‘Customs and Traditions in Easter Ross’

icon Back to all articles

An extract from a set of notes on Death and Dying.

There have been many rituals surrounding this subject.

A primitive desire to ward off evil appeared as late as 1914-15 at the death of an old man in Fearn. His daughter placed a bowl of oatmeal on his breast & beside him a glass of milk, which was intended for the devil who would eat & drink & remove evil spirits.

The 17th century saw the introduction of 'burial letters' which became fashionable in the 18th & 19th centuries. Letters were not essential throughout the centuries verbal announcements & invitations went on in the Seaboard Villages until much later than the 1930s.

A ‘Wake’ was the constant watch over the unburied corpse until the burial. This custom could last 3 nights, if the family was poor, to a much longer period depending on social position & financial resources.

Alcoholic & non-alcoholic beverages were in plentiful supply, resulting in what was to be a solemn & decorous occasion ending up like a party. Because of the distances that coffins had to be carried the bearers were fortified with food & drink to help them on their way. Local storytellers relate that on one funeral procession from Inver on route to the graveyard at Tarbat: They arrived at their destination highly intoxicated and not a coffin in sight! It had been left along the shore at one of the points of changing bearers & of partaking of fortification!

Parish Graveyards did not accept bodies of people who died in epidemics. A short way from Inver is a bare area with no memorial (does now) which is known as the 'cholera ground.' This was to avoid carrying infected corpses any further than was necessary. It was also to prevent the risk of infection to those coming to worship on Sunday.

At Nigg in 1832 cholera victims were forbidden to be buried in the churchyard. Yet the kirk officer who saw the cholera, as a yellow cloud floating across the parish, bravely caught it in a linen sheet& buried it in the graveyard! the stone with which he covered it is still to be seen. This stone has never been removed for fear the disease escapes! (Photo; "Jasper Vass Beadle pointing to Cholera stone - where cholera was caught and buried.")

Up until 1790 unbaptised children, in the parish of Nigg, were denied a churchyard burial; they were buried around the ancient Pictish Shandwick Stone. This was seen as a special site even if it was not consecrated ground.