Death and Burial

Death holds a lot of unknowns for the average person at the best of times, but perhaps it could be said that this is doubly so for many Gaelic Polytheists, since it’s not something that is talked about much. Here I’ll be trying to cover the practises and traditional beliefs in Ireland and Scotland from the Iron Age (which roughly corresponds with the arrival of Celtic culture) to the present. This means starting with the archaeology to see how the dead were treated in the earliest Celtic period, before we have any written records, and then working our way along to the evidence found in the early medieval sources, and then later folklore and customs that have been recorded in more recent times. See also: Afterlife and Ancestors.

In the beginning…

Cairn Holy, a prehistoric burial site in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland. There is evidence that people would return frequently to feast with the dead

Cairn Holy, a prehistoric burial site in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland. There is evidence that people would return frequently to feast with the dead

There are a few difficulties in looking at the archaeological evidence for death and burial in the Iron Age of Ireland and Scotland, and this is primarily due to the fact that it is notoriously difficult to identify burials with any degree certainty to this date. As a result, most of what has been written about the subject is spotty, at best. This can limit us somewhat in the interpretations we can make based on the evidence before us.

In addition to this, archaeology can’t tell us much about the specifics of ritual – not the words or actions that may have accompanied the actual act of laying the dead to rest, at least. But it does give us clues about the attitudes of the people who had to say goodbye to their loved ones, and hints about their beliefs as to the afterlife. From this we might only be able to speak in generalisations, but we can, perhaps, get something of a firmer idea if we consider the bigger picture and look to folk survivals in belief and practice, along with the historical sources that we have to hand. Again, the picture isn’t perfect, but it’s the only one we have.

Prehistoric Ireland and Scotland (and Britain and Ireland as a whole) are covered in burial monuments, some huge and impressive, some of a more modest scale. These monuments, like Newgrange or Knowth in Ireland, or Cairn Holy, Cairnpapple, and Maes Howe in Scotland, cannot be considered to be Celtic because they were built prior to Celtic culture arriving. They vary in size, shape, and complexity, with specific styles of tomb being local to particular areas, but they are all monuments of the dead, committing them to the landscape and the memories of those who came after them.

To our modern eyes it says a lot about a people, or several different peoples, that their most remarkable monuments that survive today are dedicated to the dead, to their ancestors. In some of these burial monuments there is evidence that once interred, the bodies were not left alone, but the bones were sorted, arranged, and rearranged periodically. Death was ever present, and so it seems were the ancestors. In Uist, in fact, there is evidence to suggest that some people were mummified and kept for several hundred years before being finally buried.1

Into the Iron Age in Ireland, many of these monuments were still being used for burials, albeit occasionally. In most cases, cremated remains were left in pits dug into the mounds and then covered over,2 suggesting that although the culture and beliefs had changed (or were changing), they considered themselves to have a consistency and continuity with the people who had built the mounds before them.

Another sign of consistency is the continuation of cremation as the common practice from the Bronze Age in to the early Iron Age. Instead of the large monuments that came before them, however, the cremated remains were covered by more modest burial mounds of about 15m in diameter, with other cremations added over a period of time (presumably from the same family or tuath). Grave-goods tend to be sparse and small – glass beads, bone pins, bronze brooches, and only occasionally are larger items like swords found.3 Although sparse, it’s these kinds of grave-goods that suggest a belief in some sort of afterlife – things that the deceased might like or need, wherever they’re going.4 Not all cremations were necessarily accompanied by such mounds, but those cremations that have been found without accompanying grave-goods or other signifiers are notoriously difficult to date.5

From around the fifth century B.C.E. in Ireland, burials of different forms became the norm (although cremations are still found in this period, and even into the first millennium C.E.),6 but certainly these burials were nothing compared to the spectacular ‘kingly’ burials like those found at places like Hochdorf, or in Yorkshire (by the Arras culture, who originated on the continent, bringing their own burial traditions with them).7 Again, grave-goods tend to be sparse, and in most cases the bodies are simply laid to rest in the ground. The earliest kind of burials for the Iron Age period usually have the body laid on its side in a crouched position – almost foetal, or as if tucked up for a long, comfy sleep. Sometimes these are found in stone-lined pits, known as ‘cists’,8 other times the body has been laid straight into the ground.9

