Thursday, 27 August 2009

It’s body snatching and it’s not nice but it’s not robbing… and the Top Secret Bunker

I was finding all about grave-robbing baddies on my recent trip to Crail.
Crail is a tiny seaside town in Fife in Scotland. As I’ve mentioned before; it probably isn’t there when you’re not looking.

Grave-robbers securing specimens for anatomists were considered a bit of a nuisance in Scotland during the 18th and 19th centuries. The real life characters, Burke and Hare, have been described as grave-robbers but they were in fact slayers and snatchers not robbers. They murdered outliers of society and sold their bodies to anatomists and they claimed the cadavers of people who weren’t really their relatives, so they could do the same. But they didn’t go to the trouble of digging up fresh bodies, not towards the end of their careers anyway.

However, real Resurrectionists, as they were nicknamed, did rob people out of graves. Scots parishioners devised a series of increasingly cunning devices to foil the nefarious grave-robbing baddies. They used metal hoops that secured a body into the coffin; ton-weight temporary mortstones to position across the grave; mortsafes and morthouses where the body would be tenable prior to burial and watch houses where a sentinel would guard newly occupied plots.

The nice man at the Crail bed and breakfast told me told me these things whilst I was eating my tea. And he added,
‘There’s a morthouse at the parish church, just along the road.’

I am incandescent with excitement. After tea I start to get ready to go out. Ian eyes me warily.
‘What are you doing?’
I am pulling on my tartan holiday socks.
'Just popping out for a little walk.’
‘It’s going dark.’
I am hoping towards the door, tying my shoelace as I go; did you ever see Wilson, Keppel and Betty performing the Sand Dance? It is very like that.
‘I won’t be long.’
‘You’re going to the graveyard, aren’t you?’
As my reader knows, I do have form where graveyards are concerned.
‘Only to see if the masons here ever use Shap Granite...’
You may also remember that Shap Granite is my current favourite rock.
‘You’re going to look for the morthouse, aren’t you?’
‘...and to look for the morthouse, I was going to say that.’
‘You know you’re a little bit Not Right in the Head, don’t you?’

He is probably correct, but I don’t care. I’m afraid of living people not dead people; I’m afraid of living people and loud bangs; loud bangs terrify me, every time.

It was twilight when I arrived at the gated church. Huge crows hunkered blackly on the church roof and supplied mournful and atmospheric cawing.

The churchyard at Crail is an enchanted necropolis. Built into a tall shadowy wall to the west of the church are a series of mural monuments. These architectural structures date back to the 17th century and are gratifyingly decorated with emblems of mutability and decay, the hourglass, skulls, crossbones, grave digging tools.
The carvings range in quality, from a detailed deaths head like the one above from James Lumsden’s tomb to almost childishly incised representations of skulls and femurs.
Death’s heads have crossed bones behind them whereas the skull and crossbones have the bones underneath. I’m calling the one above a death’s head because I suspect that those gaps where the face joins the cornice once held stone-bones; I have no other evidence for my theory. But I do like it.

A number of of the skulls resemble turnip heads, which, in the twilight, was somehow even more chilling than the more meticulous work.

The mason’s inscriptions are as forthright as their symbolism, although I concede that forthright symbolism is a contradiction.
‘Here lyes interred before this tomb
The corpse of Bailie Thomas Young’
No nancying around with euphemism; ‘there’s a rotting dead person under here’.

A particularly rewarding mural monument to the south of the church appears at first sight to be to the memory of a Dr Who character. The headless suit of armour is an effigy of William Bruce of Symbister.
The Christian convention is for dead people to be buried with their head in the west and their feet in the east; on judgement day the deceased wants to be able to sit up and face the rising sun. As a consequence, the posh people of Crail are interred along the, literally, monumental west wall.

Although Bruce of Symbister’s tomb looks archaic I wondered if it postdated the time when the west wall became full of memorials. Apparently this isn’t the case, he was buried in 1630. I’d be interested to learn why he was placed in the (lower status) south; maybe he just liked sunshine.

So, Bruce of Symbister was clearly posh but when the trumpet sounds his headless armour is going to have to sit up rustily and turn to the right as he does so to get the benefit of the sunrise. He was 80 when he died and has been dead almost four hundred years. Well, I do Pilates. I’m still alive and I’m only fiftyodd and I can assure you he’s going to find that exercise veeery tricky. Trust me. I would like to be here on the day of judgement to see his resurrection though.

As the stygian dusk deepened, the distant clock in Crail Marketgate sounded, the desolate cries of the corvids intensified (thanks, Sound Effect Guys) and I came across the neo-gothic morthouse with its inscription:
ERECTED for securing the DEAD:
AD 1826.

So this is where bodies were locked-up until they were too decomposed to be of value to the anatomist or medical student.

There are morthouses all over Fife but it seems the parishioners’ response to the threat of grave-robbing baddies was hugely disproportionate to the scale of the problem. It’s a long haul for a grave-robber to cart a corpse from Crail to St Andrews or Edinburgh and graves were not routinely robbed in the area. In any case by 1832, in response to the Burke and Hare murders, an Anatomy Act was passed, which secured a legal supply of unclaimed bodies from hospitals, poorhouses and workhouses.

Morthouses were an inexplicable fashion, a bit like animal print leggings.

