Tarlow’s description of British graveyard studies as ‘overwhelmingly an amateur and provincial pursuit’ holds true for much Scottish material (Tarlow 1999, 16). The recording carried out over the last 200 years, mainly by local volunteers, has rightly been celebrated for raising awareness of the artistic, historic and genealogical appeal of gravestones (Ferguson 1999; 2002; Farrell 2001). Recent research on early modern gravestones indicates that while a large proportion of this material has been lost many of monuments can be reconstructed wholly or partially from antiquarian sources (for example Monteith 1704; Jervise 1875-79; Cruikshank 1941; pers comm. Kelsey Jackson Williams). Without these records we would not be in a position to study and, to some extent, understand a part of this corpus that no longer exists. At the same time, existing gravestone surveys, whilst prolific in number and offering (as yet undetermined) potential for future studies, have also been shown to hold limited scope to be collated and analysed to gain an overview of cultural significance and condition (SUAT 1999; Buckham 2002). Difficulties in drawing this information together largely stems from incompatible recording methods and terminology (see Section 3.4.1). Inconsistent classification limits comparative analysis which can establish chronologies, identify regional trends and refine dating using stylistic evidence.
Notwithstanding the above, several studies, distinguished by their intention to provide a full and well-documented survey, do possess a strong research potential and make valuable contributions to wider knowledge. For example, Betty Willsher’s unpublished field notes summarise the regional characteristics and differences in carvings on 18th-century gravestones. Her analysis draws on extensive fieldwork and is documented by a photographic archive (the field notes and photographs are held in the National Record of the Historic Environment collections, formerly the National Monuments Record of Scotland). Similarly, Flora Davidson (1977) surveyed all surviving 17th-century gravestones in Angus and the Mearns (her inventory has recently been updated but is not yet in publication). Several graveyard studies set out site-specific practice in a way that enables comparative analysis. Their specific strengths are clarity about which stones are excluded or included in the survey, and the nature of documentation, including where stones are located as well as the quality of recording. For example, Beveridge’s 1893 Crail Churchyard survey (Figure 48) combines photographs with written records (Histories in Wood and Stone: Case Study 22; see also MacDonald 1936 with its highly detailed descriptions of stones at St Andrews). Beveridge and MacDonald also carried out documentary research into the main people commemorated on each stone but without any synthesised prosopographical analysis. In more recent years there has been a trend towards providing more systematic records. For example, initially family history societies tended to record only pre-1855 stones, however in 2002 the Scottish Association of Family History Societies, which represents all family history societies in Scotland, suggested that its members standardised their protocols and include all stones at a site.
There are relatively few examples of analysis applying gravestone data, beyond initial quantification to illustrate primary commemorative trends (e.g. Willsher 1985, 27–38; Proudfoot 1998). More recent studies have integrated gravestone evidence with wider documentary analysis to develop comprehensive local social histories (e.g. Cutmore 1996; Young 2002; Gullane and Dirleton History Society 2009). Graham 1958 is notable as one of the very few early studies that sought to answer a defined research question, in this case the design precedents and influences for the introduction of headstones as a particular class of monument. The direction of research has developed little from its early focus on descriptions of gravestone form and design, with brief discussions of symbology, heraldry, historical context and biographies of those commemorated (as can be seen in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland). Often gravestones were selected as ‘interesting’, usually on the grounds of aesthetics or age, but without any deeper reflection on what specific values they embody or how representative they may be of wider practices. Without any contextual or comparative analysis, information remains ‘ahistorical’ and questions concerning the ability of gravestones to hold social meanings and to communicate particular cultural values remain unasked.