Scottish funeral customs

Funeral customs vary considerably from region to region, sometimes even from hamlet to hamlet; some seem strange, some amusing, some confusing even. I have collected refrences to funreal customs over the years, this is not a complete collection, more the beginning of one.

If you know of special funeral customs in your area, please get in touch, you will find the contact form at the end of the page!


thaigh-fhaire on the Long Isle

Death was not – and, on the Long Island, still is not, though some customs have in recent years been modified – the denied, over-medicalised phenomenon it has elsewhere become. People died almost invariably at home, not in hospital, cared for by their own, laid out for the grave by their own. All windows were blinded until after the burial. All outside work in the vicinity was suspended. Each night family worship was conducted, usually by the elders, at 9 p.m., which all relatives and neighbours attended. (In Tolsta, then and to this day, the elders also conducted a morning worship.)


People regularly viewed the remains, or sat by them. At least two sunrises, and often three (especially if there was an intervening Sabbath, when neither burials nor marriages are conducted on Lewis and Harris), elapsed before the funeral proper. Though deftly incorporated into the new Evangelical order, the origins of this protracted wake are both pagan and essentially practical. The remains were watched (the local phrase for wake, thaigh-fhaire, means ‘house of watching’) until the first slight but irrefutable indications of decay, proof definitive of death. This was no light matter when few doctors ever attended – there is at least one nineteenth-century instance, from Harris, of a woman who revived in her coffin even after the menfolk bore her to Luskentyre cemetery.

John MacLeod: When I Heard The Bell. The Loss of the Iolaire. Edinburgh, Birlinn, 2009, p. 39

dead days in Dumfries and Galloway as remembered by J. Maxwell Wood (1911)

The nearest relative bent down to the dying face to receive the last breath. The door was kept ajar, although not too wide, that the spirit might be untrammelled i his flight.

The spirit fled, the poor dead eyes were closed, also by the nearest relative, and generally kept so by means of copper coins placed upon them.

The looking-glass in the death-chamber was covered with a white cloth. The clock was stopped, or at least the striking-weight removed. The daily routine of work was sdiscontinued, such days of enforced idleness beeing known as the ‘dead days’.

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


turning over the chairs on the Isle of Skye

When a coffin is liftedfrom the chairs on which it is resting, the chairs are turned upside down, and formerly were washed before being again used.

When a death occurs in a crofter hamlet, all work is suspended till the dead is carried over the boundary, and this whilein the hamlets round pople go about their ordinary occupations.

William Mackenzie: Old Skye Tales. Traditions, Reflections and Memories. Birlinn, Edinburgh, 2012 (1995)


calp, death duty on Lewis and Harris

The fidelity of the clansmen to their hereditary leaders, unique though it was, could not have
stood the strain of consistent oppression and unrelieved despotism. The chiefs had rough and ready methods; they were not influenced by the fine distinctions which prevail in modern communities, where justice between man and man is a recognised principle ; they were arbitrary in their dealings with their followers, as they were uncertain in their relations towards one another. But while they took from the people with one hand, they gave with the other ; while they exacted calps from their tenantry, they feasted the calp-payers right royally ; while they
plundered their clansmen to replenish their wine-cellars, they let the wine flow in a common carousal. The exaction of calp, it may be explained, consisted in an acknowledgment
of dependence on a chief; it took the form of a death duty represented by the best horse, cow, or ox of the deceased tenant, which was claimed by the chief as a matter of right. The practice gave rise to various abuses, and in 1617, was finally abolished in the Highlands and

W.C. Mackenzie: History of the Outrer Hebrides. Paisley, Alexander Gardener; 1903, p. 279


Gairloch, Wester Ross

Funerals are now accompanied by such striking peculiarities. Until the last few years, when a death occurred all the people of a township ceased working until after the funeral, which was attended by every adult male. Of course drinking was much in vogue, and the well known Irish wakes were closely imitated. Now, only those invited to a funeral are expected to attend, and the whisky is confined to serving of a dram all round (preceded by a prayer) before the funeral procession starts, with additional “nips” whenever a halt is made for rest on the way to the place of burial, and these halts are not infrequent. Until lately is was customary for each man accompanying the funeral to throw a stone on the spot where the coffin was placed when a halt was made, thus forming a considerable heap; sometimes the number of stones thrown was the same as the years of the deceased. This custom has been generally discontinued in Gairloch since the roads were made, though it is still in vogue in the wilder parts of the adjoining parishes of Applecross and Lochbroom.