The reasons for this change in preference in Ireland – from cremation to burial – aren’t clear, but it seems that contact with Romanised Britain was an influencing factor.10 Around the first century C.E. burial mounds over graves began to fall out of favour, with ‘flat burials’ becoming the norm by the third or fourth century C.E, making it hard to distinguish between pre-Christian and early Christian inhumations. Once Christianity had become more established, burial practices also became more consistent and easy to recognise – in a cemetery, oriented east-west, with no burial mound or grave goods11 – but even then there is a remarkable consistency in many parts of Ireland between styles of burial and the places chosen for them. From the re-using of earlier prehistoric monuments, to the continued use of Iron Age cemeteries into the Christian period, for obviously Christian burials, a sense of continuity is consistent. Even through great changes – changes in culture, changes in religion, there is a definite sense of there being the idea that it’s also still the same; the same people, the same ancestors. In at least one case, in Cloghermore Cave, ‘pagan’-style burials continued up until the ninth century C.E., so change wasn’t consistent either.12

The story is quite similar in Scotland, with cremations covered by simple cairns or mounds being the earliest examples from the Iron Age, followed by burials becoming more popular over time. These burials were either singular, or multiple burials in one grave, on their own or sometimes in a cemetery (cemeteries probably developing later in the Iron Age, under Roman influence).113 Some burials have been found in apparently disused houses or settlements, whereas other deposits found in houses seem to have been put there as foundation burials14 – a way of keeping particular ancestors around for blessing or protective purposes, perhaps.

A panel of the St Andrews Sarcophagus, a Pictish burial cist thought to have been where Picitsh king Oengus, son of Fergus was laid to rest in 761

A panel of the St Andrews Sarcophagus, a Pictish burial cist thought to have been where Picitsh king Oengus, son of Fergus was laid to rest in 761

Again, the type of burial changed over time. Earlier burials appear to have favoured a crouched position, whereas later burials (from around the time of ‘Roman Britain’), favoured long-cists, where the bodies were laid out flat on their back (hence the name ‘long-cist’, because they were longer than those that had crouched burials.15 These long-cist burials are particularly prevalent in the south-east of Scotland traditionally associated with the Pictish heartland, and it is thought that these types of burials are evidence of the earliest Christian burials in the area because they tend to occur in areas where the Pictish monuments show Christian iconography as well.16 In Pictish areas of Scotland, burials were covered over with circular or square mounds of earth or stones (depending on the type of material that was available, and/or the season – digging frozen ground would have been a tall order if stones were freely available), which were often marked out by ‘interrupted ditches’ – ditches around the edge of the mound that didn’t all meet up.17 Round mounds tend to be the favoured shape elsewhere for this period, in Ireland, for example (see above), but square mounds have also been found in Scandinavia and Yorkshire, Wales, and France.18 There is evidence from several of these mounds that carved Pictish stones were placed on top of the mounds, presumably to commemorate the deceased. The few burials of this type that have been excavated tend to date from around the 400s to 700s,19 right when there was a huge amount of change going on in Britain as a whole – the adoption of Christianity, the Anglo-Saxons settling further south, and the collapse of the Roman Empire. Although the Picts remained relatively unscathed from all of this upheaval and appear to have been relatively slower in adopting Christianity compared to the west of Scotland, clearly they weren’t as isolated or immune from such change as many have assumed in the past.

