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  • Writer's pictureMike Shepherd


An old gravestone in the graveyard of Cruden Parish Church.

To read eighteenth-century parish records is to appreciate that the established Church in Aberdeenshire was waging a war against supernatural superstitions, many of which were pre-Christian ('pagan') in origin. Here is just one example: in 1669, the Synod of Aberdeen issued an instruction warning the population not to communicate with fairies.

We consider fairies to be the stuff of children’s books, and rather quaint. In 1669, the people of Aberdeenshire took fairies seriously. In particular, mothers were anxious should fairies seize her new-born child to replace it with a sickly fairy child – a changeling as they were known. The Synod of Aberdeen were all too aware that fairies were all too real to their parishioners.

It is difficult for us in the modern world to connect to the beliefs of Aberdeenshire of old. To try and get across how our ancestors may have felt back then, I will tell an anecdote from my own experience. I worked for a year in Borneo, living in the Chinatown area of a Malaysian city the size of Aberdeen. Only a handful of westerners lived there, and I soon found myself immersed in the Chinese way of life. My new Chinese friends were happy to talk about their culture, and what they revealed to me is that they are a modern-day group of people utterly hide-bound by hundreds of ancient superstitions. Not only did they take them seriously, they lived in terror should one of these superstitions not be followed through with the appropriate action. Every moment of their lives was controlled this way - it is impossible to exaggerate here. And many of these superstitions concerned death. To give one example, the Chinese live in dread of the number four because its ‘shi’ sound in Cantonese sounds similar to the word for death. Many hotels in this part of the world do not contain a fourth floor labelled as such, because no one would want to sleep there.

Celebrating the Chinese New Year in Malaysian Borneo.

Such has also been described as the way of life in nineteenth-century Aberdeenshire by folk-lore collectors of the time. One of these, the Reverend Walter Gregor, Minister of Pitsligo Parish, is the source of the somewhat ghoulish superstitions to follow. They come from his book, Echo of Olden Times from the North of Scotland (1881). Those of faint heart should look away now!

‘DEATH OMENS: Three knocks were heard at regular intervals of one or two minutes' duration. They might be heard in any part of the dwelling-house, on the entrance door, on a table, on the top of a bun bed. Their sound was quite different from any other. It was dull and heavy, and had something eerie about it. A similar omen was the dead-drap. Its sound resembled that of a continued drop of water falling slowly and regularly from a height, but it was leaden and hollow. Such sounds were heard at any time during night or day. Night, however, was the usual time when they were heard. They were heard first by one, and could not be heard by a second without taking hold of the one that first heard them. This was the case with all the sights and sounds that prognosticated death, and lasted for any length of time.

Before the death of one of the household, there was at times heard during night the noise as if something heavy were laid down outside the door of the dwelling-house. It was the sound of the coffin as it was laid down outside the door, before it was carried into the house.

A death was often made known by the light called a dead-can'le. It was seen moving about the house in which the death was to take place, and along the road by which the corpse was to be carried to the grave. Its motion was slow and even. The light was pale-bluish, wholly unlike any made by human art.

In the very moment of death all the doors and windows that were capable of being opened were thrown wide open, to give the departing spirit full and free egress, lest the evil spirits might intercept it in its heavenward flight.

Immediately on death, a piece of iron, such as a knitting wire or a nail, was stuck into whatever meal, butter, cheese, flesh, or whisky were in the house, to prevent death from entering them. The corruption of these articles has followed closely on the neglect of this, and the whisky has become known to become white as milk.

The chairs, etc, in the house were sprinkled with water. The clothes of the dead were also sprinkled with water, and it was the common belief that they always had a peculiar smell.

If there was a clock, it was stopped. If there was a looking glass, it was covered, as were also the pictures.

All the hens and the cats were shut up during the whole time the body was unburied, from the belief that, if a cat or a hen leaped over it, the person, who was the first to meet the cat or hen that did so, became blind.

When the death took place a messenger was despatched for a wright, who hastened to the house of death with his strykin beuird. The body was washed, and, after being clothed in a home-made linen shirt and stockings, it was strykit on the board brought by the wright, and covered with a home-made linen sheet. Many a bride laid up in store her bridal dress, to be made into her winding-sheet, and her bridal linen and bridal stockings, as well as her husband's, to be put on when life's journey was ended.

The body was sedulously watched day and night, more particularly, however, during night. The watching during the night was called the lyke or the waukan [wake]. A few of the neighbours met every evening and performed the kind office of watchers. One of them at least had to be awake, lest the evil spirits might come and put a mark on the body. The time was ordinarily spent in reading the Scriptures... [Other sources differ, stating that wakes were invariably lively occasions of much drinking and great merriment. Reverend Gregor does, however, concede that this happened...]

'Sometimes the waukan was not so solemn. Practical jokes have been played upon the timid. Some stout-hearted one placed himself within the bun-bed beside the dead, and, when those on whom the trick was to be played had entered the house and taken a seat, he began to move, at first gently, and then more freely, and a last he spoke, imitating as far as possible the voice of the dead, to the utter terror of such as were not in the secret.’

Reverend Gregor also mentions ghoulish tales of burial in North East Scotland. One of these caught the interest of the writer and historian James Drummond, who reckoned that Bram Stoker had read it before writing the last chapter of Dracula while on holiday in Aberdeenshire in 1896. It has to be said that the story is as cadaverous as anything in Bram Stoker’s epic novel.

‘Peculiar horror was manifested towards suicides. Such were not buried in the churchyard. It is not much over half a century since a fierce fight took place in a churchyard in the middle of Banffshire, to prevent the burial of a suicide it. By an early hour all the strong men of the parish who were opposed to an act so sacrilegious were astir and hastening to the churchyard with their weapons of defence - strong sticks. The churchyard was taken possession of, and the walls manned. The gate and more accessible parts of the wall were assigned to picked men. In due time the suicide's coffin appeared, surrounded by an excited crowd, for the most part armed with sticks. Some, however, carried spades sharpened on the edge. Fierce and long was the fight at the gate, and not a few rolled in the dust. The assailing party was beaten off.

A grave was dug outside the churchyard, close beneath the wall, and the coffin laid in it. The lid was lifted, and a bottle of vitriol poured over the body. Before the lid could be again closed, the fumes of the dissolving body were rising thickly over the heads of actors and spectators. This was done to prevent the body from being lifted during the coming night from its resting place, conveyed back to its abode when in life, and placed against the door, to fall at the feet of the member of the family that was the first to open the door in the morning.’

And in the last chapter of Dracula, a gang of heroes under the guiding hand of Professor Van Helsing travel to Transylvania. A fight ensues and finally Count Dracula is dispatched: '...and before our very eyes. and almost in the drawing of a breath, the whole body crumbled into dust and passed from our sight.'

Copyright Mike Shepherd 2022.

If you like my articles, why not read my latest book North Sea Heroes: True Stories from a Scottish Shore. It tells seven stories from the east coast of Scotland, epic stories of adventure and human kindness.

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