A morthouse (the name implies it) houses the dead, but only for a short period of time. In the days of body-snatcher and resurrectionists (19th century) who would dig up freshly buried courses to sell them for good profit to surgeons for clinical studies, they were a means of protecting the dead. They were a cheaper option compared to mausoleums and mort safes and reusable as often as needed. Morthouses could even house more than just one corpse at a time. And they did not require staff as did the graveyard watchtowers.
Bodies were left here for at least six weeks to decay until they were of no use to the criminals any longer. Then the dead were given a proper burial.
The small, rectangular building in Kilmahog is not the only one of its kind.
There are various morthouses all over Scotland: Udny, Culsalmond, and Denny to name but a few. They vary in shape and size. The stench of decay long gone.
“These buildings seem to have been most common in the north-east, where a number survive … Morthouses were sturdily built, with iron linings on wooden doors, even a skin of steel within the whole structure in some case. A number were subterranean, or partly so.” (1)
The Christian pelican symbol owes its existence to a visual error. They were believed to feed their young by hacking into their own breast to draw blood and then feed their offspring. It was of course the pouch the bird drew food from, not himself.
“Nevertheless, the errant observation became the grist for a legend that says a female pelican either killed her children or they were killed by a serpent, and after three days the pelican opened a gash in her breast and resuscitated her young with her own blood. Thus, the pelican represents self-sacrifice, the greatest love of a parent for its children.” (2)
This churchyard is nearly 800 years old. A chapel was built on this little mount near the river Garbh Uisge (wild water) near Callander in the Trossachs. Who the church was dedicated to is a matter of debate, it could be any of these four early saints: St. Kessog, St. Mahog, St. Cuaca and St. Chug. Nothing is left of the building but a few overgrown foundations.
The oldest gravestone date back to the 17th century.
The wide impressive portal covered in bellflower is a sight of sheer beauty in summer. The bell bears the arms of the Graham family and dates back to the 15th century, therefore it is much older than the gable in which it was fitted.
Kilmahog is one of the most beautiful graveyards in Scotland, quiet, peaceful and full of rich details.
sources and further reading
(1) Daniel Love: Scottish Kirkyards. Hale, London; 1989
(2) Douglas Keister: Stories in Stone. A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography. Gibbs Smith, Salt Lake City, 2004
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Scotland is a country full of history, stories and secrets. Often, the three cannot be separated. That is what makes this country so wonderful and unique. The stories of this book have been discovered and gathered for Erkenbach’s blog, Graveyards of Scotland, over many years.
Her main sources were historical travel guides from the 18th and 19th centuries, where the finds were scary, beautiful, funny, and sometimes, cruel.This unusual approach to a country’s history has produced amazing results. You don’t have to share the author’s passion for cemeteries to enjoy this book; only a small number of the stories in this collection take place in graveyards, though they do all end in them, so perhaps it helps.
The fairy hill in Inverness, a nitrate murder on Shetland, a family of left-handers, wolves, Robert the Bruce and William Wallace shown in a new light, the secret bay of the writer Gavin Maxwell, a murdering poet and so many things you didn’t know about Scotland, its clans and its history.