in a swoon, from which he was with much difficulty recovered. 

   A very strange and even wonderful story is still often talked of, as having occurred sometime in the last century at a lykewake in this country. 

   Mr William Craighead, author of a popular system of arithmetic, was parish-schoolmaster of Monifieth, situate upon the estuary of the Tay, about six miles east from Dundee. It would appear that Mr Craighead was then a young man, fond of a frolic, without being very scrupulous about the means, or calculating the consequences. There was a lykewake in the neighbourhood, attended by a number of his acquaintance, according to the custom of the times; Craighead procured a confederate, with whom he concerted a plan, to draw the watchers from the house, or at least from the room where the corpse lay. Having succeeded in this, he dexterously removed the dead body to an outer house, while his companion occupied the place of the corpse in the bed where it had lain. It was agreed upon between the confederates, that when the company was reassembled, Craighead was to join them, and at a concerted signal, the imposter was to rise shrouded like the dead man, while the two were to enjoy the terror and alarm of their companions. Mr C. came in, and after being sometime seated, the signal was made, but met no attention, – he was rather surprised, – it was repeated and still neglected. Mr Craighead in his turn now became alarmed, for he conceived it impossible that his companion could have fallen asleep in that situation, – his uneasiness became insupportable, – he went to the bed – and found his companion lifeless! Mr Craighead’s feelings (as may well be imagined) now entirely overpowered him, and the dreadful fact was disclosed; their agitation was extreme, and it was far from being alleviated when every attempt to restore animation to the thoughtless young man proved abortive. As soon as their confusion would permit, an inquiry was made after the original corpse, Mr Craighead and another went to fetch it in, but – it was not to be found. The alarm and consternation of the company was now redoubled; for some time a few suspected that some hardy fellow among them had been attempting a Rowland for an Oliver; but when every knowledge of it was most solemnly denied by all present, their situation can be more easily imagined than described; that of Mr Craighead was little short of distraction; daylight came without relieving their agitation; no trace of the corpse could be discovered, and Mr Craighead was accused as the primum mobile of all that had happened: he was incapable of sleeping, and wandered several days and nights in search of the body, which was at last discovered in the parish of Tealing, deposited in a field about six miles distant from the place from whence it was removed. 

   It is related, that this extraordinary affair had a strong and lasting effect upon Mr Craighead’s mind and conduct; that he immediately became serious and thoughtful, and ever after conducted himself with great prudence and sobriety. 

   Such are the particulars of a story, which, however incredible it may appear, I have heard currently reported by many different people, who had no opportunity of hearing it from each other. Since I began to write this paper, I inquired at an acquaintance if he ever heard the story, just mentioning Mr Craighead’s name, and the particulars were again repeated to me, such as they were impressed upon my memory twenty or thirty years ago. There seems to be very little difficulty in accounting for the death of the young man, without any supernatural interference; for a combination of compunction and terror might have seized him, (after taking the place evacuated by the corpse,) sufficient to suspend all the functions of life; but the disappearance of the other dead body does not seem to me capable of being accounted for by any natural cause; for it is by no means probable that any present would have had the hardiness to remove it to such a distance, and also subsequent firmness to keep their own secret; we must, therefore, give credence to the agency of some superior being, or disbelieve the matter at once. 

   At death, many freits are still observed, some of which are strange enough. When a person is dying, no one in the house, of whatever age, is allowed to sleep, – for this I have heard no reason, farther than that it was unlucky. It is also believed, that, when a person dies unseen, they who first discover them will die in a similar manner. When one expires, the clock is immediately stopped, and the dial-plate, covered with a towel; mirrors are also covered in a similar manner. All the cats belonging to the house are caught, and put in immediate confinement. The reason given for this is, that they would endeavour, if possible, to pass over the corpse, and the first that they crossed after would be deprived of sight. 

   When the body is dressed and laid out, a Bible is often put below its head, while a plate with salt, and another with a piece of green turf, is placed on the breast. It is also a common practice in some quarters of this country, should the corpse be conveyed to the church-yard in a cart, for some one, immediately after the coffin is put upon the cart, to say, “Now, what is that horse and cart worth?” I have been at some pains to learn what was meant by this, but never could receive any other reply but that it was the custom. Among the lower classes, the female relatives crowd about the door when the corpse is carrying out, and frequently give most audible vent to their grief; sometimes the widow will insist upon carrying her deceased husband’s head part of the way to the grave. The husband always walks to the churchyard, and lays in his wife’s head. 

   Very absurd customs of feasting on these occasions formerly prevailed. On the evening before the funeral, a number of the neighbours, male and female, were invited to the “coffining;” and immediately after the funeral, the same females and others concerned assembled to what is still termed the dairgie, probably a corruption of dirge, although the rites observed are very dissimilar. 

   What I have just now described was once almost universal, and is still prevalent among many of the common classes, at an expence very suitable to their incomes and situations in life. 

   Among those in the better ranks, such as respectable farmers and tradesmen, the company are all seated in the barn, where they partake of a good dinner, and sit for an hour or two after, drinking toddy, sometimes wine. Formerly it was nothing uncommon for the company to get very tipsy before rising from the table, but the practice of dinners is wearing out, or, when they do take place, the guests, with a decorum more suited to the occasion, rise very soon after. 

   In the two neighbouring towns of Arbroath and Dundee, the customs at funerals are very different from each other. In Arbroath, whatever the rank of the deceased, every one who appears at the funeral is dressed in black, if he has a coat of that colour – if not, in his holiday clothes; all are invited into the house of the deceased, and presented with a dram; if the person is of any rank above labouring people, a choice of wines and spiritous liquors, with a variety of cakes, &c. are on the table, for the entertainment of the guests. Two gentlemen attend to serve them, and every one walks into the room, tastes of what he likes, and immediately retires to make room for others; the number invited will often amount to two hundred, and upwards. 

   In Dundee, unless among the higher ranks, the company assemble at the door in their working clothes, weavers in dirty linen jackets, and shoemakers with their greasy aprons. This is not decorous; it shews a want of respect to the memory of their deceased friend, and indicates an indifference of mind, and deficiency of feeling on so solemn an occasion; at least such is the construction which I have often heard put upon this custom, so anomalous to the general practice on these occasions; and I beg leave to assure the nine trades of Dundee, that their funerals have often attracted the attention, but never the approbation, of strangers. No person is asked into the house, nor is any thing offered. This is as it ought to be; for, although some can afford the expence, the many cannot; and it is absurd to think of a poor widow, who has lost the support of herself and family, expending in this way what should feed and clothe her orphans while every one can easily conceive the different feelings which unite to prevent her from deviating from the general custom. 



