A Short View of Scottish Funeral Traditions

by Tom Doran

Funeral rituals in the so-called Western World are pretty much the same these days wherever one goes. Oh, there are some minor regional differences – leftover customs from long ago, but generally their meaning is long gone, or mostly forgotten, and seldom resurrected in any way thoughtful of the original significance

A funeral in Scotland in the 21st century really differs very little than a funeral in most of the UK, or the US. New laws, regulations, convenience; better health measures and standards (and their own particular resultant regulations) have altered things in a mighty way. There's almost a corporate ethic to how much of it is done, presented, engineered – and billed. Though I would not call it an industry, it often appears to come very close.

The ancient Celts had very deliberate rituals regarding death – they believed the best death was one earned in combat or warfare. They knew that they would be reincarnated and the “other” world they went to was just a resting place till they lived again. They also believed in a Cauldron of Rebirth which could revive the dead – but it seems rather to be something happening on another plain of existence, and not an actual mechanism for reviving a corpse in this world.

Bodies were washed and wrapped in a burial cloth – and often as not burned – but bodies or ashes could be put into minutely measured tombs/resting places – stone chambers or simply covered with stone and/or earth. Sometimes personal objects were buried with them.

In later periods, women of the deceased family would still be regulated to wash the body, wrap it in burial clothes (sometimes called Winding Sheets), and place it in the coffin.

Some of these very ancient customs prevailed – the Wake for instance. There are differences as to the time allowed, but most corpses were laid out for several days (a maximum of 7). There was a watch by some to stay with the body 24 hours a day – some say this was to prevent the Devil or other evil spirits from taking away the soul (and body). Sometimes a window would be thrown open to enable the soul to depart. People would come to give their regards to the family and to the deceased. This extended period allowed travelers to come from afar.

Another reason may be that they wanted to make sure the person was actually dead – and staying with the body also gave them the opportunity to observe any possible, however faint, signs of life. There have been many occasions when someone was thought dead, but sprang back to life – people's abilities to understand the conditions of dying were somewhat less scientific than today, but there are stories from today of people declared dead, only to wake up. One in a funeral home who was about to be embalmed!

Much food and whisky was consumed at wakes, and in some traditions there was a set amount one could drink or was given. It was sometimes a burden for the poor to provide food and drink to all the mourners but it was also a requirement of the funeral process. Some people helped to raise money for the poor in order to pay for the food and festivities.

Dancing almost always followed at the end of the wake – a celebration of the persons life. Joyful and boastful. Men often danced with men, and women with women – but sometimes they mixed.

In older traditions the deceased was laid out with a wooden plate on his chest. On the plate were separate portions of earth and salt. The handful of earth was said to indicate that the body would be buried and return to the earth from whence it came. The salt was a representation of the eternal soul. Some think that the salt was possibly meant to be a deterrent to spirits (such as sowing the earth with salt after some evil dwelling place had been burned). Sometimes they were even buried with the plate.

After the end period of the Wake, bodies were taken by procession and then buried in very specific places in a Kirkyard – and some Kirks had even more particular areas set aside for known suicides and such. There were many prohibitions about where to bury a corpse depending on how the person met his or her end.

It wasn't until the 18th century that women began to appear at the actual graveside burials. Generally they were “men only” affairs and women were kept away – even a wife of a deceased husband would not be allowed to the grave site as the body was buried.

Though sermons from the clergy at funerals were admired and popular, a 1638 Scottish law prohibited them – perhaps an ongoing struggle between the Catholic and Protestant churches and their respective dogma. It created a problem for the poor, as they were often seen by outsiders as being “cheap” and disrespectful of the dead – though it was anything but that.

In the 17th century one Englishman put down to paper his not very flattering observances of his tour of Scotland, which did include a Scottish funeral: “When anyone dies, the sexton or bell-man goeth about the streets, with a small bell in his hand, which he tinkleth all along as he goeth, and now and then he makes a stand and proclaims who is dead, and invites the people to come to the funeral at such an hour. The people and minister many times accompany the corpse to the grave at the time appointed, with the bell before them, where there is nothing said, but only the corpse laid in.”

Ringing a bell seems to have been a common element of funerals in Scotland, and the “bell-man” was paid for his services.

The funerals of Highland Chiefs were notoriously conspicuous affairs – money was spent freely, and the “train” of followers in procession were often enormous – hundreds of clan-folk and others would follow the body as it was taken to be buried. The clan historian – a seanchaidh – recited the genealogy of the Chief at some point in the funeral proceedings, often espousing heroic exploits – pipers played. For the more prosperous and well-known (and liked) Chiefs, thousands might easily attend.

There are stories, possibly exaggerated, about one of John Paul Jones raids on Scotland during the American Revolution. Himself a Scot, Jones (a false name to hide his involvement in a crime earlier in this life) took his ship, The Ranger, to Scotland and Ireland – to raid, instill fear into the British, and to try to capture a local member of the gentry to hold for ransom (to trade for captured American sailors). His raids didn't actually accomplish much – though the propaganda value and fear he instilled in the British government was real.

One tale related to these adventures, was that Jones was about to land in a secluded cove in Scotland, but saw a HUGE mob of people moving across the landscape, carrying torches. He thought the countryside had been aroused against him. What he actually saw (they say) was not an angry mob coming to protect their land, but instead a rather large funeral procession (with no knowledge of Jones and his ship) – in such numbers as to frighten the Americans away.

Highland funerals for the rich got wilder and bigger as the Industrial Revolution made rich men aplenty in Scotland – and soon even lowland funerals had pipers on hand and tartan on display.

Today, Wakes persist, though altered to mean almost only a dinner/drinking celebration after the funeral itself. Few, if any at all, will sit up with the body of a deceased for days on end in one's home – and it seems most unlikely health regulations and other laws of the present day would ever allow it.

Processions, large and small, still do happen – larger, more public ones often take place for those who are well known, or well off; and for military or other services (police for instance); and even still for Highland Chiefs with clan members attending – and bagpipes have now become commonplace accompaniments for many funerals in Scotland (and in the States), played at the gravesite – wailing sad laments for those who have passed.



collected by cecilia