2.6.4 Academic studies and theoretical approaches

The major study of Scottish gravestones is Sarah Tarlow’s 1999 research, which is comprehensively framed by theories underpinning a ‘historical archaeology of death’. This work, which uses survey data from Orkney, sets out to explore the evolution of attitudes towards western burial and commemoration. Tarlow’s research is one of a small number of studies to quantify baseline trends over time for gravestone numbers, their various design elements, inscription content and identities of those commemorated, which has enabled comparative analysis with international datasets (for example Mytum 2006, 96). In particular, her study considers how mortuary behaviour may be shaped by emotional responses to death. Tarlow’s work provided a welcome counterbalance to previous analysis that has concentrated on use of gravestones for competitive social display. Her engagement with emotion as a fundamental element of social and cultural meaning and experience has proved highly influential upon gravestone analysis and archaeological research more generally. Tarlow identified no other Scottish studies grounded within an ‘archaeology of death’ framework. Similarly in 2004, McFarland observed that Scotland, unlike England, had been left out of the ‘thanatological revolution’ that had taken place in death studies over the last two decades. More recently, multi-disciplinary interest in Scottish death, including gravestone studies, has increased through a series of conferences held at New College, Edinburgh. Although this momentum is yet to be reflected in published work, research priorities have been identified to advance an appreciation of modern Scottish death, something which future gravestone research is well placed to contribute towards (Buckham et al. 2016).

A small gravestone in a snowy landscape

Figure 50: An example of an inscription with vernacular style lettering on a headstone at New Lanark Burial Ground, South Lanarkshire. © Susan Buckham

Several studies have explored some of the priorities outlined in Section 2.6.3, notably the role of gravestones in mediating social identity. Questions of whether a distinctive ‘Scottishness’ in commemoration practices can be observed within migrant communities following the diaspora have been explored by several scholars but this remains an important priority for future research (MacLean 2014; Mytum 2009). For example, George Thomson’s 2006 study examines how gravestone lettering might be used an indicator of cultural diversity. This paper first addresses the methodological issues posed by differentiating between creativity, naivety and low skill in carving (Figure 50), which builds on Thomson’s earlier methodological studies of inscriptions (e.g. Thomson 2002). Thomson concludes that, unlike in other areas, the Scottish masons who emigrated to New England abandoned the stylistic traditions of their homeland to develop new gravestone designs that reflected their new cultural identity. Notions of ‘Scottish’ identity, particularly with a Gaelic dimension, have also been investigated through the use of Celtic revival iconography (Celtic Revival: Case Study 15). The role of gravestones as indicators of social class has formed the basis for several studies. These include Cutmore’s 1996 investigation of the reuse of the early medieval carved stones at Govan by local landowners (see also Buckham 2015b) and R Scott’s 2005 overview of monuments commissioned by the middle classes at Glasgow’s Necropolis (Figure 51).

A sepia toned photo of monumental gravestones including angel sculptures, tall needle monuments and large columns

Figure 51: View of Glasgow Necropolis taken in around 1875 by Thomas Annan, note the gravestone with a sculptural form at the left hand side. Crown Copyright: Historic Environment Scotland

Scholarship on 17th-century Scottish gravestones, including a recent PhD (Insh 2014), has considered the social impact of design and reception (see also Bath and Willsher 1996). Bath and Willsher show the influence of printed material, in particular the works of Francis Quarles, on vernacular headstone designs featuring religious scenes (Figure 52). Insh 2014 demonstrates that tombs of this era were part of a wider post-Reformation visual culture in which spatial arrangement was the key to interpreting images. Characterizing particular designs as ‘frontispiece’ tombs, she argues that these designs were based on monumental arches depicted in European prints, with their form intended to convey the experience of passing. Insh contends the monument’s symbols were laid out in a logical order that revealed much about the life story of the deceased and, furthermore, their future story in death. The commissioning of monuments and their design influences also forms the basis for several architectural histories (Donaldson 1987; Howard 1996). However, Ian Gordon Brown’s 1991 research on David Hume’s tomb is notable for tracing influences upon its design at the time of commission but also for identifying shifts in how the monument was perceived over time (Figure 53). He interprets subsequent literary depictions of the monument as reflecting changing social attitudes to Hume and his religious beliefs. Spicer and Raeburn have both investigated the impact of the Reformation upon commemoration and burial practices. While Spicer (2000) considers the emergence of burial aisles, Raeburn (2012) assesses the influence of the Protestant work ethic upon memorialisation and its links to changes in church doctrine, and wider funerary practices and social structures more generally.

Black and white photo of a stone gravestone with heraldic symbols and emblems

Figure 52: Detail of headstone to John Service (died 1637), Holy Rude Church, Stirling. The carving is based on illustrations from Francis Quarles Emblems published in 1635. Crown Copyright: Historic Environment Scotland

Photo of a curcular stone building and path leading to it

Figure 53: Circular mausoleum of David Hume and distinctive row of walled burial enclosures, Calton Old Burial Ground, Edinburgh. © Susan Buckham

The innovative research themes and approaches, such as biographies, materiality and landscape, currently being applied to early medieval carved stones are well suited to gravestones. However, limited research has yet been completed although there are isolated instances of gravestone biographies and long-life graveyard histories. One such example is Thomas Ashley’s 2011 study of how Edinburgh graveyards were popularly perceived over the long 19th century using the evidence of city guidebooks (Ashley 2011; for other examples of a biographical approach see Boyes 1999; Buckham 2015b). Research to distinguish and define different types of graveyards on the basis of their historical development and the cultural values they embody has been considered in detail for England (Rugg 2000; Ray et al. 2014). This approach is proving influential upon Scottish research particularly in terms of the how gravestones contribute to the landscape character of graveyards (e.g. Buckham 2015b; 2016).

For further reading, download the Section 10.6 pdf.

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