On the Isle of Lewis the graves seem shallow and sandy. The cemeteries are often situated close to the sea and sand seems to be more common than earth for a funeral plot.
There are regulations of course, coffins are obligatory and once interred they must be covered by at least 3 feet (91cm) of Sand. Older graves without tombstones tend to disappear fast from recognition, like on these ones in Callanish, not far from the ancient site of worship and death, the Callanish Standing Stones. On Callanish cemetery many graves are without a headstone. The mounds remain barely visible.
Funerals on Lewis differ from the ones on the Scottish mainland in various aspects.
A funeral used to be a big occasion and many people attended. The traditions were kept diligently.
In the more remote settlements boys were sent round to tell others when the burial would take place. Those were the days before internet of telephone. The boys spreading the news would earn a few pence. In towns notices were used and put up by the undertaker in shop windows, stating name, address and all the important details about the funeral, including if flowers were requested or not.
A very long time ago a horn would be blown. All villagers would stop working until the funeral was over. That in itself is an indicator how important a death and a funeral were in the community. In the house of the deceased all curtains were shut, the body put on the bed “out of which it came” (Bennett). Visitors came and were expected to touch the body.
service and procession
On the day of the funeral, the short service would be held in the house (before people were mobile through roads, cars and public transport). More mourners gathered outside and joined into the funeral procession once the men came out. This would be around lunchtime and a man only occasion. They put the coffin on a bier and carry it; every man had a go at one time.
to the very end
The men also properly bury the body. They take shovels and fill up the grave completely. This is in contrast to the general custom of leaving the cemetery before the grave is filled. Here they stay until the very end.
Women played no role in the proceedings; they would stay in the house with the children and prepare a meal. But they were expected to mourn longer than men. A widow would wear black for the rest of her life whereas a widower a simple black armband and a black tie for a year. The males of the Clan Macaulay went even further than that, they did not even allow the womenfolk to be buried in the same graveyard as them. They considered their burial ground sacred and private and “insisted that their womenfolk should be buried in Valtos cemetery.” (Macdonald)
Liked the read? There’s more here…
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.
Scotland for Quiet Moments is available as ebook and paperback on Amazon.
sources and further reading:
Donald Macdonald: Tales and Traditions of The Lews. Birlinn, Edinburgh, 2009
Margaret Bennett: Scottish Customs, from the Cradle to the Grave. Birlinn, Edinburgh, 1992