10.6.2 Burial Evidence

With the Reformation came in theory a major change in burial customs, with remains no longer permitted to be buried within the church after 1581. In practice this still seems to have occurred. In some churches, disused parts became mausoleums (Alston 1999, 52). Other documentary sources hint of continued burial in the church even after the Act; for example, the Kirk Session Records for Kiltearn carry a reminder in 1700 that the Act of the General assembly against burying in the kirk be heeded (record for 22-7-1700). The implication is that burials found within a church cannot automatically be assumed to be Pre-Reformation in date, although some of the burials may have been in structures accessed from outside the kirk.

Most post-Reformation cemeteries are still active, and therefore there has been little work on post-medieval human remains and burial customs in the Highlands. Several burials excavated from Tarbat Old church were radiocarbon dated to the early 15th to mid 17th century, spanning late medieval to early post-medieval periods. These remains were buried in shrouds, and in some cases there is evidence of coffins (Carver et al 2016).

The churchyard associated with the medieval chapel at Cille Bhrea (Lemlair), Easter Ross (MHG8942), is eroding into the sea, which has led to some archaeological intervention. Some of the human remains excavated were dated, but they had a wide date range that covers most of the period; most of these remains were reburied at Kiltearn cemetery due to local lobbying. Work at Kirkmichael old kirk and mausolea on the Black Isle recovered caches of disarticulated human bone from inside the structure, sometimes remains were carefully grouped but in other cases they were jumbled. Disarticulated remains were also found outside the structures. No dating was undertaken, and therefore some of the bones may have been medieval in date, cleared and reburied at a later date. Evidence of age, sex, and health was obtained however. These remains were also reinterred (Lynne McKeggie 2017).

Human remains of at least 28 individuals, most disarticulated, were found in a small scale excavation at St Columba’s Friary, Kingussie (MHG4413; Case Study Whitefriar’s Friary, Kingussie) dating to between the end of the 15th century to mid-17th century. Preservation was poor, but some osteological analysis has been undertaken, though in the absence of other studies it cannot be placed in any context. Limited excavation at the Hilton of Cadboll, Easter Ross, chapel site (MHG42384) revealed seven articulated skeletons (two adults and five juveniles aged three months to three years of age) and a range of disarticulated bone in all phases. Two of the skeletons dated to the late medieval to early post-medieval period, while one was definitively post-medieval. The infant burials were not dated but are in a late medieval to early post-medieval context (James et al 2008, 358; Roberts 2008).

Human remains revealed in a pipeline trench, St Columba’s Friary, Kingussie. ©Kirsty Cameron/Highland Council

Occasionally dated human remains have been found outwith the church, some, such as at John o’Groats, Caithness (MHG39354), suggest an earlier unrecorded cemetery, but others such as the two or more burials at Lothbeg, Sutherland (MHG29194), one radiocarbon dated to AD 1481–1786 (AA-3645), are less clear. A skull found at Meikle Ferry, Sutherland, a long-active crossing of the Dornoch Firth, was given by Hugh Miller to the NMS and was recently dated to 1493-1810 (Matt Knight pers comm).

Infant burial grounds for stillborn and unbaptised children are known from some areas in the Highlands including several sites in Wester Ross and ruinous chapel sites such as Clow Chapel, Watten, Caithness (MHG42454; McCabe 2010; 2016, 200ff). The Shandwick, Easter Ross Pictish stone is reputedly a burial site for infants and suicides (McCabe 2016, 213), but limited excavations at the site did not encounter any bodies (MHG8539).

Burial Architecture and Protection

Grave markers in many Highland churches and chapel sites have been recorded with varying degrees of accuracy, with the Highland Family History Society active in publishing and archiving their own and others’ work. From the mid-17th century it became more common for grave markers to be erected (Alston 1999, 52). Some graveyards preserve splendid monuments with symbols of mortality (Case Study Kiltearn Old Kirk) ; the Kirkmichael Trust on the Black Isle is a good example of a community project to renovate ruinous mausolea, recording medieval and post-medieval grave markers. There is scope to pull together details on grave marker traditions in the Highlands, looking for links between styles and attention to raw materials. Were the Highland memorials similar or different than elsewhere in Scotland? Hugh Miller was an active stonemason early in his career, and some of his creations have been identified in Highland graveyards; further work on other carvings may also provide additional insights into production centres.

A grave slab carved with symbols of mortality at Kiltearn Old Kirk. ©Susan Kruse

Post-Reformation reactions against medieval Catholicism and iconography have resulted in the destruction of earlier building fabric and tombstones. The best known example is the Pictish cross slab from Hilton of Cadboll, Easter Ross (MHG8546) where the cross face was razed and then reused in the 17th century in order to make a grave marker for Alexander Duff and his three wives; there may have been a gap between the defacement and reuse (James et al 2008; Sanderson and Murray 2008, 356; Case Study Hilton of Cadboll Cross Slab). Other 17th century examples of modifying Pictish stones, though fortunately not as comprehensively, are known from Golspie, Sutherland (MHG10890; Close-Brooks, 1989) and Logiebride, Easter Ross (MHG60000). At Kiltearn, Easter Ross (MHG31395), a medieval grave marker was reused, but with only carved initials surviving it is not possible to date its reuse.

The front of the Hilton of Cadboll Pictish cross slab with original carvings removed for reuse as a gravestone. ©National Museums Scotland

Documentary sources, particularly kirk session records, recorded mortcloths, the ceremonial cloth that covered a coffin, in details including the dues owed for hiring them. These could be expensive items, sometimes imported from abroad (Case Study Kiltearn Old Kirk). Few if any survive, as is the case for the communal coffins used to bury those too poor to afford their own, where the coffin was then reused.

Body snatching was a real fear, especially in the early 19th century (ScARF Case Study Grave Robbing; Echoes of the Resurrection Men Website), even in the Highlands where surreptitiously transporting corpses to anatomists would have been a difficult undertaking.

Mortstones, heavy stones placed on graves to deter grave robbers have been identified at Rogart, Sutherland and Dores, Inverness-shire (Distribution Map for Mortstones); as these were meant to be temporary measures and were eminently reusable, it is not surprising that so few have been reported. More of a deterrent was a mortsafe, an iron cage which enclosed the coffin. In the Highlands examples are known from Kincardine, Badenoch and Strathspey (MHG4476) and one was said to have been at the small burial ground at Tom-eas-an-t-slinnean, Lochaber (MHG4344) in 1938 but it has not been located since the 1960s.

Watch houses survive at a number of Highland cemeteries including some in fairly remote locations: Latheron, Caithness (MHG31350); Lothmore (MHG24086), Clynekirkton (MHG44946) and Rogart, Sutherland; Boleskine (MHG23975), Drumnadrochit (MHG45229), Dores (MHG31418), Dunlichity (MHG25365), Moy (MHG31461), Dalarossie, Petty (MHG24175), Croy (MHG31417), and Ardersier (MHG45453), Inverness-shire; Auldearn and Ardclach (MJG31376), Nairn-shire; and Advie (MHG44923; destroyed) and Cromdale (MHG31374), Badenoch and Strathspey.

Church and watch house at Dalarossie, Petty. ©Susan Kruse

The Anatomy Act published in 1832 gave doctors, teachers of anatomy and medical students the right to dissect donated bodies, effectively ending bodysnatching (Echoes of the Resurrection Men Website). As a result, all surviving remains related to bodysnatching are pre-1832.


Case Study: Whitefriar’s Friary, Kingussie


Case Study: Kiltearn Old Kirk


Case Study: Hilton of Cadboll Cross Slab


ScARF Case Study: Grave Robbing


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