     Carse of Gowrie, Feb. 4, 1819. 

– Scots Magazine, March 1st, 1819, p.219, 222-224. 

Queen Adelaide’s death & her final wishes gave Punch Magazine, an example to use which showed embalming was seen as something like an unnecessary extravagance; 

   In death this estimable lady manifests the simplicity and delicacy of her nature. We are given to understand that in her final letter – delivered after her decease to the Queen – she desired that, in her case, there might be no embalment of mortal clay, that there might be no lying in state, and lastly, that she might be borne to her grave by ‘her sailors’: certain of the crew of the ship in which she made her voyages to Madeira and Malta. The process of embalment – for which Egypt, in her creed, may give a reasonable motive – has always appeared to us the last miserable custom in which the mortal pomp of Christianity vainly strives to vindicate itself; a poor design to cheat the leveling worm, and set aside the universal sentence of dust to dust. It is well enough, and a part of the mortality of men, that such persons as Henry VIII. and George IV. should be filled with spices and swathed in cere-cloth, to be sweetened and preserved from decay; made mummies of departed arrogance; but for Queen Adelaide, her memory is her best embalment. She is preserved in the recollection of her abounding goodness… 

– Christian News, December 20th, 1849, p.271. 


   THE appointment of a public officer, as suggested by Mr Haden, to verify deaths and take cognisance of all relating to interment would be of the greatest service both to rich and poor. Both classes are in great measure compelled, from want of information as to details, to leave much to the undertaker, who naturally consults his own interest and recommends lead coffins and other needless and expensive items which possess the advantage to him of being very profitable. A public officer could give full information as to these details and also as to the registration of deaths, certificates for clubs and life assurance societies, removal of bodies from public institutions and the dwellings of the poor to mortuaries, and many other matters as to which great ignorance often prevails, causing much inconvenience. The cost of funerals, though much less than that of former years, might be even still further reduced with great benefit to the survivors and without the loss of any respect to the dead or diminution of the religious rites. In spite of all that has been said and written as to its hurtful and demoralising influence, the practice of retaining corpses in the same room in which people are eating, drinking, and sleeping still prevails to a great extent in this town, and health officers can only enforce removal in those cases where the deceased has died of fever or some other infectious disease, or whether the body is offensive. The custom of ‘wakes’ is still very prevalent, in spite of the efforts of the Roman Catholic clergy to suppress them, and the whole proceedings, from the time when death has occurred up to the burial of the body is frequently one scene of drunken revelry. The only means by which these and other abuses can be corrected is by placing all arrangements connected with the disposal of the dead from death to burial under the control of the State. – The Sanitary Record

– Renfrewshire Independent, April 17th, 1875, p.3. 

We have some comparisons between Scottish and Chinese customs; 


(From the Globe.) 


   Like Scotland, China has its superstition as to “watching spirits,” and the unwillingness of the Chinese to help one in absolute peril of life is explained by a belief that the last man dead always acts as a watchman of the purgatory into which, according to Oriental tradition, the spirit of the departed first enters, and from which he can only be relieved by the arrival of a fresh soul. For purposes of international comparison in this respect a strange story is told of a Highland parish. An old man and an old woman – dwelling in the same township, but not on terms of friendship (the lady, Kate Ruadh, being more noted for antipathies than attachments), were approaching the “silent land.” The good man’s friends began to clip his nails – an office performed just as a person is dying. But aware that his amiable neighbour was also on the verge of the grave, he roused himself to a last effort, and exclaimed, “Stop, stop, you know not what use I may have for all my nails in compelling Kate Ruadh to keep Faire Chlaidth in place of doing it myself.” 

– Evening Telegraph, September 12th, 1887, p.4. 

   In the statistical account of Scotland, xiv., 210, Parishes of Kilfinichen and Kilviceuen [Kilvickeon], County of Argyle, we read: “The inhabitants are by no means superstitious, yet they still retain some opinions handed down by their ancestors, perhaps from the time of the Druids. It is believed by them that the spirit of the last person buried watches round the churchyard till another one is buried, to whom he delivers his charge.” In the same work, xxi., 114, it is said: “In one division of the country, where it is believed that the ghost of the person last buried kept the gate of the churchyard till relieved by the next victim of death, a singular scene occurred when two burials were to take place on the same day. Both parties staggered forward as fast as possible, to consign their respective friend in the first place to the dust. If they met at the gate, the dead was thrown down until the living decided by blows whose ghost should be condemned to porter it.” It was the duty of the last person interred to stand sentry at the graveyard gate from sunset until the crowing of the cock every night until regularly relieved. This, sometimes, in thinly-inhabited parts of the country, happened to be a tedious and severe duty; and the duration of the “Faire Chlaidth” gave the deceased’s surviving friends much uneasiness. 

   The Chinese idea of watching the dead – a duty which amongst them devolves upon the eldest son and his brothers until the coffin is removed for interment, finds expression also amongst ourselves. Mr. Henderson, in his Folk-lore of the Northern Counties, says: “The corpse must be watched till its burial by one of its kindred and a stranger, who may be relieved, when weary, by another relation and another stranger.” In China the incense stick which is straight (emblematical of the “straight road” which the spirit of the deceased ought to travel) must not be allowed to go out lest the spirit lose its way. With us the “Saining Candle” must be kept burning during the night. 

– N. B. Dennys, ‘Folk-lore of China’ (1876), pp.23-24. 


   IN these days of funeral reform it may not be uninteresting to glance back a generation or two, and see how burials were conducted in Scotland in the olden times. 

   The innumerable superstitions so closely interwoven with the minutest details of everyday life were especially associated with the closing scenes of the earthly pilgrimage – the “lyke-wake,” or watching of the dead, and the solemn day on which the remains were carried to their last resting place in the “auld kirk-yard.” 

   As soon as the spirit left the body certain superstitious rites were carefully observed. All the doors and windows were opened to give the spirit perfect liberty to wing its flight. Looking-glasses were covered with a white sheet, lest the inmates of the house and the neighbours who gave their assistance in the performance of the last sad duties should behold some fearful sight. The clocks were stopped, to show that the deceased needed no longer to note the flight of time. When the corpse was “streekit,” a plate of salt was placed upon the breast as a charm to ward off evil spirits. In some instances separate portions of salt and earth are so employed – the latter being an emblem of the corruptible body, the salt of the immortal spirit. Dalyell, in his ‘Darker Superstitions of Scotland,’ says the salt and earth indicate, perhaps, the relics of propitiation. 

