Wednesday, November 30, 2016

South Leith Parish Kirkyard, Edinburgh, Scotland

The South Leith Parish Kirk (or Church) has a 500-year history and some of the oldest - as well as most interesting - gravestones that I have ever seen. Like the Old Calton Burial Ground, its stones are thick and monumental. But the South Leith stones are notable for the frequency of trade symbols and other details relating to the occupation of the deceased. In contemporary graveyards in the United States, I have rarely seen occupations listed on gravestones, unless the deceased was a physician, ship's captain, clergyman, or politician. In Scotland, 18th- and 19th-century gravestones abound with bakers, masons, printers, carriage makers, etc.

The death's and cherub's heads in this cemetery are also incredibly plastic, even sculptural. Other features that are distinctive to Scottish gravestones (versus American): they use both sides of the stone (whereas Americans only use one), the stones are thick enough to allow motifs to emerge from the sides, and women are referred to by their maiden names. Men are also often referred to as "the husband of ...," a form of reference that I have never seen in the United States. Lastly, gravestones can be cumulative - i.e., space is left for additional names and details for family members who die after the stone is first erected.

One thing you may not have known about gravestones: they can provide clues as to how people spoke in the past. This stone commemorating Hannah Whyte, daughter of William Whyte, Shipmaster in Leith, who died at the age of 17, says she was "deeply regrated."

Another interesting find: this inscription featuring a poem I was always told originated in New England. Or did it?