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Understanding Scottish Graveyards

by Shelley Bain


When visiting Ayr two years ago, a fellow travelers was a former resident and a very willing guide for a walking tour of the town one pleasant evening. One of the most interesting places was the church graveyard where she shared her interest in deciphering headstones.


The following information is borrowed from Understanding Scottish Graveyards by Betty Willsher - most likely out of print.

Emblems of Mortality

Skeleton, Skull, Bones, - any variety - a reminder to the living that death comes to us all. Winged skulls are rare.
Hourglass - sands of time - we have a limited time on earth and the sand is running out in ours.
Hooded-Robed figure - Father Time usually with his hourglass and scythe nearby.
Scythe, dart, bow and arrow, lance, axe - the weapons of death.
Sexton's Tools - crossed spade and turf cutter (triangular blade).
Bell/handbell - the Deid bell - rang to give notice of funerals.
Trees with lopped branches - a life cut short.
Adam and Eve - These will usually be on the left and right side of the stone respectively. There are a few variations on their depiction - depending on the stone mason. 
Represents the Fall from Grace.
Snakes - the snake from the Garden of Eden - death and sin.

Emblems of Immortality

Heads and or full bodies with Wings - the soul ascending from death waiting for Judgement Day.
Angels with Trumpets - Angels of the Resurrection.
Resurrection Scenes
Clouds or Sunbursts - the radiance of God.
Torches - eternal life.
Heart - divine love.
Heart carved between initials - true love of a married couple.
Crown - the crown of righteousness.
Palm fronds, bay leaves, laurel - victory over death.
Poppies - sleep.
Lillies - purity.

Other flowers are ornamental

Fir cones - an ancient symbol of fertility - now ornamental.
Scales - weighing of the soul on Judgement Day.
Anchor - hope - also the emblem of mariners or fishermen.
Dove - Holy Spirit.
Hands emerging from clouds - the hand of God.
Hands shaking - a sign of farewell or reunion.
Others - Adam and Eve - Abraham and Isaac - Sower and Reaper (popular in farming areas).

You may come across a marker that has different initials on the left-hand side and only one on the right. The right-hand initial is for the surname of the family, and the ones on the left are for the individual family members.

Emblems of trade-- a few examples

Mason - trowel, square, level.
Malt Men - grain shovel, tongs, slated shovel (mash oar), fire hook (two-pronged fork sort of).
Bakers - bakers peel - the long flat thingy for removing items from the oven.
Weavers - loom, shuttlecock, a web (sample of woven cloth).

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