Aerial view of Cairnpapple Hill, Scotland, by John Wells

Aerial view of Cairnpapple Hill, Scotland, by John Wells

Caves were also used for depositing bodies,20 and as in Ireland, some prehistoric burial mounds were reused. Cairnpapple Hill, for example, was originally a neolithic stone circle that was later turned into a burial site after it fell out of use for its initial purpose. At the centre of a circle in a mound with a stone burial cist and around the site are several burial pits. Evidence of the site being used for burial into the first millennium C.E. – well into the Christian period.21 Again, there is a sense of connection with the ancestors, and ancestral customs.

Grave-goods are again few and far between in Scottish burials, but those that have been found are similar to those seen in Ireland – beads, rings, brooches, swords, daggers, and even pig bones (which may be evidence of feasting in 22

In some cases, remains show evidence of a process known as excarnation, or ‘defleshing’, a practice that has been found in the neolithic period in Scotland as well. This is where a body is left out in the open for a period of time until the flesh and organs had been entirely eaten by birds, leaving the bones clean. The body is thought to have been placed on a wooden platform of some sort, probably in a fairly remote area where it would have been left alone by people and predators alike.

The bones were then taken and used in a variety of different ways, sometimes with the larger bones being buried at various points around a house, while the smaller bones – more difficult to spot, perhaps, or deliberately placed – often ended up in the midden (rubbish/garbage piles). In some cases, the bones may even have been kept around before being buried.

On a practical level, excarnation meant that the bones could be used for whatever purpose they were needed for quicker than if they were buried. Symbolically, however, the process could be seen as a means of removing the flesh to release the spirit of the person. In some cultures the spirit of the dead person is seen to be dangerous, and so quick release of the flesh, that housed the spirit, would make the danger period much shorter, while the remaining bones symbolised the ancestral power that remained, clean and tangible. In effect, the removal of the flesh may have represented the final stage of death, and so allowed the deceased to rest properly.23

It is clear, however, that excarnation was just one way of treating the dead, and while cremation could arguably serve the same purpose of releasing the spirit quickly, there is something of a contradiction when considering the cist burials. Why some people were treated differently compared to others is impossible to say, although it is reasonable to assume that beliefs and preferences between people and localities were not necessarily uniform, just like today.

Death – foreshadowing

Death is often seen to be foretold or foreshadowed. Signs or premonitions may alert someone that their own demise, or a relative’s, is close at hand, especially if the death was unexpected – accidental or unfortunate. Strange lights might be seen, above the house of the person who is about to die, or moving toward the burial plot in the local churchyard (although lights seen over a river, loch or the sea foretells a drowning);24 or odd sounds heard, like weeping, wailing, or screaming coming from a place where no person could possibly be, or else odd knocks at the door are heard, even though no one is there.25 Sometimes an apparition (a taibhse), or the ‘fetch’ of the person who is about to die might appear to people as a warning, indicated either simply by its presence or by the cries it emits (éigheach taisg, ‘cry of a wraith’).26 Ghostly funeral processions might also be seen in the distance,27 or else signs closer to home, known as manadh, are seen. These tend to be signs from inanimate objects behaving oddly – dishes suddenly move in the cupboard, or start rattling, only later for the family to find they are then used at the wake.28

Many families in Scotland and Ireland have their own unique death messengers – their own signs that one of their own was about to die. In the case of Scottish clans, for example, the MacLachlan’s might expect to see a little bird; the Breadalbanes might see a bull roaring up the hillside; Clann Dhonnchaidh Dhuibh, a sept of the MacGregors, might hear a whistle, while another sept of the MacGregors, Clann Dhonnchaidh Bhig, might expect to see a light, like a candle, glowing.29

Perhaps one of the best known death-messengers is the Washer at the Ford, which in the Irish myths is Badb, who appears to Cú Chulainn at a ford, on his way to battle. She washes the stains out of the slain men’s clothes – those who will die in the coming battle – and Cú Chulainn’s is amongst them. This story dates to the fifteenth century in manuscript form, but may go back as far as the eighth century.30 There is evidence in other sources that dates the tradition of the death-messenger keening or lamenting the dead to this time as well.31