I take my last photograph in the gloom, nod to the Sound Effect Guys and return to Ian, delighted with my first mural monument and my first morthouse. I start to explain to him about watch houses.
‘Relatives, or more likely, lackeys, had to stay in a little house in the graveyard, watching.’ There’s a pause.
‘A proper house?’
‘A little house, with a window and a fire.’
He’s listening to the radio, it sounds like athletics. I try to hook him with mans’ stuff.
‘Some watch houses have gun embrasures and the watchers were armed so they could fire at the grave-robbing baddies.’
He lifts the radio up to his ear.
‘Or they set up tripwire gun-traps.’
There’s a pause whilst something crucial happens in a race or whatever, then he speaks.
‘You wouldn’t have lasted long then.’
He’s right; I am always lurking around in graveyards looking shifty. Maybe I was a Resurrectionist in a previous incarnation and I got shot. That would explain a great deal.

In my last post I wrote about Padre George Smith being buried in Preston Cemetery. It says on the Rorke’s Drift website that his headstone is light red marble. Well I’ve found it and his headstone is Shap Granite; I knew it would be; Fools.
See, the thing is, marble is metamorphosed limestone and granite is… oh, never mind.

On a lighter note, there’s also a labyrinthine Top Secret Bunker by Crail; it’s where central government and military commanders would retreat in the event of a nuclear attack. Obviously, the parishioners of Fife don’t want the trouble of a lot of Johnny Foreigner types hanging around the golf course in spy wear asking directions in broken English (and not understanding the reply because it’s in Scottish English) so the helpful authorities have supplied a sign.

I was allowed to go to Crail as a prize for handing in my MA assignments nicely. I’ve also had my first rejection; I wasn’t selected for the Flax creative non-fiction anthology; I wasn’t surprised but I was sad. I understand it’ll get easier.

ps nominations are now open for the the Manchester Blog Awards. You can nominate yourself and you only have to be nominated once to enter (my friend's done me). Good Luck. (No. Really!)

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Zulus fighting in the flowerbed

This post is mostly about Preston and South Africa and Crail and some dead people who were once alive in those places.

Last week I finished the last two first year portfolios for my MA; the Writer with the Writerly Name’s Creative Writing Workshop portfolio, and the Agreeable Doctor’s Creativity and Marginality in Contemporary Writing portfolio. There’s a dissertation to write now; and a year to complete it in. As ever, I was just one day short of having enough time to finish those last two pieces nicely and I was up until three on Friday morning compiling them.

A few hours later Ian hefted me weightily into the car, folding my legs and arms in after like an inexpertly doubled deckchair and we set off for Crail, via the Humanities Office to hand in the assignments. The Humanities Office was locked and deserted; but I can’t talk about that yet. It’s enough to testify that the kind lady from the Ceremonies Office took the portfolios from me and gave me a receipt, and a hug.

There is an assignment drop box but how I feel about assignment drop boxes is: what about the bad person with the lighter fuel and the lit match? That’s all I’m saying.

On the way to Scotland the Radio 4 play was Ken Blakeson's Bearing the Cross which tells the story of Rorke’s Drift. This is an Amazing Coincidence because there’s a flower bed in Avenham Park in Preston that’s designed to mark the 130th anniversary of Rorkes Drift (*thinks* 'maybe that’s why Ken wrote the play too').

The 1964 film, Zulu, depicts the Battle of Rorke's Drift. It was a terrible fight between the British Army and Zulu warriors. Preston are observing the event because the padre, George Smith, became the chaplain at Fulwood Barracks, here in Preston, on his return from South Africa and is buried in New Hall Lane cemetery (that was after he died, obviously).

Apparently one hundred and thirty-nine British soldiers successfully defended the garrison at Rorke’s Drift against several thousand Zulu warriors (reported numbers vary). Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded to the defending soldiers; the largest number of VCs conferred to a regiment for one action. George Smith received the Zululand medal and clasp for gallantry; only soldiers can receive the VC.

I felt ill at ease when I saw first saw the Avenham Park flowerbed a few weeks ago. I know the soldiers were brave and doing what they were employed to do, but it somehow seems out of place to be commemorating the defeat of native people who were defending their stolen land; just as Victorian Prestonian warriors would have defended Avenham Park, armed with fettlers and yard-brushes, if Zulu pastoralists had rolled up and set about grazing their cattle on the sward. Ken Blakeson's play reinforced my disquiet.

Crail is in Fife, across the Tay from Dundee. I tipped my hat groggily to Kathleen Jamie as I was driven by Newburgh. Jamie wrote Findings which was one of the Agreeable Doctor’s set texts. She also wrote the poem Arraheids in which arrowheads in museums,

thon raws o flint arraheids
in oor gret museums o antiquities’

are likened to the sharp tongues of Grannies who cannot stop themselves from putting you back in your place;

'ye arenae here tae wonder,
whae dae ye think ye ur?'

We’ve all met one of those Grandmas.

Crail is a picturesque fishing town (see above) fixed in another time and place. Like the Isle of Man, I suspect it isn't there if you’re not looking.

As you know, I spend a lot of time in graveyards, stealing names, admiring Shap Granite headstones, looking for dead babies; I can add looking for the headstone of an Army padre to that list now.

The graveyard at Crail Parish Church is the best yet. It has the oldest and most elaborate range of monuments I’ve ever seen. Tombs that would temp one to be buried alive (as was said of the mausoleum at Castle Howard, I forget who by).

I’m tired and emotional now, thinking about assignment drop boxes, kind administrators and displaced Zulu warriors who're reduced to fighting in a flowerbed. I’ll tell the tale of mural memorials, body snatchers and mort houses next time.