   “In days gone by, when a person died, certain individuals, termed ‘sin-eaters,’ were sent for, to come and eat the sins of the deceased. They placed a plate of salt and one of bread on the breast of the corpse, repeated certain incantations, and then devoured the contents of the plates. By this ceremony the deceased person was supposed to be relieved of such sins as would have kept his spirit hovering about his relations to their discomfort and annoyance.” – (‘Folk-Lore of the West of Scotland,’ Napier.) 

   “In the absence of satisfactory explanations, the superstitious use of salt may be referred generally to demoniac influence.” Yet “the devil abhorred salt, as the emblem of immortality.” – (‘Darker Superstitions.” 

   If the limbs of the corpse retained their flexibility, it was believed there would soon be another death in the family. I remember a farmer’s wife, where I was visiting, drawing my attention to this circumstance, in the case of her father’s remains, and, by a strange coincidence, her husband died suddenly soon after. The door of the room in which the remains lay was kept carefully closed, from an idea that if a cat should jump over the body, the first person who met it would be struck with blindness some day, or become afflicted with epilepsy. 

   A great institution in byegone days was the “lyke-wake,” or watching the dead. During the nights previous to the interment, friends and neighbours took their turn, generally in pairs, to watch beside the corpse. In some districts the night watchers were four in number. They remained till 4 a.m., when they were relieved by a fresh quartette, who undertook the “morning watch.” They were provided with whisky, lights, and tobacco. These “lyke-wakes” were very often rather hilarious gatherings, especially in the Highlands. 

   A large company assembled, when whisky and rum were partaken of to a shameful extent, and as the spirit took effect the revelry increased, till all sense of decency was lost sight of. Sometimes music and dancing formed part of these entertainments. In such instances it was considered the duty of the near relatives of the deceased to honour his memory by opening the ball! These festivities culminated in a grand entertainment at the “kisting o’ the corp.” This ceremony was usually delayed as long as possible in case the vital spark had not really fled. For this reason “the waukin” was a matter requiring considerable fortitude, and attended with no little apprehension.” Most families could relate startling legends of corpses sitting up in their bedclothes staring wildly around, and finally being restored to their friends. 

   Much more gruesome still were whispered stories of somebody’s corpse that, for dark sins committed in the life-time, could not rest in peace, but would start up in ghastly wildness, and require the presence of the minister to “lay” it. Hence the necessity for the plurality of the watchers, for the lights, and ready excuse for the “whusky” to keep up the courage. 

   A writer in a popular periodical some time ago gave a very graphic description of a Highland “wake,” at which he chanced to be present. Deceased was a gillie, and the wake was consequently one of the poorest kind, though, says the writer, “not the less typical on that account.” The inside of the sheiling was draped in white, according to the usual custom. The piper at times broke into a dirge. When he stopped, the women took up the wail. The chant consisted of an irregular verse or two, with a rhythmic chorus in Gaelic, and was slow and measured. Strong fiery whisky was steadily imbibed throughout the night by all present, with one exception, that of a young girl, a sister of the deceased. Mirth at that wake there was none, for those present were, with the one exception already noted, elderly, decent people, and the mother of the deceased, who was chief mourner, seemed to grudge the time that was not spent in mourning. 

   After it was dressed for the grave, the corpse was visited by friends and acquaintances, each of whom made a point of touching it, to avoid dreaming of it! Such was the superstitious reason given for the scrupulously-observed custom of touching the remains. But the practice is probably a relic of the ancient and widespread belief that the corpse of a murdered person would bleed at the touch of the murderer. In olden times robberies and murders were very common, and they were too often undiscovered. Every country district abounds even to this day in legends of lonely cottages where helpless women who were reputed to “have something in an old stocking,” as the saying is, were found dead from the effects of violence, and their little hoard gone. Then, again, packmen who tramped through the country with valuable wares not unfrequently disappeared from the road. In their case, of course, the body was never seen, but the place where it had been secretly buried was ever after believed to be haunted. I remember hearing of a farm, not so very far from my native place, where a patch in the corn-yard, vividly green at all seasons of the year, was popularly believed to mark the grave of a murdered packman. If the body was disinterred and awarded Christian burial, the ghost of supernatural light, disappeared; but, as may be supposed, this was seldom done. 

   When the corpse was found, neighbours and all who came in contact with it would only be too glad to touch it to prove their innocence; for the superstition was widespread, and was even alleged to be supported by Divine authority in the malediction pronounced upon Cain, “Thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.” 

   On this subject King James [VI.] in his ‘Demonologie’ says:- “In a secret murther, if the dead carkasse bee at any time thereafter handled by the murtherer, it will gush out blood, as if the blood were crying to the heaven for revenge of the murther, God having appointed that secret supernaturall trial of that secret unnaturall crime.” 

   By the custom of Germany, the suspected person put two fingers on the face of the deceased, then on the wound, and afterwards on the nail, in presence of a priest, who adjured him to appeal to Heaven. 

   In many other countries the same belief was entertained, and alleged instances given in their records in which it had really happened. It was, however, a formidable and precarious test, fraught with danger to the innocent, and release to the guilty. 

   But there were other visitors to the house of mourning. Had a child been born with what was called a cherry or strawberry mark upon its face, the spot was sure to disappear if rubbed by the dead man’s hand. Wens [cysts] were also curable by the same process, the idea being that as the hand of the dead man wasted away in the silence of the tomb so would the tumour gradually decrease. Again, ague might be removed by burying under the threshold a bag containing the [parings] of a dead man’s nails and some of the hairs of his head. So extraordinary were the beliefs of a credulous age. 

   When visiting the remains it was customary to make some remarks concerning the deceased, such as  “He’s richt like himsel’,” “She’ll be a sair missed ‘oman,” or in the case of a child or young person – “Peer thing! he (or she)’s weel awa’ fae a weary wordle,” the latter being a homely rendering of the famous saying – “Whom the gods love die young.” 

   When a death occurred the bees had to be told of it, and a bit of crape put on the hive, lest the useful little insects should take offence and leave the place. 

   One or two of the very near relatives had a handkerchief cut out of a corner of the shroud, and in many cases the initials were marked with a hair from the head of the loved one who had gone before. This touching relic was carefully cherished in memoriam, and only used on special occasions, such as Communion, Sabbaths, baptisms, &c. 

   The funeral was a great affair, and entailed a heavy expenditure on the surviving relatives. What was known as a “decent burial” required a lavish profusion of eatables, and, what was worse, liquors of various kinds;.. 

