Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Holiday Diaries: Exploring the History of Body-Snatching, Burial, & Mourning in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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If you follow my social media, you might have gathered a few things recently. Firstly, I just got back from a lovely holiday in Scotland where I explored the morbid and macabre as one such as myself is wont to do, and secondly, I got engaged! So that is all very exciting, but because this is a death blog, I’m going to focus on the former for now.

The majority of my trip was based in the city of Edinburgh. The city is famous for being the home of the Royal Family’s Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh Castle and the Military Tattoo, and of course…Burke and Hare.

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Edinburgh & the Firth of Forth, from Calton Hill (photo by author 2019)

Many of you are probably already familiar with Williams Burke and Hare, the famous body-snatchers turned murderers who were convicted of at least 16 killings where the bodies were sold to Dr. Robert Knox for dissection during anatomy lessons in the 1820s. Burke and Hare were an exception, most people who tried to procure bodies for sale to anatomy schools got them from freshly dug graves. These body-snatchers, or Resurrectionists / Resurrection Men, would come to the graveyards and cemeteries at night to dig up the recently buried dead…an act which would drive families and communities to extreme lengths to protect their dearly departed. While we were on holiday, I was lucky enough to witness some of these precautions in person!

This topic is particularly interesting to me, as it was one of the reasons that dead houses were so widely spread in the UK. The ground might not freeze to the same degree as Canada, but the dead needed to be stored indoors for other reasons! However, perhaps one of the most iconic protections against body-snatchers was the mortsafe. A mortsafe (mort = from the latin mors or mort-, death. Also the French mort, death) was a metal and/or stone cage or case that was buried into the ground with the coffin and was extremely heavy, to protect the body while it decayed beyond a point where it would be useful to doctors.

As you can see, these protective devices came in all sizes and shapes and many were left in the ground over the graves which they protected! I was so excited to see my first mortsafe at Greyfriar Kirkyard in the heart of Edinburgh, that I obviously had to pose with it! I’m a professional 🙂

The reason that body-snatching was such an issue in Edinburgh, a hub for anatomical study in the early C19th (though body-snatching spread across the UK and into North America as well, near anatomy schools!) was that for years the only bodies that doctors were allowed to dissect were those of convicted criminals. Now, there weren’t as many of them as the doctors needed to teach, so they began to look for a fresh source of cadavers elsewhere (pardon my poor joke!). The pandemic of body snatching caused public support for the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1832, which gave doctors and students more freedom to dissect donated bodies, removing the need for stolen corpses.

Before the Act came into play, however, the mortsafe wouldn’t have been a viable financial option for everyone in the city, or throughout Scotland and the wider UK to access. Public fear over dissection spread beyond just having the bodies stolen; Christian belief at the time held that if the body was cut into pieces, they would not be able to rise at the Resurrection. People wanted to do whatever they could to protect their dead, and poorer families would often guard the graves of their recently dead in order to protect them.

Of course, this meant weeks of guarding the grave, while the body decomposed. A body well into decomposition was of no use to the anatomy schools, so if the waiting could last long enough, the dead would be safe. But who had the time to stand around in a graveyard all day (other than us archaeologists who study such things)? Most people didn’t, and many large burial grounds began to construct watch towers to post guards, to protect the dead on behalf of the families. These towers were fairly popular, with two excellent examples in Edinburgh found in the Parish Church of St. Cuthbert in downtown Edinburgh, and the New Calton Burial Ground, opened in the early 1820s near Holyroodhouse. As you can see in the photos above, these structures both had very similar architectural styles! Dead houses, also called Mort Houses in the UK, went hand in hand with these structures, with the ground level of the watch tower often being used to store bodies.

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The surviving wood coffins from Arthur’s Seat, National Museum of Scotland’s ‘Daith Comes in’ exhibit (photo by author 2019).

A curious aspect of the body-snatching history that I was eager to see was the set of small wood coffins found on Arthur’s Seat (which I did not hike because we both had colds for the entire trip). Seventeen small coffins with small figures inside were found buried together under a boulder in 1836, and one of the popular theories is that they represented the seventeen known victims of Burke and Hare! Other ideas were that they were talismans used by witches for spells, or placed there to keep sailors safe on the ocean. Only a handful of the coffins survive today, and are on display at the National Museum of Scotland.

The exhibit that included the coffins, ‘Daith Comes in‘, detailed a history of death, burial, mourning, and witchcraft in Scotland, and was absolutely my favourite part of the museum. It was tucked back in a dim hallway, either for ambiance or perhaps to shield the patrons from the subject matter? While we were happily reading about the lykewake, a Scottish tradition of watching over the corpse each night between death and burial (with drink and song of course) and a witch’s hair rope, I noticed a few other visitors come into the hallway and quickly walk through once they realised what was back there, which is a shame.

The exhibit had many other fascinating aspects of early death & burial culture in Scotland, some of my favourite of which are pictured below:

The horse-drawn hearse was absolutely amazing. Could you imagine seeing such a spectacular thing in a funeral procession? It was covered with painted mortality symbols: crossed bones, skulls, and winged hourglasses on all sides. The chassis of the hearse dates to the C17th, making it was oldest surviving ‘vehicle’ in Edinburgh! I also thought it was excellent how they included some more robust hair-works in the form of a cuff and a watch-band, as well as the protective charms. While charms might seem a little out of place in a display (and blog post) about death and burial, charms were typically employed to protect against poor fortune, poor health, and…well, against death itself!

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Graffiti hexfoil, Edinburgh Castle (photo by author 2019).

This is part of the reason I find protective objects and marks so fascinating; people were scared and looking for any means to protect themselves and their loved ones in life and sometimes even after dead, turning to magic and superstition which was engrained in their everyday lives, homes, churches, and possessions, for that protection. As a bonus, one of my favourite parts of our trip was finding protective symbols out in the ‘wild’, including the one pictured to the right of a hexfoil which was carved by a prisoner into a door in the prisons of Edinburgh Castle.

As always, thank you for reading! This isn’t a research post, but more of a diary of the death and burial aspects of my adventure to Scotland, as we all know that is 50% of my brain space when travelling at all times. If you have any cool recommendations for future dark tourism, drop me a comment!

 

 

 

Author: Robyn Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage Specialist / Illustrator.

4 thoughts on “Holiday Diaries: Exploring the History of Body-Snatching, Burial, & Mourning in Edinburgh, Scotland.

  1. Isn’t Edinburgh one truly fascinating city to explore that somehow goes hand in hand with spooky and unusual legends? I’ve just recently came across the story about the set of small wooden coffins and was excited to read all the theories about them! I had no idea they are on display at the National museum, can’t believe I missed it on my last trip in September!

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    • It’s such an awesome city, we had such a great time exploring!! The coffins are so cool, and sooo tiny, I almost missed them in the case 😀

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  2. Fascinating! Another great posting. And congratulations and a wish for great happiness in your forthcoming marriage.
    Chris MacNaughton

    Liked by 1 person

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