Related to the Badb is the bean sí, or banshee, whose screeches or laments foretell death for many a family in Ireland.32 Those who claim aristocratic descent – with Ó or Mac names – are all said to be visited by the bean sí, or badha/babha (indicating her descendence from the Badb herself), although in many parts families have their own bean sí (‘fairy woman’) who keens them. The Anglo-Norman Fitzgerald family claim connection with Áine, who keens their dead; Aoibheall, Clíona and Bó Find also take on this role in other parts of Ireland, to other families. In all cases, they are both sovereignty goddesses and ancestors, functioning as supernatural death-messenger; goddesses-turned-faeries. She belongs to the clan, and she calls her own.33

The banshee also makes herself known in Scotland, and it is said that in Glen Coe, Scotland, the Bean-nighe was to be seen washing the shrouds of those who were about to die, in the River Coe, right before the massacre of 1692.34

Death and burial in Ireland

There is a remarkable consistency in the surviving folklore between Irish and Scottish traditions associated with death and burial, but also, there are some subtle nuances that make it worth examining both areas separately, so that they may be appreciated.

One of the biggest reasons for these differences is the change of the religious climate in Scotland, which resulted in the clamping down on many perceived moral abuses that were seen at the time. The Church in Ireland had similar concerns over the centuries, but efforts to clamp down on such immoralities were far less successful. This allowed many of the traditions associated with such an important rite of passage to survive for far longer than it would have otherwise.

By and large, there were several stages in the rites associated with death and burial:

  • Preparation and laying out of the body
  • The wake
  • The funeral procession
  • Laying to rest

Firstly, there was the preparation of the body – washing it, dressing it, and laying it out. Then there was the wake, where the body was watched over constantly by friends and family, until it was time for the funeral. The waking period gave time for distant relatives to travel for the funeral, and also gave the opportunity to for friends and family to say goodbye. When it was time for the funeral, there was a large procession to the Church, where the final rites were given, and the body laid to rest. Throughout it all, there were family, friends and neighbours present. Death was not a private, family affair, but the focus of the whole community, who saw to it that the deceased was treated properly and had a proper send-off. Everyone took part; the burden of grief was shared.

It is traditional to

It is traditional to “tell the bees” when a loved one has died. Image by Thangaraj Kumaravel

The details differed for an elderly person who died, compared to someone who young, or who had died in tragic circumstances. The elderly were celebrated in death, commemorated and sent off with cheer as much as grief, for a long life well-lived. Games were played at the wake to pass the time, amusing stories were told, drinks were provided freely, along with food, snuff and tobacco.35 For those who had been taken too soon, the proceedings were muted and more solemn, the grief more palpable in the room, the games and songs abandoned.36

Under ideal circumstances, the person who was dying would have time to prepare and say their goodbyes, surrounded by those they loved. When it became apparent that the person was not long for this world, the windows and doors were opened, to allow the soul to make its journey more easily. In some parts of Ireland, houses had a small hole in the wall or roof for this purpose.37

Neighbours and close relatives were told of the death, and the news would spread fast through the community. It was also customary, however, to go and tell the bees the sad news, and if there was a hive close by, a black ribbon or crêpe was put on it.38

From the point of dying, the body was never to be left alone until the burial. Women would wash the body and attire it properly, and if it was a man who had died, a neighbour might come to shave the beard. The body was then laid out somewhere – on a table in the largest room of the house, or even in the barn if a lot of visitors were to be expected for the wake.39 It was only when the body had been laid out, ready to receive mourners, that the family made any public display of mourning.40

Once laid out, a dish of snuff was laid on (or beside) the body – or else sometimes it was tobacco. Sometimes, too, a turf of peat was laid on the body, as it was believed to prevent decomposition and swelling of the body.41 Candles were placed around the body and formed the only source of illumination at night,42 and as people came to visit and pay their respects, a pinch of snuff would be taken, a prayer to the deceased said, and condolences and sympathies offered to the relatives.43 Visitors came in a steady trickle, with children and the elderly arriving during the day, and the younger people more likely to arrive in the evening.44

