Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Mortsafes, morthouses, and resurrection men

There's a certain strain of Scottish Gothic that's full of body-snatchers, crooked surgeons, and cadavers transported in carriages; hangings, murders, dissections.  Stevenson's short story The Body Snatcher includes a ghost as well as a real corpse (or does it?); in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Hyde's mysterious door is in fact the entrance to Jekyll's dissecting room, and the whole novel can be seen as an oblique comment on the case of surgeon Robert Knox, the man who paid Burke and Hare for cadavers for dissection.

(Burke and Hare were smart businessmen. There was a high demand for fresh corpses for the anatomy school; other men dug up bodies from the graveyards, but these two live wires cut out the middleman and made their own corpses.)

Various devices were invented to prevent the 'resurrection men' from snatching the bodies of the recently deceased. Several graveyards have watch houses or watchtowers: there's a fine circular watchtower in the kirkyard at Banchory, in Deeside, like a castle among the graves.

But guards could be threatened or overpowered. The mortsafe afforded greater protection. At first, the simple expedient of laying a huge slab of stone over the grave was used, but the mortsafe - a sort of iron grid - provided lateral protection as well as a huge weight on top of the coffin. Once the body had started to decay, the mortsafe could be moved and laid on top of the next burial, whenever that occurred. (There are the remains of a couple of mortsafes in the cloister garth of St Conan's, Loch Awe, that provided the impulse for this post.)

And then there are morthouses. Again, the idea was to keep coffins protected till the body inside was well rotted; many are huge sheds of solid stone, with stone vaults and slate roofs, and huge barred doors. But as with the watch tower at Banchory, form, function, and the desire for an architecturally pleasing construction occasionally created works of impressive character; there's a  wonderful circular morthouse at Udny Green built with a turntable inside, so that coffins would be rotated till at last they came to the entrance again, and could be buried, the body inside having achieved a state that made it no longer of any interest to the resurrection men.

There's something rather more than usually morbid about these relics of the bodysnatching past. (The Anatomy Act of 1832 put paid to the bodysnatchers for good, by allowing surgeons to dissect unclaimed bodies, and allowing relatives to donate their next of kin's body to science, thus creating a regular supply of cadavers for the medical schools.) All graveyards are a little morbid, even the cenotaphs of Hindu rulers in Rajasthan where there never was a body - they simply commemorate the site of a cremation. But these mortsafes and morthouses remind us more strongly than usual of the facts of death - the fact of putrefaction, of the slow falling apart of the body - and so they exacerbate the usual macabre nature of the place.

Yet we enjoy such gruesomeness. As Dickens's Fat Boy says, "I wants to make your flesh creep" - and the telling of ghost stories has been a pleasurable activity at least since his time (he wrote some good ones), and in fact since Shakespeare's (Mamillius in The Winter's Tale starts a story "Of sprites and goblins" with the line "There was a man dwelt by a churchyard", which was completed in a nice little jeux d'esprit by MR James). And I don't think we're going to stop enjoying it any time soon - certainly not judging by the success of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.



The Celtic Twilight

"What the hell is that?"

We were driving along the side of Loch Awe - one our way from the Munros of Tayside that we'd bagged already, towards Ben Nevis, on a rather miserable day of slanting rain and grey skies. We'd passed village upon village of sensible foursquare houses, slab sides of rock dressed against the rain. But what I'd spotted out of the window defied description - a Byzanto-Romanesque dream palace, a Highland version of Disneyland, a folly or a nightmare; we'd have to investigate.

Fortunately there was a lay-by a hundred yards along the road; two or three cars were already parked there. We walked back, and down the hill through wet ferns and moss glittering with droplets of rain.

Perplexity grew as we approached. Celtic arches, a Gothic apse, bits of what seemed Art Nouveau; it was a tumultuous, jumbled mix of styles and stones, bits and pieces from diverse ages crazily jammed together. I couldn't even tell if it was beautiful or ugly - it was both at once, or neither.

It is, indeed, the dream of a madman,  Walter Campbell, the younger brother of Lord Blythswood, who began it in 1881, and kept building till his death in 1914. Work continued under the patronage of his sister and later under trustees, and the church was not finished until the 1930s. Campbell designed the church himself, taking ideas and models from all over Europe, and even carved the organ screen himself (he was a keen, and not untalented, amateur woodworker).

Even on the outside the church looks eccentric; there's a Saxon style tower with long-and-short work, a tall Celtic cross, a French style smaller tower, a Victorian Gothic apse, strange carved panels, perched terraces on the steep side of the hill to the south overlooking the loch, flying buttresses which come out at odd angles to shore up the south aisle. (Incidentally, while Walter Campbell lived on one of the islands you can see in the loch, another, Innishail or 'the green isle', was the burial ground for local inhabitants. The Celts seem to have preferred to bury their dead on islands, as at Caldey island, and the islands of the blest occupy an interesting place in Celtic myth - the isle of Avalon, Tir nan Og. At Killin, at the end of Loch Tay, the clan Macnab burial ground is on the island of Inchbuie in the middle of the river.)

Inside, the church is full of interesting spaces, a jumble of chapel. The nave is darkened and diminished by the accretions around it, while the apse blazes with light - a dramatic effect even on an overcast day. Everywhere you look there seems to be another hidden chapel, another doorway or arcade giving on to yet another space. It's a box of secrets, slightly dusty and smelling of damp, the kind of place you might find a small casket of priceless jewels, or a ghost.

Craftsmanship was something Campbell valued, and there are some marvellous works - fine wrought iron gates topped by the lymphad of Lorne (a little galley or single-masted ship), lovely stained glass, even chandeliers made out of miniature organ pipes. There are two screens which were brought from Eton College Chapel, though they were never installed where they were meant to go, and there's a more than life-size effigy of Robert the Bruce guarding a relic of bone from Bruce's grave in Dunfermline Abbey. There's even a tiny cloister, with two mortsafes on display. (More on mortsafes anon.)

The thing I'll always remember about this church, though, is that blaze of light streaming in through the clear windows of the apse. And it reminds me that the year Campbell began his work here, 1881, was the year before the first performance of Wagner's Parsifal - a medieval, religious themed opera, in which the final scene shows the opening of the Grail shrine - "enthüllet den Gral! Öffnet den Schrein!"

Campbell's vision is as eclectic, as dramatic, and as medievalist as Wagner's. And possibly just as insane.  It may not be a great work of art, but I was glad to see it; and as I stood on the terrace behind the church, looking out across Loch Awe, the sun came out, for the first time on that blustery day.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Useless signs

Dumfries. Probably quite a decent city in itself, but bloody difficult to leave.

There are no signs for Carlisle. There are no signs for New Abbey, Castle Douglas or the coast, where we were headed.

There are plenty of signs saying 'All Routes'. Following these, we managed to go round Dumfries twice before finally finding a way out.

And there is one of the most spectacularly useless signs I've ever seen. It said 'tourist attractions'.

Er, right. Disneyland is a tourist attraction. Westminster Abbey is a tourist attraction. Oscar Wilde's grave in Pere Lachaise cemetery is a tourist attraction. The same kind of person doesn't probably want to visit all three.

And anyway, what are the tourist attractions of Dumfries?

We never found out. Eventually we found a road leading out of the city that got us, in a roundabout way, to Rockcliffe and Kippfold and the great expanses of low tide sand and mud that is the Solway Firth, and the view to the Lake District. On the whole, I was happy to miss the 'tourist attractions'.