9.6.3 Grave Architecture and Layout

Burials discovered at the site of St Trolla’s chapel, Kintradwell, Sutherland included some with stone settings to frame the bodies, including upright slabs behind the heads, with the heads and feet resting on pillow stones (Lelong 2003b). This is similar to bodies from Balblair (Chapelton, Newhall Point), Easter Ross (MHG40739; Reed 1995, 789). Headboxes were found in the monastic 8th to 11th century Portmahomack burials (Carver et al 2016, 110–12), and later in burials of males, females and juveniles at Balblair; this rite may have transitioned from a monastic to layperson rite and so it may have a long tradition in the Highlands.

Orientation of graves seems to be variable. At John o’Groats individuals were orientated west or southwest (Driscoll 1989). At St Trolla’s Chapel, the heads were mainly to the northwest (Lelong 2003b). At Portmahomack, the burials are oriented to the west. Evidence of coffins and shrouds was also found, but there were no head supports for this medieval period (Carver et al 2016, 304ff, D20-D26).  At Newhall Point, Balblair there were some burials oriented to the west and some to the south. The initial interpretation was that the different orientations represented two phases, but the radiocarbon dates of two cross-cutting graves showed relatively similar dates despite different orientation (Reed 1995).

The burials at St Trolla’s chapel show two distinct clusters, perhaps relating to family groups or settlement areas. There was also a concentration of infants grouped in one area, suggesting this part of the cemetery may have been used for infants, probably between the mid 13th to mid 15th centuries (Lelong 2003b).

Grave Goods

Grave goods are rare in medieval Christian burials. However, a child who may have been suffering from congenital syphilis was buried at St Trolla’s Chapel, Kintradwell between AD 1150 and 1280 with a cow’s tooth and a red pebble. Perhaps these were childhood treasures or perhaps they were viewed as amulets. A male who had died as a result of trauma, possibly from violence, was buried between AD 1450 and 1650 clutching limpets and periwinkles. These items may have held special Christian significance, in the same way scallop shells are the symbols on pilgrim’s badges to Santiago de Compostela (Lelong 2003b, 159–60). There is scope for comparison between these practices identified in Highland examples and those seen in the large assemblages from the Kirk of St Nicholas, Aberdeen, and Whithorn.

Medieval Grave Markers

In the RARFA, it was noted that almost every graveyard has at least a few examples of late medieval Highland sculpture (RARFA Medieval section 9.4). This is certainly not the case in much of the Highlands despite a number of graveyards having been recorded. The southwest Highlands (Steer and Bannerman 1977) and Skye, however, appear to have a scattered cluster of this type of sculture (Armit 1996, 222; Gifford 1992, 34). No corpus has been compiled of medieval grave markers for the rest of the Highlands. A large number of grave markers inscribed with crosses, many simple and others more complex (see Map 8.3) survive, but dating is difficult and disputed, with many thought to belong to the early medieval period on stylistic grounds.

There are a few chapel and parish church sites with medieval grave markers in the eastern Highlands, notably Cullicudden (MHG31393), Kirkmichael ([AH1] MHG31404) and Logiebride (MHG8987) on the Black Isle, and Portmahomack (MHG8475; Carver et al 2016). In some cases, for example at Kiltearn, Evanton in Easter Ross (MHG8130), antiquarian accounts mention stones which are no longer there; a recent survey found only one re-used medieval stone, where only the side decoration had not been chipped away when the stone was re-used at a later date (Case study Kiltearn Old Kirk). This re-use of existing stones especially in the 17th and 18th centuries occurs on Pictish stones as well, with the destruction of one face of the Hilton of Cadboll Pictish cross slab the best known example (James et al 2008; Case Study Hilton of Cadboll Pictish Cross Slab). It appears that in the post-medieval period older stones were considered acceptable to re-tool in the Highlands (Fraser 2013).  A study of medieval grave markers from the Highlands would allow for a comparison of decorative motifs and production within areas of Highlands and then further afield.

Medieval recumbent grave slab from St Michael’s Chapel, Kirkmichael. ©HES
Late 14th century foliate cross and sword grave slab from Portmahomack. ©FAS Heritage/University of York

High-status grave monuments from the 13th century survive in some important locations, such as the recumbent effigy of a knight in Dornoch Cathedral and the episcopal monuments in Elgin (Oram 2013; Fawcett and Oram 2015). In a few cases elaborate 14th and 15th century tombs have been preserved, notably in Fortrose Cathedral (MHG8881; Fawcett 1987; 2013; Oram 2013), Beauly Priory (MHG3336; Fawcett 1987) and Fearn Abbey (MHG8451; Gifford 1992, 33), with the largest and finest collection in Scotland being in Elgin Cathedral in Moray (Oram 2013; Fawcett and Oram 2015). 

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