Churchyard History

The Parish Churchyard

The Reformed Church in Scotland was concerned to wipe out anything considered Popish. The 17th century Directory of Public Worship stated that a corpse was to be ‘interred without any ceremony’ and that a minister need not take part in the proceedings.
The parish church was responsible for maintaining kirkyard dykes, stiles and entrances under an Act of 1597. This was aimed at keeping wandering animals, especially pigs, from disturbing the graves. Corstorphine Lairds in the 18th Century allowed the Kirk Session to repair the kirkyard dykes with stones from the unoccupied castle.
Kirkyards were used for secular purposes – markets, fairs, business transactions – and also as the village public toilet. More respect for the dead came from the Victorians and the creation of burial grounds managed by cemetery companies. To-day Corstorphine kirkyard is a common thoroughfare with scant respect shown by some cyclists for the living pedestrians on the pathways.
The Burial Grounds (Scotland) Act of 1855 freed Kirk Sessions from responsibility to graveyard maintenance. Presently Corstorphine graveyard is in the care of Edinburgh District Council. The Council Officials and Staff are diligent in keeping the grounds tidy and attending to the preservation of the monuments. At the office at Mortonhall are a plan of the lairs and a register of burials since 1899.
Kirk Sessions used fees from funerals to fund assistance to the parish poor. Before the Registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages (Scotland) Act of 1855 people generally ignored the instruction to record the death in the parish register because a fee was charged. This explains the paucity of death records in most parishes. Registering baptisms and marriages were given more attention for on these records depended salvation and social respectability. There are still extant in the archives at New Register House, Edinburgh, many old parochial registers giving information on births and marriages.
Two bells were used at funerals. The little hand or mort bell was rung by the beadle to notify a death in the parish and sometimes to lead the cortege. Better off people had the Great or Kirk bell tolled. Costs for bell ringing depended on which bell was used.
Sometimes because of poverty or epidemics the body was taken to the graveyard simply wrapped in a cover or placed in a coffin with hinged sides or a hinged bottom so that it could be re-used after the corpse was dropped into the
grave. Coffins were either carried shoulder high or borne on ‘spokes’ which meant a frame made of two poles with cross bars on which to rest the coffin.
The mortcloth was a social necessity by the start of the 18th century. It was a pall originally used to cover a corpse when a coffin could not be afforded. Later it was the essential covering for the coffin. Hiring fees for use of the black mortcloth depended on its size, the quality of the material (usually velvet) and the lining and whether it was fringed or not. The Session kept it in a specially made bag called a ‘pock’ or a chest. When needed for a death at a house out with the village it was delivered by the beadle. When James Watson of Saughton died in 1716 the Corstorphine beadle, William Stevenson, set off for Saughton House with the large new velvet cloth but when he arrived the worse of drink he had no mortcloth having left it somewhere on his journey. Consequently the Colinton mortcloth had to be got hastily. When church registers include a list of payments for hire of mortcloths that list provides to a limited extent a deaths register.
Burials within churches were forbidden by the First Book of Discipline of 1572. Since most churches had earthen floors this prohibition was beneficial for sanitary reasons as many graves were shallow excavations. This was possibly the situation in 1609 when Harry Aitkin of Broomhouse broke into Corstorphine Church through the roof and buried his wife Margaret with the help of friends using a spade and picks.
The elaborate heraldic effigied tombs of the medieval Foresters within the church remain to remind posterity of past glory and devotion top religion. Somewhere beneath the great east window lies unmarked James 1679, the last Forrester to live in the village.
The Watson Lairds of Saughton were buried from the 17th century to the 19th century in a vault beneath the church floor near the south aisle. A finely sculptured flat grave slab still carrying its metal lifting rings and commemorating James Watson 1620 was set in 1905 into the south aisle wall.
Many lie in the kirkyard without a memorial. Permission to erect a stone was given by Session and a fee was payable. This in addition to the cost of the stone and the charges the mason may account for the few surviving 18th century carved stones at Corstorphine. Some memorials have disappeared, possibly the result of two major building operations at the church in 1828 and 1905. Then there was the overzealous clearing action of the gravedigger in 1820 ‘to secure new graves’.
In 1881 there still survived a memorial to ‘Francis Joseph Trelss, native of Hungary, and late tenant of Saughton Hall 1796’. Trelss, a noted agriculturalist at Saughton Hall, was also the miller at Dalzeil’s Mill near Ford’s Road. Now this stone has vanished.
Fortunately there remains the memorial to Francis Glog 1736, farmer, kirk elder and kirk treasurer. His stone represents a sower, a reaper. Father time and the Green Man head a symbolic of fertility and the cycle of life. A much eroded stone shows the shears and the goose (iron) representing the tailors craft. Broken lettering suggests it may be the 1677 memorial set by James Allan a village tailor to the memory of his father. The carpenters have stones with the square and compass. The Angel of Resurrection with trumpet boldly proclaims the Soul on its way to Eternity. Some stones carry the emblems of mortality – the skull, the crossbones, the hour glass, the scythe – and the Latin exhortation to remember that Death is always present – Memento Mori.
Kirkyards are the history in stone and grass of Scotland’s people, deserving care and respect from generation to generation
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