one holy and two frightened men

The year 566 is long, long gone. So long, one can no longer imagine what people’s lives were like back then. But every now and then, often in very surprising places, Scotland gives us a little look back in time, such as in Mortlach (Dufftown). A small, inconspicuous place in the middle of never ending destilleries, in itself nothing special, and yet worth a closer look, as the name of the place already reveals.

Mortlach has nothing to do with the French word mort for death but with the name Moluag. St Moluag founded a monastery here in 566. It was the time of Christianization in Scotland, the Romans had withdrawn, the Vikings raided the coasts and Irish monks brought the Christian faith. Saint Moluag came to Banffshire from Lismore on the west coast of Scotland.
There are no traces of the early church left in today’s building, but parts date back to the 11th century.

But what is particularly exciting is what lies behind the church in Mortlach and that actually has to do with death – a watchhouse, still complete with gutters and a chimney, testimony to a gruesome time when grave robbers dug up freshly buried corpses in the dark of the night to sell them to doctors and universities for good money. The first steps in anatomy were almost all illegal in the 19th century, and the number of bodies that doctors were allowed to autopsy did not meet the need medicine developed. The means to protect the dead were manifold, a watchhouse was one of them.

There are plenty of creepy but also funny stories about these small buildings and the men who spent their nights in them. One of these stories tells of two cranky old Scots who kept watch in one of these watchhouses (which one it was is not known, it might have been the one in Mortlach). The night was dark, and the wind howled around the gravestones and every sound seemed to them like the groan of a dying man. Then steps were approaching, someone slowly walked towards the house.

Someone undead? Or the devil coming to get them?

In their horror, they reached for their guns and fired out into the night. Then silence. Only the wind between the gravestones.

They must have caught the grave robber, they were thinking and probably had a dram or two for courage. But they did not check. Only when the sun slowly lit up the cemetery did they dare to leave their watchhouse. And there was the truth lying in its own blood in the graveyard.

They had killed the minister’s cow.


source and further reading:

Hamish Brown: A Scottish Graveyard Miscellany. Exploring the Folk Art of Scotland’s Gravestones. Birlinn, Edinburgh, 2008

Margaret Bennett: Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave. Birlinn, Edinburgh, 2004


5 thoughts on “one holy and two frightened men

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  1. What a great little watch house. It reminds me of the one at Coupar Angus, but the ‘chimney’ isn’t nearly as grand!

    I love the story too, I saw this pop up on Twitter and have thought about it a few times since then. I’ve read similar stories where a pig (and if I remember rightly a horse(?)) has been shot by watchmen when they thought they’d disturbed body snatchers but not 100% sure I’ve heard about a cow! Fantastic!

    I don’t suppose you know if there was any wording on the sign that’s on the wall of the watch house in the last picture do you? I’ve yet to visit the site but hopefully, the new year will bring the right opportunities. Thanks for a great post accompanied with great pictures.

    1. Thank you Suzy, I liked the watch house just as much and I have seen quite a number so far on Scottish graveyards. I will have a look at my pictures to check if I took a close-up of the sign asap.
      All the best,

    2. I just had another look at my pictures Suzy. I have no other shot of that sign but when I zoom into the one I posted on the blog I can see there is nothing written there at all, it is just an empty board. Kind regards, Nellie

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