John Henry Dixon: Gairloch in North-west Ross-shire. Edinburgh, 1886


Unst, Shetland Islands

When they see a funeral, they lift three clods and throw one by one  after the corpse, but can assign no reason for doing.

George Low: A Tour Through Orkney and Schetland. Kirkwall, William Peace & Son; 1774


On the death of a Highlander, the corps being stretched on a Funeral board, and covered with a coarse linnen wrapper, the friends lay on the breast of the deceased a wooden platter, containing a small quantity of salt and earth, separate and unmixed; the earth, an emblem of the corruptible body; the salt, an emblem of the immortal spirit. All fire is extinguished where a corps is kept; and it is reckoned so ominous for a dog or cat to pass over it, that the poor animal is killed without mercy.

Thomas Pennant: A Tour in Scotland. White, London; 1776

the wake

The Late-wake is a ceremony used at funerals. The evening after the death of any person, the relations and friends of the deceased meet at the house, attended by bagpipe or fiddle; the nearest of kin, be it wife, son, or daughter, opens a melancholy ball, dancing and greeting, i. e. crying violently at the same time; and this continues till day-light; but with such gambols and frolicks among the younger part of the company, that the loss which occasioned them is often more than supplied by the consequences of that night. If the corps remains unburied for two nights, the same rites are renewed. Thus, Scythian -like, they rejoice at the deliverance of their friends out of this life of misery.

Thomas Pennant: A Tour in Scotland. White, London; 1776

forbidden fiddling

“March 10th, 1728.— This day were called John Campbell in Kinvonigag; John
M’Edward in Knockichican ; and Donald M’Alvea in Killiehuntly, and only compeared
John M’Edward, who confessed that he had a fiddler in his house at the
Leickwake of a dead person, but said he did not think it a sin, it being so long
a custome in this country. The Session finding that it is not easie to rout out so
prevailing a custome, do agree that for the more effectual discouraging such a
heathenish practice the minister represent from the pulpit how undecent and unbecoming
to the designs of ye Christian Religion such an abuse is ; they also
appoint that the Civil Judge be applied to for suppressing the same.”

Alexander Macpherson: Glimpses of church and social life in the Highlands in olden times : and other papers. Edinburgh, Blackwood; 1893


The Coranich , or singing at funerals, is still in use in some places: the songs are generally in praise of the deceased; or a recital of the valiant deeds of him or his ancestors. I had not the fortune to be present present at any in North Britain , but formerly assisted at one in the South of Ireland , where it was performed in the fullness of horror. The cries are called by the Irish the ‘Ulogohne and Hûllulu , two words extremely expressive of the sound uttered on these occasions, and being of Celticstock, Etymologists would swear to be the origin of the  of the Greeks , and Ululatus of the Latins. Virgil is very fond of using the last, whenever any of his females are distressed; as are others of the Roman Poets, and generally on occasions similar to this.

Thomas Pennant: A Tour in Scotland. White, London; 1776

breaking with tradition

My father came from Inverness born in a small croft called Braeside Cottage on The Leachkin April 6th 1920. His parents married in The Wee Free Church in Inverness. His grandfather came from Garrabost Isle of Lewis also married in The Wee Free Church.

When my father died Sunday 23rd July 1979, we arranged to take him from where we lived in Aberdeen back to Tomnahurich Cemetery Inverness. The thing that caught my attention on that sad day was if my dad could sit up and look he’d be looking directly at where he was born.

On that day my family broke with tradition, up until this point in time NO women were ever permitted at the graveside to witness a loved one being interred .

contribution by Linda MacLeod, Aberdeen

Campbeltown Cross

The Campbelcross once served a religious purpose. Then it was used in a more secular way but retained its original purpose to some extent. It remained special and respected by the local community.

„Campbeltown Cross was brought from Kilkivan Church near Machrihanish to serve as a market cross in 1680. It is the largest and most famous example of a late medieval Celtic cross in mainland Argyll. Dating from circa 1380, it is a work of the highest craftsmanship and merits closer examination because of its intricate Celtic and religious markings. (…) Campbeltown Cross has a special place in the hearts of the local community, a respect observed regularly by its circumnavigation prior to all weddings and funerals. “ (The Campbeltown Townscape Heritage Initiative)

There are historic photographs that illustrate this special Campbeltown custom. Sombre funeral processions, mourners dressed in black following the coffin of a relative and friend.

An old custom, still observed today.

If you know about an old funareal custom in your area – let me know.

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