beware of the wolves

Out of the darkness they come, hungry and greedy, on silent paws, green eyes staring cold circling their prey, a dangerous, ravenous beasts, a killer. Feeding on carrion, too. Sheep, seagulls, deer. Sharp fangs tearing rotting flesh and a howl at night, out in the wild.

The wolf in Scotland threatened life and livestock alike. The wolf even fed on the dead. It was a threat truly felt by the families of the deceased and must have been a horror to behold. The mere thought of loved ones devoured.

Scourie graveyard, Sutherland (11)

This carnivore desecration was difficult to prevent since graveyards were often outside the villages and impossible to protect at night. Even walls would not stop the beasts. Nor would a single man with a torch. Especially in cold winter night the only safety was within the house.

Of course hey thought of other ways.

Large stone slabs could stop the wolves from digging, but one slab was often not enough (it seems in some areas as much as five were used) and for many simply too expensive to afford. So how to protect the dead?

DSC_0119In the area around Scourie and Eddrachillis the dead were rowed to the Island of Handa and put to rest in an ancient and safe burial-place. Handa, a stark, windswept island, just off the coast from Scourie, inhabited once but not anymore. Those must have been sad and desolate boat trips indeed.

Handa is now a Scottish Wildlife Trust nature reserve, for birds, not wolves. Since the last islanders have left during the potato famine there are no burials there anymore. No islanders and no mainlanders fearing the wolves because the wolves were no more.

The wild, often dangerously hungry beasts were a very real threat to the people of Sutherland.

He climeth the guarding dyke,

He leapeth the hurdle bars,

He steals the sheep from the pen,

And the fish from the boat-house spars,

And the digs the dead from out of the sod,

And gnaws them under the stars.


Thus every grave we dug

The hungry wolf uptore,

And every morn the sod

Was strewn with bones and gore:

Our mother-earth had denied us rest

On Ederchaillis’ shore

The Book of Highland Minstrelsy, 1846


Scourie graveyard, Sutherland (2)Desecrations of burial sites were frequent in Scotland, especially in remote areas. In the rocky barrenness of Sutherland protection was scarce and the wolves such a threat that King James VI had to make it compulsory to hunt them three times a year. But still there were enough to spread fear amongst the villagers of the North.

Until the last was killed. The old stories claim, it was as late as 1743.

The graveyards of Sutherland were finally safe.

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