the Abernethy mysteries

cross-shaped gravestone in Abernethy graveyard

Considering the abundance of historical graveyards in Scotland, Abernethy does not seem of utmost importance at first sight. But, as you might know yourself, looks might be deceiving and Abernethy is indeed an exceptional graveyard. Not so much because of its headstones or famous people buried there but because of its tower and the mystery around it.

Abernethy tower

the shape remains a mystery

There is only one more like it in the whole of Scotland, in Brechin in Angus. Very likely both were used as bell towers. The Abernethy tower is round and as much as this is common in Ireland, where there are about a hundred, it is very rare in Scotland and why it is round or why it was built in Abernethy has remained a question unanswered.

This tower is almost a thousand years old and was here before these graves were dug and this church built.

an unknown Pictish message

But there are more mysteries than the shape and origin of the tower here. There is a stone, that was added at a later date: “A Pictish symbol stone has been added to the outside face of the tower. The stone was unearthed in Abernethy’s School Wynd and mounted on the tower last century. “(Historic Environment Scotland)

A Pictish stone in this area is nothing unusual, though. It was a Pictish centre. But what is its message? What was it, that was understood by the Picts but can’t be understood by us anymore?

„The Pictish symbol stone mounted on the tower was added in the 1900s. It depicts a hammer and anvil, separated by a ‘tuning fork’ and a crescent and V-rod. The exact meaning of the symbols is unknown.“ (Historic Environment Scotland)

monks and nuns

Culdée monks prayed and lived here, an early Christian order also known in Lochleven and St. Andrews. But the origin of this place of worship goes back even further than the Culdées and not to monks but to nuns.

„Abernethy is said to have been founded by a Pictish King Nectan in honour of St Bridget, Abbess of Kildare in Ireland, at the request of the next abbess of the same convent, Darlugdach, who was present and chanted the Halleluia Hymn when the king’s offering was made. St Bridget was a contemporary of St Patrick and died early in the sixth century, and Darlugdach was her immediate successor.“ (John M. Leighton: History of the County of Fife. Glasgow, Swan, 1840)

This Irish connection could explain the Irish style of tower in Abernethy which was an important place and a Celtic bishopric long before the tower was built.

grave slab Abernethy graveyard

bodies below

But the most intriguing fact is what lies beneath the tower or rather what used to lie there: bodies. According to Historic Environment Scotland, one skeleton and bones belonging to several humans were discovered during excavations in the first half of the 19th century. The find also included seven skulls and an urn.

Why was this tower built on human remains? Had this already been a graveyard in the 1100s? When had those burials taken place? And what was the cause of death?

Nobody has found answers to these questions. This sense of mystery gives Abernethy a peculiar charm. Its history fascinating and forgotten.

Liked the read? There’s more here…

The stories of this book have been discovered and gathered for my blog, Graveyards of Scotland, over many years. Find treasure all over Scotland with my latest book. I am Nellie Merthe Erkenbach, journalist and author.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.

My 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 my 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. 

Scotland for Quiet Moments is available @Amazon ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

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