   Far and near invitations or “warnings” were given, and as generally two-thirds more were invited than could be accommodated in the barn, which was usually set apart to receive the “company,” relay after relay was entertained in regular succession. The invitations were issued for ten o’clock, a.m., but, as the “liftin’” did not take place till one or two in the afternoon, it will be obvious that there was ample time for the mourners to get very much “the worse” of the potent liquors they so freely indulged in during the interval. The order of refreshment was as follows:- On arriving at the barn door each person was met by one of the chief mourners, who handed him a glass of whisky and a bit of “burial-bread” – generally shortbread or currant bun. When he had drunk the contents of the glass he was led to a seat and presented with another. His next proceeding was to help himself to a pipe and tobacco from an abundant supply provided by the family of the deceased, and placed on a table near the door. Presently a service of strong ale, with cheese and bread, was next handed round, followed later on by toddy, brewed in water pails!.. 

… Strong drink at funerals is now almost, if not altogether, unknown, and the dark superstitions which so greatly added to the “Gloom of the Shadow” are well-nigh forgotten… 

   In more remote times it was customary to carry the coffin on hand spokes, “as it was believed that no horse would ever thrive which had once drawn a corpse.” “It was a custom with some to burn the straw on which a dead body had lain, and to examine the ashes narrowly, from the belief that the print of the individual’s foot who was next to be carried to the grave would be discovered.” – (‘Old Customs,’ Guthrie.) 

   There was a widespread prejudice against “burial on the north side of the kirk, that portion of the burying-ground being devoted to the interment of unbaptised infants, excommunicated persons, or suicides.” In 1649 an Act of Assembly was passed against “the groundless custom of not burying at the back of the kirk.” 

   When the church bell was tolled at the funeral it was usual, in Aberdeenshire at least, to change the usual solemn funeral knell for a lively peal, more suitable for a wedding than a funeral, just as the corpse was borne through the churchyard gate. The reason for this strange performance was that at that moment evil spirits would be very busy annoying the spirit of the departed, and the bell ringing, it was believed, would frighten them away. 

   But the committal of the body to its kindred dust did not complete the funeral obsequies,” says a writer on the subject. “A very important rite yet remained. This was the “draigie,” a term derived from the word “dirgie,” conspicuous in one of the chants for the dead in Catholic times. On retiring from the churchyard the whole company withdrew to the village inn, not to lament over the memory of the deceased, but to have a handsome refreshment. Sometimes the “draigie” ended in a free fight. 

   The following is taken from the Presbytery records of St Andrews:- “1654, December 21. – The brethren, in their several charges, are exhorted to take notice of Dirgies after burialls, for suppressing them.” – Jennie M. Laing

– Annandale Observer, January 17th, 1890, p.4. 








   In Scotland till of late prognostications of death were superstitiously entertained. When a tallow candle shed grease over the edge it was held to betoken that the person to whom it was turned about to die. When death entered a house the clock was stopped and the dial plates covered. The mirrors also were veiled, and on the breast of the dead was laid a small vessel with earth and salt. The “latewake” or watching of the body was practised till about a century ago. As the vigil was continued day and night, one party of watchers relieved the other. Solemn silence was enjoined, but liquor drinking was unrestrained. Most all late wakes terminated in a banquet on the evening preceding the funeral. The festivities closed with the funeral dance with bagpipe music. Funerals were too often attended by a degrading dissipation among all classes. At the funeral of an ordinary merchant, or farmer, often £30 were spent on “shortbread, wine, and whisky.” Even the departed comforted their later hours by contemplating those miserable funeral orgies. Dean Ramsay relates that an aged spinster lady in Strathspey, when she was on her death bed, called to her bedside her grand-nephew and heir and affectionately charged him that as much whisky was to be used at her funeral as had been drunk at her baptism. Unaware as to the extent of the potations on the earlier occasion, the heir allowed each one who attended to drink what he pleased. The result was something which the aged gentlewoman could not have foreseen without emotion. When the funeral party reached the churchyard, a distance of ten miles from the place of starting, the sexton’s inquiry to the chief mourner, “Captain, whaur’s Miss Kitty,” aroused the company to the recollection that in resting at an inn they had there left the body on a dyke and had started without it. At the funeral of the Hon. Alex. Fraser of Lovat, in 1815, several persons overcome with drink fell into the vault; and the carousals which attended the funerals of the Chisholms were accompanied by some fatal incidents. The funerals of Highland chiefs were attended by thousands, the procession extending to miles. At these processions were chaunted at intervals the coronach or lamentations. Poured forth by an hundred voices the coronach awakened the echoes, and as an expression of tragic grief was singularly effective. At Highland funerals the coronach was latterly superseded by the pibroch. One might be permitted to conclude from a notification of the register of the united parishes of Glenorchy and Inneshail that people lived longer last century than now. “August 24, 1790 – Baptised William, son to John Macpherson, piper. At the baptism were present the father and mother of the child, the grandfather and grandmother, and the great grandfather and the great grandmother, the two last strong and vigorous.” However the annual death-rate is considerably lower this century than last one. In 1741 the death-rate in Edinburgh was 34 per 1000. The mean mortality of the city now, as derived from the Registrar-General’s return, is 24 per 1000. 

– Musselburgh News, March 21st, 1890, p. 3. 

This next article is from self-righteous-to-the-max Walter R. Paton. He does, however, cover some of the varying customs surrounding death in Scotland, with only the lack of temperance being his main gripe. 





   It is well that the practice of having services of cake and wine and spirits at encoffinings and funerals has been all but stopped through a healthy public temperance sentiment springing up. It is difficult for the poor to provide the eatables and drinkables, and the custom exposed many who attended funerals to the unpleasant charge that they only did so because of the service of cake and spirits, and that they never attended where there was no service. I have often had to face much bitter, biting opposition by trying to stop these practices; but I succeeded with all but those who were in easy circumstances, and were too stubborn to yield to my appeals. I have only once seen a sort of sensible, reasonable service, and it also illustrated the cause of and necessity for in some circumstances there being some such service or provision made. It occurred in the parish of Tynron, near Thornhill, Dumfriesshire, Scotland. It was at a farmhouse, and the road leading up to it was continued right along the front of the long steading. In a line with the gable-wall was a dry-stone dyke with a gate crossing the road between the gable and dyke. In front of the long steading there was a dry stone dyke running parallel with the front of the houses, and forming the farm close, say twenty feet wide, and also enclosing one side of the garden. Along the front of the house and also along the dyke opposite to it planking or boards were placed as high as a kitchen table. On these tables were arranged all sorts of breads and beverages, spirits, wines, beer, milk, water, coffee, tea, and piles of buttered bread, home-baked cakes, scones, bannocks, and all sorts of baker’s fancy breads. No person was asked to partake of these foods, but everybody could take according to his tastes and necessities. Some of those attending the funeral had walked seventeen miles, and were consequently ready for a substantial and sustaining refreshment. 


