Death in Scotland

The 'Death in Scotland' event features academic speakers from several fields of expertise.


Professor Jane Dawson: John Laing Professor of Reformation History, Edinburgh University

‘With one foot in the grave’: death in life and life in death in Reformation Scotland.

This paper will provide an overview of the place of death in thought and practice within Reformation Scotland. It will examine the major changes brought by the Protestant Reformation in Scotland to the wide spectrum of practices associated with the deathbed and burial. It will also explore some of the expected and unexpected consequences of the ‘displacement of purgatory’ and the official ban on praying for the dead enforced by the Reformed Kirk. The use of psalms provides a fine example of long-term continuity accompanied by some surprising changes in use and behaviour. Starting with John Knox’s famous postscript to one of his letters, ‘with one foot in the grave’, some comments will be made upon the importance of death within the religious and emotional world of early modern Reformed Protestants. Personal correspondence can reveal further insights into the emotions surrounding the death of a child or the thoughts of those on their deathbed. The effect of the Reformation changes upon buildings and material objects will also be surveyed. The particular experience of the Highlands and Islands formed a noteworthy example of changes to tombs. The Gaelic-speaking half of Scotland also demonstrates the resilience of burial customs in the face of Kirk disapproval and illustrates how much practice and belief were ‘negotiated’ rather than ‘given’.

Professor Jane Dawson

Professor of Reformation History

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Professor Richard Fawcett, O.B.E., School of Art History, University of St Andrews

‘The architectural setting of prayers for the dead in later medieval Scotland’

A combination of the fear of damnation, the desire to make expiation for sin, and the need to minimise the pains of purgatory, might all be reflected in the choice of both the location and the architectural setting of their tombs by those favoured élites who were permitted burial within churches in the middle ages. This contribution will explore the range of preferred burial places within churches, considering the extent to which the requirements of ensuring remembrance and of attracting the prayers of the faithful might be expressed in the relative prominence and siting of tombs.

The commissioning of their tombs by these élites was generally closely linked with elaborate long-term or perpetual endowment of chaplainries, with the consequent need for an adjacent altar at which the required masses could be celebrated. An overview will be offered of the ways in which chapels containing a tomb and an altar could either be fitted within the existing framework of a building, or might involve augmentation of that building. Consideration will also be given to the possibility of positioning tombs so that they could serve supplementary liturgical or architectural functions that carried the benefits of close association with sacred activities, and that might in addition be deemed as posthumous good works.

Reference will also be made to how collegiate foundations endowed by individuals, families or communities, that frequently developed from earlier chaplainry foundations, might take shape, The complex architectural provisions for multiple tombs and altars they could involve will be touched upon.

Dr Lizanne Henderson, University of Glasgow Lecturer in History, School of Interdisciplinary Studies, Glasgow University

‘Fairies, Angels and the Land of the Dead: Robert Kirk’s Lychnobious People’

The relationship between fairies and the dead is long-standing and complex. While at times the resemblances between them can be so close as to be almost indistinguishable, it will not be the intention of this paper to suggest they are one and the same but simply to be aware of, and take into consideration, the interconnectedness of fairylore with traditions surrounding death and the dead.

Rev Robert Kirk (1644-1692), author of The Secret Common-Wealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies (1691), produced an invaluable corpus of information, and a rare insight into various aspects of seventeenth century Scottish folk belief, drawn from a range of oral informants, eye-witness accounts, local history and personal experience, supported by biblical and classical sources. It was Kirk’s intention to record ‘evidence’ of fairy belief (and related phenomena such as second sight) in part to uphold and strengthen belief in the existence of angels, the Devil, and the Holy Spirit. His underlying argument was that to disbelieve in fairies is to doubt the very existence of God. Kirk did not perceive a dichotomous relationship between Christian doctrine and folk belief, a polarization that had been so rigorously asserted by the reformed church. He maintained that fairy belief was not inconsistent with Christianity.

Kirk had an almost neo-platonic concept of the universe believing the fairies to be one of several distinct orders of spirits inhabiting the world. To him, the fairies were just another species awaiting scientific analysis, like the many animals, birds and insects that were being discovered. Kirk believed that fairies were everywhere, above ground, under the ground, “as thick as atoms in the air”, moving among us unseen by most mortal eyes only because they dwelled in another region or sphere of the world; people with the second sight were best able to see and communicate with them. The fairies lived in another state, “as some of us men do to fishes which are in another element”. In many ways the lives of the “lychnobious people”, or those living by lamplight, paralleled those of humans, whom they resembled in size and appearance, but they lived in a state “betwixt man and angel”. The fairies were, in Kirk’s view, part of God’s creation yet had an ambiguous relationship with Christianity. Places distinguished as fairy hills were also popularly believed to house the souls of the ancestors, a notion which spawned the idea that fairies were the guardians of the dead.

This paper will examine Robert Kirk’s ideas about the soul, supernatural communication, second sight, angels, and the relationship between fairies and the dead.

Professor Sarah Tarlow Director of the Centre for Historical Archaeology, Leicester University

‘Beliefs about bodies: contradictions and conundrums in early modern Scotland’

What did the people of early modern Scotland believe was going to happen to their bodies after death? The answer given by clerics of both Catholic and Protestant confessions was clear: the earthly body would decay and rot ‘like carrion’ while the soul had eternal life and would be accommodated in a gloriously reconstituted body, ‘like candied fruit’ according to John Bunyan. Rapidly developing modern medical science had another answer: the machine would stop. Such stopped machines could then be studied and explored in order to extend anatomical and medical knowledge of the human body - a process in which Scotland led much of Europe. However, actual practices appear to contradict both of those positions. These pieces of carrion were carefully dressed and enclosed in beautiful coffins and placed in elaborate mausolea, burial aisles or (against the express command of the Church) under the floor of church buildings. Similarly, anatomical dissection of the body was used as a punitive sentence for the very worst of criminals. So when people died, did their bodies rot in their graves? Rise again? Become fairies or ghosts? Did they continue to ‘be’ the people they once were? Did the machine stop or did it have mysterious power that could be used to cure diseases? Despite their incommensurability, the answer in Early Modern Scotland seems to have been: all of these. This raises broader issues about the nature of belief and the status of the dead body in emerging modernity.

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