Scottish funeral customs

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



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


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