   I regret to state that in sensible Scotland, in some localities, there still lingers what I think ought to be described as a profane service. There was at first at the house of the dead a service of reading the Scriptures and prayer. Then followed what was called “the lifting of the corpse,” which was taken, according to distance, by bier or a hearse to the grave, and there silently laid in its last bed. When the grave was “filled in,” the undertaker called to all to go to the church that night. No schoolroom nor hall large enough was near, and, as parties arrived at the church, the baker and the publican, having charge of the service, arranged the people in alternate seats, one seat filled and one left empty to serve as a passage for operations. When the entire company had been so seated, the undertaker would step into the church and call out the name of the minister who was desired to conduct the devotional services – reading of the Scriptures and prayer. When these were over the baker carried round a large tray loaded with what was significantly called “funeral bread” – spongecake shaped like a cookie, but more flat; the publican followed him with a large tray literally filled with glasses containing port wine, sherry wine, whisky, and brandy. All the company appeared to be immediately engaged in a huge coughing match. Every one present seemed to take bread or a spongecake cookie, only the total abstainers passing the glasses filled with wines and spirits. When the bread had been munched and the glasses carried to the Session-house, the undertaker again appeared in the church and actually called upon the minister to “return thanks!” That was a provoking part of the service. It might have been “engage in prayer” or “close the service,” but to call on a minister to return thanks for parties having partaken of one glass of what might before the close of the day lead to many of them being beastly drunk was rather sore. 


   Often I have been vexed for a young man, say of seventeen years of age, whose father had been laid in his grave, having in accordance with the tyranny of a cruel custom to get to his feet, glass of wine in his right hand, and call out – “Here’s a’ the company’s very good health, and I thank you all for your presence.” I was frequently vexed and grieved to see a minister tossing off his glass like the greatest toper present. In the interests of all that is sacred I felt moved to direct and uncompromising rebellion against that profanation of the House of God. It was at times specially revolting, for example, when it occurred on a Monday scarcely one short day after we had been in the very same seats commemorating the Lord’s death. As a Free Church minister the control of the building was so put into my hands that I had full power to prevent such a gross desecration of sacred things, a degradation of holy feelings, an outrage upon Christian propriety, and a foul dishonour to the Church; but the opposition, the bitter feelings, and the hate that my veto would have called forth made me hesitate, not from any unwillingness to face and fight and calmly endure it all, but for the sake of those who would have given themselves up to be triumphed over and trampled upon by such unChristlike feelings and actions. 


   I did, however, vow to face and fight and triumph over all such fears and consequences rather than allow the new church to be so used, and I kept that vow. On one occasion I wrote to our parish, U.P., and our F.C. ministers at Strathavon, asking them to agree to intimate with me – all doing it on the same day – on a Sabbath to be named, that as Sessions we earnestly recommended that the custom of offering cake and alcoholic liquors at encoffinings and funerals should be discontinued. Not one would agree to join me in so doing, and I had at last to make the urgent appeal upon my own personal responsibility. I have mentioned that vile custom to many persons, but not one had ever heard of such a practice, all had difficulty in believing such a thing to be a possibility, and every one said with more or less of warmth – “I would not tolerate such a thing even once.” 


   When I was only a big boy I remember being one of a party of young people who “sat up” with a corpse. It was that of an aged woman named Tibbie Glover. We sat from ten or eleven o’clock till daylight. Tea was prepared for us, and we partook of it before we separated for our respective homes. What specially impressed me was the utter absence of feeling and deportment that might be expected in such close proximity to the dead. For an hour or so at first there was an awe-struck, grave, solemn feeling; then some one of the company would drop into sleep, and perhaps snore, and the previous tension and seriousness probably prepared for the greater levity, which, when it did begin, was like commencing to laugh in church, or like the letting-out of water, almost certain to get worse and worse, till before separating in the morning there would be from feelings of regret, remorse, and shame an understanding that no one present was to tell any person of the night’s levity and goings on beside the dead. Parties so sat up with the corpse on every night that intervened between the decease and the interment. In a country house, so long as the corpse was not laid in the coffin, it was in some danger of being attacked by cats, rats, and mice, and hence up till the encoffining had taken place there was some excuse for and explanation of the “dead watch,” but after that it was a delusion or superstition, and a source of much evil. 


   A service of cake and alcoholic drink at an encoffining was much more objectionable than the having of such at a funeral. I had always a suspicion that such a service was but a distant relation of the Irish wake, and at last I had clear proof of it. The mother of a family had died. The father was not a teetotaller. I got a chance of appealing to an elder son against having spirits at the mother’s funeral. He said that was what he wished, and he had had a long talk with his father who at once objected, stating that they had had such a service at the deaths of several he named, and if they had no such service at her funeral folk would say it was because they did not love her and respect her memory. That was a clear confirmation and an honest confession of what I had long suspected as being the truth, viz., the lingering remnant of the superstition that a service of cake and spirits is necessary to show respect for the dead. 


   Another miserable superstition is that it is not right – is unlucky – if all those who are present where a corpse is do not touch the dead brow with a hand and kiss it with the lips. In cases of infections diseases such practices are of a criminal character, and are sheer fatalism. The parties keeping up such customs, on being cautioned against doing so, may often reply – “O, if we are to take it (the disease), we’ll take it whether we do these things or not!” In two instances, and in different homes, I have seen the corpse of a child that had died of diptheria kept exposed or uncoffined till another child who was ill and dying was ready to be encoffined. No matter how infectious the trouble that had caused death might have been soft spongecake bread was built on plates, and exposed on a dresser or table ort chest of drawers, it might be only a few feet from the dead body, and after having sucked in or imbibed germs of disease for hours or days, it was handed round to and eaten by the parties who had attended the encoffining or the funeral. Such practices are an outrageous violation of all hygenic or health considerations. I often gave much offence by declining to partake of anything either at encoffinings or funerals. Services at encoffinings should be conducted by elders, for they frequently become very vexing interruption to a minister in his pulpit preparations. Yet when the service is purely of a spiritual character an encoffining often gives a minister one of the best opportunities of making impressions that may be eternal. 

– Evening Telegraph, June 22nd, 1898, p.4. 



