The History of Leith

February 7, 2005

Mortcloths and Resurrectionists

No mention is made of mortcloths in the Parish Registers until the 18th century is reached, but from an early period mortcloths were regarded as an essential part of the equipment of a funeral.

They were necessary on the score of decency in cases where the dead were interred without coffins or where coffins were made of plain wood and undecorated. The mortcloth was brought to the house where the dead body was lying and was kept over it until the funeral party had reached the side of the grave. At a later date the niortcloth was spread over the coffin when it reached the gate of the churchyard; and it was dispensed with altogether during last century when coffins were covered with black trappings, which probably were intended to represent the mortcloth. These mortcloths were made of black velvet) and for their use the Kirk Session exacted a small payment, these payments bringing in considerable revenue in some parishes. In South Leith Parish a mortcloth was kept at Restairig for use in the churchyard there, and another at Dalton when a separate burial ground was formed in that district; and apparently the incorporations each had a mortcloth, which restricted the revenue of the Kirk Session for the mortcloth which they provided. The Session mortcloth has been preserved and may still be seen in the toolhouse in the churchyard.
Other curiosities still to the fore are the heavy caps which were provided for the men who watched the churchyard at nights in the times of the resurrectionists, these being of metal to withstand shot in case the body snatchers were armed with guns. In this generation we have forgotten the widespread consternation that once existed in regard to the pillage of graves for subjects for dissection. But there was a time when stories were retailed which made children’s hair stand on end about carts and vans rattling along the roads in the middle of the night with freights of newly buried bodies lifted from their resting places. The Registers of the 1 century contain numerous references to this exciting subject, and there is one Minute, dated 5th January 1721, in which it is recorded that the officials of the church searched the grave of a lately deceased lady; “they found the chist in the grave, but the corpse away.” In consideration of this and other gross abuses a Committee laid the facts before the Magistrates, and reported later that the Magistrates” had taken care to prevent the same in time coming?’ No detail is given of the measures taken by the Magistrates.
The Minutes show that when an interment took place it was common for the friends to hire watchers for a period, and these men being armed with guns and not always very sober frequently alarmed the neighbourhood by firing at imaginary robbers. From a Minute of 18th March 1725 we learn that the watchers had the use of the Cantore, a small building in the Kirkgate in front of the church, which they carelessly set on fire. A Minute of 31st July 1.735 refers to a “watchhouse.” Whether this was a special erection for the use of the watchers does not appear, but such houses were provided in some districts, and a handsome one in the form of a small round tower still stands in Lothian Road within St. Cuthbert’s churchyard. On 4th January 1739, because of “much disturbance made arid several damages done by the persons employed to watch the new buried dead,” the Kirk Session discharged these persons to bring firearms into the church yard or” too much liquor more than is necessary for their refreshment.” From subsequent Minutes it appears that these and other regulations were breached more often than observed.

source-South Leith Records 1925

Some Text