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!)


SandyCalico said...

Brilliant post Kim. The photos are wonderfully spooky. Shame you couldn't add sound effects! x

Valerie O'Riordan said...

Hi Kim,

Jenn Ashworth sent me a link to your blog, and now I've been immersed in the archives when I really could do with going to bed! Really interesting stuff. I'm about to start an MA myself in a few weeks and I'm going to try to keep a record of how it all goes - if I can get in half this amount of detail and observation, I'll be proud!

Best of luck,


kim mcgowan said...

Thanks Sandy,

I bet if I was a bit more technical I could have embedded a couple of crows cawing, but I'm not, and I haven't.

Speaking of technical, you have a retweet link on your blog I was going to ask you about. Remind me at the next #Wordsoup if we both make it.


kim mcgowan said...

Ah Valerie! You're here!

I thought I was terribly smart and traced you back to your blog from Twitter and then saw the comment from Jenn.

I needn't have bothered, it's all set out for me here.

Your blog's great and I hope you have a wondeful time on your MA. AND when you meet MA.

I've been thinking about the name Valerie because I've recently reheard the song Valerie by Steve Winwood; it's from 1982 so way before your time:
I really like his voice but not so much the lady having a problem controlling her hairdo; maybe she's the eponymous V but I don't think she looks like a real one...

I know Jenn has written a journal for ever but I'm very poor at keeping a diary so I'm glad I made myself do this blog.

I hope you do blog your MA progress, I'm often surprised by what I've written and forgotten when I look back, and it'll be interesting to read your reactions to the stuff you do.


Sandy Calico said...

Kim, I should be at Word Soup! In the meantime, this is where I got the instructions for adding the RT button:
Easy when you know how!

Really Rachel said...

I love this post! Thanks for the comment on my blog. I'm glad to 'find' you an I'll be back :o)
(And Sally, thanks for pointing Kim in my direction!)

kim mcgowan said...

Thanks for your comment, Rachel

Glad I found you too (oh! what're we like?)