   The fourth lecture of the public course on “Survivals in Belief and Ritual among the Celts” was delivered on Saturday by Rev. Dr George Henderson in the Greek Class-room of Glasgow University. It dealt with the funeral ritual and rites pertaining to death and the dead. It was necessary at this stage, said Dr Henderson, to bear in mind the noble words of Goethe that only a part of what is important is useful; in order to possess a thing completely, to have full mastery over it, one must study it for its own sake… An old rite of milk baptism and the simulating of the dead as living was touched upon. Discussing the ritual of the dead among the Celts, Dr Henderson asked whether several theories of the soul might not be inferred from the various practices and old customs known to have existed. Reserving customs pointing to the Elysian theory of the soul, as well as such as might point to a possible sidereal theory for another occasion, he specified many rites which were explicable on the earthly theory. Some of these might not be Celtic in origin. Yet the inconsistencies of folk belief were notorious, in no province more so than that in which the folk-mind attained to the finding of the soul. The earthly theory was connected, chiefly but not exclusively perhaps, with interment. Old death dances and curious practices at lyke wakes were discussed; the “tathaich” or “coming back” of the spirit was instanced; also Faire Chlaidh or churchyard sentry incumbent on the spirit of the last buried. The liturgy of lustration, the setting aside of water for the dead, was compared with similar customs in Greece and elsewhere. Beliefs connected with the shroud were spoken of. The coronach, the “druidsi,” the “Coscais,” the Highland “Aog,” the Breton “Ankou,” the “Sin-Eater” of Wales, the Highland custom of putting salt on the corpse, a rite widely diffused elsewhere – all these were practices which pointed to the lively belief that life was not extinguished with the mysterious corporeal change of death. A thought connection of the activity of folk-spirit was here discernible; the dust of antique time lay thick around these rites. If some of these were explicable on the earthly theory of the soul, they included the continuance of life as a protracted duration; on one view of the water left apart for the dead such continuance was at one time felt to be dependent on earthly support. There was likewise an inner content which in symbol pointed to the idea of continuous and active spirit. The virtues of the dead were transmissible to the survivors through sacrament. 

– Inverness Courier, March 19th, 1907, p.4. 


   In Scotland, the dead bell has served its day and generation, and being no longer regarded as an article of utility, it is now preserved in museums. In days when newspapers were much less numerous than now, intimation of death was made by means of funeral letters (in small towns this means is still in use) – a method which itself had antiquated the custom of giving notice by means of the dead bell. This was usually done by the beadle or church officer, who walked through the streets at a slow pace, stopping at intervals to ring a small bell termed the dead, passing, or skellat bell. He then uncovered his head, and, with an air of great solemnity, made the following intimation: “Brethren and sisters, – I hereby let ye to wit that our brother [or sister], [name, address, and occupation] departed this life at — of the clock, according to the pleasure of the Almighty God, and you are all invited to attend the funeral on — at — of the clock.” 

   In her delightful “Personal Recollections,” Mary Somerville refers to various customs prevalent in Burntisland a century ago. “Upon the death of any of the townspeople,” she writes, “a man went about ringing a bell at the doors of the friends and acquaintances of the person just dead, and after calling out ‘Oyez!’ three times, he announced the death which had occurred. This was still called by the name of the passing-bell, which in Catholic times invited the prayers of the living for the spirit just passed away.” In some places (for example, Jedburgh) the officer had to make the announcement at once, no matter how unseasonable the hour. Doubtless this method of intimating a death was somewhat primitive, but it served the modest wants of the period. 

   When he had completed his round, it was customary for the bellman of Hawick and other places to take the bell to the bereaved home and place it in the bed in which the corpse lay. This was in consequence of a gross superstition, and it was considered sacrilegious to take away the bell until the body was removed to the place of interment. In some places the services of the bellringer were again required on the occasion of the burial. He then lifted the bell from the deathbed, and walking in front of the bier, gave notice of the approach of the funeral procession by intermittent tinkles. Such was the custom in Jedburgh until about a century ago, and it also prevailed at Polwarth, in Berwickshire, where the bell was rung in this manner in the belief that it would “frighten away evil spirits.” 

   As the intimation made by means of the dead bell was understood to be a general invitation, funerals were largely attended. It is not now the custom in Scotland for women to attend funerals, but then it was not uncommon for female relatives to follow in the rear of the cortege as far as the churchyard gate, where they usually halted and dispersed. 

   When this time-honoured custom ceased in Kilmarnock, “Kilmarnock, 1639,” was handed over to the charge of the townclerk. In Hawick the custom was in vogue until the early part of last century. The dead bell, which is preserved in the Archæological Society’s museum, was made in Holland, and bears in relief round the neck, “R.S.I.D., Hawick,” while round the rim are the words: “Ian Burgus hivis heft my gegote, anno 1601” – “John Burgus-house made me in the year 1601.”1 The passing-bell of the neighbouring town of Jedburgh is also preserved in the museum there, and bears an inscription to the effect that it was made by John Meikle of Edinburgh in 1694. It is somewhat damaged in consequence of having passed through the fire which destroyed the old museum in 1898. Doubtless there are numerous memorials of the obsolete custom in Scotland, but in many cases the bells would unfortunately be so little respected that when the custom lapsed they would be regarded only as old metal. 

– Fraserburgh Herald and Northern Counties Advertiser, July 28th, 1908, p.6. 

1  “In modern Dutch, Jan Burgus’ huis heeft mij gegoten – i.e., John Burgus’ house hath me made (literally begotten) in the year 1601.” – ‘Transactions of the Hawick Archaeological Society’ (1863) 



Study of Origin and Development. 


   The study of practices surrounding death and burial throughout the ages sounds a lugubrious occupation. As treated in a recently published volume, “Funeral Customs: their Origin and Development” (T. Werner Laurie: 16s), the author of which is Mr Bertram S. Puckle, it is one of singular interest and even, in certain aspects, fascination. 

   It is a study that carries us back before the ages of writing and printing. Primitive graves and their contents throw valuable light on the manner in which our far-off ancestors buried their dead, and on their attitude to the greatest of all mysteries, death itself. It is also a study covering an immense variety of themes. Mr Puckle, for example, who has consulted an amazing number of authorities, old and new, devotes chapters to the provisions of Nature, death warnings, coffins, wakes, mourning bells, funeral feasts and processions, burial places, “body-snatching,” State and public obsequies, cremation, embalming, epitaphs, and mourning rings and cards. 

   Has Nature her undertaker? Certainly she has – in the person of the sexton beetle, which is dressed in a conventional garb of black, and equipped with a highly serviceable spade. As Mr Grant Allen reminds us in his fascinating “Nature’s Workshop,” the beetle, or Necrophorus mortuorum, proceeds to excavate around a body till, by a process of gradual undermining, the dead animal sinks into a hollow thus prepared for its reception, the work being completed by piling the earth neatly on the top. To quote Mr Puckle, “It teaches a lesson that burial is a natural method of disposing of the dead.” 

   In early days in [Britain], the bodies of the poor were committed to the grave practically naked, or at best wrapped in a shroud of linen, and only the prosperous were allowed to be “chested,” as it was called. In 1666, an Act came into force making it compulsory for all persons to be buried in a shroud composed of woollen material in place of linen. This law, we learn, was designed to assist the paper trade. 

