lining up the dead

Alignment and precision are a common feature in war graves but very rarely encountered in graveyards in the Scottish Highlands. This is not true however for Dalchreichart burial ground in Glenmoriston. There is a certain order to things here.

It has always been a cold part of the country where the river Moriston flows towards the Great Glen. Winter holds everything in its icy grip. Even the gravestones are covered in crystals. There is something different about this particular small graveyard, that is still in use: all headstones face east and so do all the corpses underneath.

“It has been, and still is, the custom in the Parish to bury the dead on their backs, with their feet towards the east, in order that when rising at the Resurrection they may have their faces towards our Lord, as He appears in the east.” (1)

Quite obviously that is still the custom today.

There was an exception though going back a long time in the history of the Glen where five septs of the MacDonalds lived. Four of those descended from Ian Mor Ruigh-nan-Stop, and one descended from Alasdair Choire-Dho. Those would have been easily discernible in the graveyard.

“Sliochd Alasdair Choire-Dho, however, lie with their feet to the west, in order that, in rising at the sound of the last trump, they may face their beloved Corri-Dho. Their graves occupy the nearest corner to that Corrie of the old churchyard of Clachan Mhercheird.” (1)

It is a rather striking feature of clan membership, family ties and blood relations even after death parts them forever.

The Dalreichart burial ground was known as Clachan Merchart or Clachan Mhercheird, a church founded by St Merchard, the patron saint of Glenmoriston, stood here once. (2)

Saint Merchard or Yrchard, born of non-Christian parents in Aberdeenshire, lived around the 5th century. He was made bishop when he travelled to Rome and he served as a missionary around the Picts of early Scotland.

According to legend the saint found three bells in Strathglass and took his to Glenmoriston (the other two bells went with his two fellow missionaries to Glenconvinth and Broadford):

“His bell rang for the first time at Suidh Mhercheird (Merchard’s Seat) a hill above Balintombuie.  The bell rang a second time at Fuaran Mhercheird (Merchard’s Well) beside the burn at Balintombuie; and a third time at a spot beside the River Moriston where he built his church.” (2)

There are no clear traces of the church left in the graveyard, nor of the bell or the famous font stone, which always kept water, no matter what weather.

“Tradition has it that the bell was wont to ring of its own accord when a funeral came in sight, and that whenever it was removed from its usual position it was invariably found restored miraculously to its place, Many persons still living in the glen have seen the bell, and the grandparents of some of them used to relate that they heard it ring in their youth. Devotion to this saint was very strong in that neighbourhood in Catholic times, and he is still regarded by Catholics as the local patron.” (3)

When it comes to funerals, custom and tradition are stong in Glenmoriston. Even though the bell of St Merchard is heard no more.

Sources and further reading

(1) William Mackay: Urquhart and Glenmoriston. Olden Times in a Highland Parish. Inverness; The Northern Counties Newspaper and Printing and Publishing Company; 1914

(2) William Owen: Glenmoriston, Places of interest

(3) Catholic Saints – Saint Merchard


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