rip? it's astonishing how many bones do not rest in peace. And did we even have the right coffin?
It is a world away from scenes of horrendous massacres and accidents worldwide. Yet, what appears on the surface to be the most quiet and removed of locations here in the Highlands at Wardlaw, is not as peaceful as it seems. Bodies have been laid in Wardlaw kirkyard for perhaps 800 years. Some of the grave slabs lying in the grass are clearly very ancient.
But, look at the coffin we examined last week – there are the remains of five unknown people in there. Over the centuries, hundreds of people have been buried here. The records of where everyone lies get interrupted for various reasons – war, fire, simple mislaying of records over time. And when you’re digging new graves, or clearing up an old graveyard, sometimes things come back to the surface.
What lies beneath does not always stay there. When bones emerged, they were put somewhere appropriate, where they would be respected. Where more fitting than an already open coffin for a final, final resting place?
The bones at Wardlaw
Even in The Tower of London, 1000 year old Unesco World Heritage Site, we are told that when they were doing works in the Chapel in the late 1800s, they found the remains of the Jacobite Lords – Lovat, Balmerino and Kilmarnock – to be ‘so much disturbed that it was impossible to identify them’. And they were not the only ones. The skeletons of other people accused of being ‘traitors’, like Henry VIII’s tragic wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard – wives numbers 2 and 5 – were also ‘disturbed’ and incomplete.
So we know graves get opened, whatever our moral position is on it. They might be opened for political reasons or reasons of plain greed and curiosity. I’m thinking of the Stuart period, 1603-1745. Lovat’s mysterious disappearance is all tied up with the latter end of the Stuart dynasty’s traumatic relationship with the British throne. In 1603, the first British Stuart, James VI and I, disinterred the remains of his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, and brought them in state to re-inter them in a fabulous marble sepulchre in Westminster Abbey.
The tower of London
James’s grandson, Charles II dug up the remains of Oliver Cromwell out of Westminster Abbey in 1660. Charles II had Cromwell’s remains ritually re-executed, as a traitor, who had beheaded Charles’s father, Charles I on 30 January, 1649.
And then, we come back to this whole mystery of the headless old man – who is in fact a headless 30 year old woman, and four others – and their entanglement with the last serious Stuart claimant to the thrones, Prince Charles Edward Stuart.
A man who has lived near the mausoleum all his life, told me there were up to 20 Lovat coffins in the vault in the 1970s. There are only a handful now. Where are the others? Looted for the lead and melted down? What happened to the bodies when the lead was stolen? Are the random bones, of the four people in with the young woman, the remains of Lovat Frasers left lying about when the missing coffins were stolen?
Mary Queen of Scots, marble sepulchre
The big question lurks, did we open the right coffin?
I ask this because, if a sacrum here, teeth there, and other bones from someone else, ended up here for want of a better place to put them, then what about Lovat’s coffin plate? It is a key piece of evidence that the coffin we opened was his.
What if that coffin plate came from one of the other looted, and now missing coffins? Would it suggest Lovat was never in the coffin we opened – but nor is he in The Tower…and his plate was put in the coffin we opened as a part of tidying up the crypt along with those random bones? And does this mean the Old Fox’s are scattered and gone, and have – ‘dust to dust’ – returned to the earth here?
Our job now is to put the remains of these five souls, who unwittingly entered history last Thursday, and perhaps unwillingly, in a new coffin. We must have a quiet ceremony of remembrance, and put them back in the lead coffin in the crypt. Then they might Rest in Peace.