     “We are told that as a result of this law, it was computed that no less than 200,000 lb. of rag were saved from corruption in the grave. In order to enforce the regulations, a heavy fine was imposed for non-compliance, but the gay decking or the corpse is a custom which dies hard, and persons of means were often found to pay the penalty rather than submit to what they considered an indignity.” 

Many cases are on record where a coffin has been purchased during the lifetime of a person of eccentric habits, and often served as a bed. “It is well known that Madame Sarah Bernhardt kept a coffin, and was photographed in it in her boudoir.” In Ireland it was once the custom to remove the nails from a coffin before lowering it into the grave, “in order that the dead might have no difficulty in freeing themselves on the Day of resurrection.” The origin of the practice of burying weapons and utensils with the dead is obviously the outcome of the belief that the departed spirit would require such material necessities in the “after life.” Referring to perpendicular burial common in the East, Mr Puckle observes that it is not unknown in this country. 

    “Ben Jonson was buried in this manner in Westminster Abbey. The reason in this instance would seem to have been an economy of space. It was at one time supposed that the small stone covering his remains had led to this tradition. In order to settle the matter a faculty was granted for the opening of the tomb, when it was found that the body was upstanding, as it had been supposed.” 

   The subject of cremation, as opposed to earth-burial, has been a topic of discussion in our correspondence columns of late. Mr Puckle remarks that “a natural horror of fire is the first obstacle to be overcome if cremation is to become a general practice.” He also points out that a strong argument against cremation is the incentive it affords to crime. The first cremation at Woking took place on March 26, 1885, the body being that of a woman. Three years later nearly 100 bodies had been dealt with. 

   The now abandoned custom of presenting mourning jewellery in memory of the dead was once a very general practice. In the Middle Ages, and later, “mourning rings” were frequently mentioned in wills, a certain sum of money being set apart for the purchase and distribution of these mementos to the relations and friends of the family. In Shakespeare’s will, for example, sums of money were mentioned for the purchase of rings for several of his friends; and Izaak Walton, in 1683, willed rings as “a friend’s farewell,” the cost of which he specified as 13s 4d each. 

   Those who essay to break down conventions sometimes meet with unexpected opposition. 

    “The scene of the following incident was a house in one of the “best parts” of a well-known London suburb. 

    A death had taken place in the family, and it had fallen to the lot of the eldest daughter to make the arrangements for the funeral. 

    She asked for a plain elm coffin without any ornaments. 

    “Elm,” said the horrified undertaker, “but you can’t have anything but polished oak in a road like this.” 

   A somewhat gruesome chapter deals with body-snatching, which is accompanied by a picture of the two notorious “Resurrection Men,” Burke and Hare. Reference is also make in this chapter to the celebrated case involving the theft of the body of the twenty-fifth Earl of Crawford from the family vault at Dunecht – a mystery that has never been completely solved. 

– Aberdeen Press & Journal, January 27th, 1927, p.3. 

The first crematorium in Scotland was that over in Glasgow’s Western Necropolis, in Maryhill, in 1895 by the Scottish Burial Reform and Cremation Society. Those “cremated” previously to this point in Scotland were likely to have been those burned post-strangulation as witches or warlocks. 



   Since 1657 it has been the custom to toll a funeral knell on the famous Forfar bell “Lang Strang” at the burial of a member of the Strang family. Yesterday that custom was observed for what will in all probability be the last time. The funeral was that of Jessie Strang, aged 87, widow of George Scott, mason. Mrs Scott was the last member of the Strang family left in Forfar. The bells were gifted to the town in 1657 by the brothers Strang, who had built up a flourishing business in Stockholm, from where the bells were shipped to Forfar via Dundee. According to tradition, the Dundee people extracted the tongue of the large bell and threw it in the Tay, and further demanded that Forfar should buy the foreshore over which the bell would have to be conveyed. It is reputed that it was from this that the thoroughfares in Forfar and Dundee were named the Forfar Loan and the Dundee Loan. The bells were eventually placed in the tower of Forfar Parish Church, where they do duty to this day. 

– Scotsman, May 29th, 1931, p. 16. 






   In the 18th century it was a dangerous thing to be ill, an expensive thing to die, and sometimes ruinous to be buried, for the cost of a funeral might be as much as a year’s income. It was once remarked by an English officer that a Scottish funeral was merrier than an English Wedding. Feasting was usually lavish and prolonged, and indulgence in drinking was common. It is recorded of a man on returning from some function that he was not sure whether it was a marriage or a funeral he had attended, but he enjoyed it in any case. The success of a funeral used to be measured by the amount of drink consumed, and one Highland gentleman used to boast that his mother’s funeral had been the finest in the parish, judged by the liquor consumption. Refreshments – cheese, bread and drink – were served before starting, and at every halt on the journey. If a bier had to be carried a long way by relays of men sometimes a cairn was set up at a halting place after a service of refreshments. 

   Many strange stories are told about olden funerals. At the funeral of the mother of Lord President Forbes of Culloden the party arrived at the grave to find that the corpse had been left behind. At one time, it is to be feared, funerals were orgies of drinking, and Neil Munro tells somewhere of a coffin which had been left at a public-house door where the procession had halted and which was not missed till the cemetery was reached. It is not recorded whether on this occasion the mourners were accompanied by a minister, but in any case there is no suspicion of tippling being common outside the humble people. Ministers might have their lapses but not at interments, and, though demissions and depositions were frequent among them at one period, it cannot be said that their conduct at funerals ever conducted to these results. 

   At one time ministers would attend only the obsequies of their own flock, but in most cases a less rigid rule is now observed. In the Highlands funerals without ministers were once common, but later their services were seldom dispensed with. It is rather strange that though religion entered intimately into almost every event in human life, there was one occasion when it was strikingly absent, viz., at funerals. The old savour of popery still hung suspiciously round death or burial, and there was a dread lest any religious act should countenance the superstitions of the past. So funerals and burials were treated as purely civil acts, and no religious service was permitted. Religious services at burials never found favour in the church. They were discouraged both by Knox’s First Book of Discipline and the Westminster Directory. The Westminster Assembly maintained that the burial of the dead was not part of the work of the minister like baptism and marriage, but when a minister was present he might give words of exhortation to Christian friends attending. If the minister was present he had no professional part, and his presence was not essential, though after 1700 it was usual. The only recognition of religion was in the long and copious graces, and thanks returned for the refreshments. The bread, cheese and liquors were preceded by a grace and followed by a thanksgiving. So it was by way of sanctifying the feast, and not of solemnising the burial that prayer was heard at a funeral. These long graces were said by any sedate person, such as an elder, or the minister, if present. gradually the presence of the minister became a matter of course, and the prayers became more elaborate. When funeral repasts disappeared, the devotional exercises, which were originally graces over food, became the service over the dead before the body was removed. 

   From the moment of death till the departure of the funeral procession the corpse was watched night and day by parties of friends and neighbours. Silence was observed, but frequent refreshments were received. Where such lyke-wakes were observed it was sometimes sarcastically remarked that the friends of the departed watched the dead body to keep evil spirits away, and frequently caroused to keep their own spirits up. 

   There was usually a lavish feast on the evening preceding the funeral at which the minster pronounced a lengthy blessing. Friends came from far and near to pay their last respects to the memory of the departed and their last attentions to his cellar. The bellman used to perambulate the streets announcing the name and address of the deceased with the tinkle of the “dead-bell” and inviting all to be present at the interment. If any one were absent it was considered discourtesy to the dead, an insult to the living, and a gross neglect of Christian duty. A funeral was a great occasion for the poor and vagrants. Professional beggars used to swarm to both marriages and funerals. After the guests had partaken of the refreshments “before lifting,” the poor participated in the food left. Old household accounts show that their share in post-mortem charity was considerable. The expenses for mourning, food and drink rose to vast sums. The custom of ringing the bell at funerals was common in Scotland before the reformation and continued afterwards. As the procession passed on, the kirk-bell, hanging from a tree, was jerked in fitful tolling by the beadle. It may be that this custom, like the ringing of church bells, originated in the superstition that the sound of bells scared away evil spirits. The charge for tolling the church bell usually went to the fund for the poor, but in 1730 a court case decided that the fees for the ringing of bells at funerals did not properly belong to the fund for poor relief, but might be used for the maintenance of the church fabric. In the procession the beadle went in front tinkling the “dead-bell.” After the interment the friends returned to the house to partake of a second repast, called the Dredgy (old Catholic Dirige). When death occurred in a family of high standing, the doors of the church in which the deceased worshipped were painted black. This happened at Shotts Kirk at the death of the laird of Murdostoun. 

   It was always the ambition of even the poorest in Scotland to have what was called a decent funeral. In preparation for this it was the tradition that whenever a woman married she began to spin her winding sheet, which was kept reverently till required for her burial. All the male inhabitants of the parish were invited to a funeral, and the usual entertainment given. Now the expenses for coffin, ale, cake and tobacco amounted to a considerable sum, and this sum everybody was anxious to save up to provide for the event of death. Of course convivial obsequies were out of the question for one on the poor roll. 

   Before the use of coffins became general, the General Assembly in 1563 ordered every parish to have a bier to carry the corpse of the poor to the burial place. These biers were of different kinds, some mere rails covered by a mortcloth or pall, others a wooden box with a lid on one side, furnished with hinges, so that the corpse could be taken out and lowered into the grave. In some parts of the Highlands a long basket, made of twisted rushes, with loops for the carrying handles, was in use, known as the “Death Hamper.” Palls were from an early period regarded as an essential part of funeral paraphernalia. Frequent references occur in kirk session records of expenses for new mortcloths and for the provision of coffins for the interment of paupers, also for winding sheets without coffins, from which we may infer that the funeral outlay on the poor was sometimes restricted to a winding sheet. At a pauper’s funeral the body was carried to the grave in the parish coffin, an ill-made “kist,” without the dignity of a mortcloth to cover it. The bottom of this public kist was hinged so as to allow the body to be dropped into the grave. But sometimes a sympathetic kirk session, not to disappoint a poor soul of a festive funeral, supplied the necessary money. 

   It was a common practice long ago to bury unbaptised children apart from other people. The north side of the churchyard was reserved for this purpose. This was a relic of popery, and against Protestant principles. Suicides and excommunicated people were also buried apart, generally under cloud of night. 

   To-day the burial of the dead is carried out with decorum and propriety. It seldom happens that there is any occasion for clerical rebuke, for where refreshments are not entirely dispensed with, they are supplied only in strict moderation. 

– Gazette, July 21st, 1939, p.3. 

Habits of the Citizens a Century Ago 


Death Rites and Superstitions 

   The last hundred years have brought many changes and improvements to our everyday lives; customs and ceremonies, often of superstitious origin prevalent a century ago have disappeared or linger only in a much modified form. It may be interesting to recall some of the old practices and beliefs of our forefathers – some of them peculiar to this district, but many appearing in slightly varying forms over a wide area – especially as they relate to what remain the three great landmarks in a persons’ life – birth, marriage and death. 


Death Omens and Funeral Customs 

   Many curious superstitions were connected in our forefathers’ minds with the presence of death. The “deid drap,” “candle spails,” or the moaning of a dog in the middle of the night were looked upon as infallible sign of its approach while after the death had taken place it was the custom to stop the clock and cover it and the mirror with a snow-white cloth. Cats and dogs were excluded from the house until after the funeral in the belief that if either happened to leap over the corpse, and afterwards be permitted to live, the devil would gain power over the dead person. A small plateful of salt was sometimes placed on the breast of the corpse to prevent the Devil from disturbing the body. 

   The origin of the “lykwakes,” so common a hundred years ago, was the fear that if the body was not watched the Devil would carry it off. 

   As funeral letters were only in use to a very limited extent at the beginning of last century the common method of inviting to a funeral in Brechin at that date was to send round a deputation consisting of the wright or undertaker and a private friend, both dressed in black, with a written document containing the compliments of the nearest relative and a list of the persons to be invited. The undertaker usually delivered the message. 

   A great many of the funerals took place on Sunday as the most convenient day for mourners to attend. For week day funerals people went just in their working clothes, often wearing their aprons and night caps, and with no outward sign of respect for the deceased. 

– Brechin Advertiser, August 20th, 1956, p.6. 

Unable to find an article relating to “dishaloof,” which the Dictionary of the Scots Language defines as; 

“A former practice, in blessing a corpse, of the attendants putting their hands in the three empty dishes placed on the hearth near the body, and repeating the rhyme of saining, beginning thus: — ‘Thrice the torchie, thrice the saltie, Thrice the dishes toom for loffie’” 


“The company of attendants then walk out of the room where the body is laid, either to the door, or into another room, and instantly return to the apartment where the corpse is, backwards, and place their hands in the dishes and repeat a rhyme of saining. This was called dishaloof.” 

3 thoughts on “Scottish Death Traditions & Customs

  1. Anyone able to walk through the Janefield cemetery? My family has a stone there with the surname of McChesney. I heard it was an upright irish-looking cross. Thanks for any info.

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