It was considered rude not to stay a while and partake of the host’s hospitality, and so a wake was a very social occasion. Because of this, it was naturally incumbent upon the family to provide plenty of food and drink for everyone who came, as well as plenty of snuff and tobacco. A neighbour who was helping out around the house was often put in charge of seeing to it that everyone was well supplied with snuff and tobacco, and clay tobacco pipes were specially bought in to hand out to each mourner. In return, those who took part in such generous hospitality made themselves useful, taking turns to watch over the body and make sure it was never alone. Traditionally the wake lasted at least two nights, with the second night being the busiest for visitors.45 Not to be left out, the corpse was often given a pipe as well, placed between the lips as if having a smoke.46 During the long hours of the night it was often the young adults of the community who took the duty of staying with the body, which is primarily where the accusations of mischief and immorality come in, the dim lighting, copious amounts of whiskey, and smoky atmosphere, providing plenty of opportunity for such…47

With the condolences given, there was the chance for a chat and a gossip. As the evening went on, and more people gathered, there would be stories and amusing tales about the deceased that would provoke a laugh or two. There was song and dancing, and all the while the body was there for all to see; in fact, it wasn’t unusual for a few dances to be had with the deceased, or to find that in all of the merriment the body had accidentally fallen from its resting place.48

The games and amusements to be found at wakes can be seen as serving a variety of purposes; on the one hand they were a distraction from the grief, on the other, they were an outlet for any pent up emotions. In a practical sense, they helped pass the time, especially through the long nights. The games that were played were mostly from the standard stock of parlour games that were played at any festive occasion,49 and many of them are still played today – Blind Man’s Buff, Hide the Shoe,50 Pin the Tail on the Donkey,51 arm wrestling,52 and card games of different kinds (especially at smaller, quieter wakes).53

Anyone who was agile and able would join in with these games, and there was something for everyone (especially once the whiskey was in full flow!). There were games that tested one’s strength – ‘Lifting the Corpse’, for example, where ‘a stout man’ (not the actual corpse…) would lay on the ground and four men would then try to lift him using only their thumbs, placed under each shoulder and leg.54 People would try holding an egg between the palms and then crush it.55

Games of agility and dexterity were popular as well – holding a stick at each end and trying to jump over it without letting go of it was a particularly tricky game, or else there was the game of The Little Comb. Here, two people would sit on stools, face to face, with their feet tucked underneath them. Both would pretend to sew something in their lap and then, suddenly, try to hit the other person (using their hand, or a pillow) and knock them off the stool.56

Blindfolded, one person might try to break an egg on the floor with a stick, or else go round trying to catch other people and guess who they are.57 Throughout the games, there was often good-natured taunting and mocking – known as sconcing, jibbing, or scogging – which could often become a game on its own, to provoke a reaction from someone in the room who was known for over-reacting.58 Sometimes the ribbing took the form of simple taunting, at other times, somebody might try to annoy another person by throwing things at them. Ó Súilleabháin describes one scene at a wake he attended in the 1920s, where potatoes ended up being thrown around. Sods of turf and even the clay pipes handed out to each mourner might get thrown around as well, usually targeting somebody who was particularly unpopular or quick to anger, before the throwing turned into something of a free-for-all. “Unruly conduct was always the rule at the wakes of old people.”59

The losers in the games often received a slap with a leather strap or a piece of rope, and at some point in the evening the strap was often hidden away somewhere. Whoever found it would be able to run around slapping everyone else, before having it taken off them and having it hidden again.60

Given the nature of the games – the potential for annoying bystanders who weren’t taking part, for winding people up when emotions were already running high, or slapping someone one too many times – there was always the potential for fights and squabbles to break out. Faction fighting was also common, especially in the eighteenth century.61

While somewhat unruly, so far the games that have been described certainly don’t seem to have been lewd or immoral. The Church complained about the disrespectful tone of the wakes – the heavy drinking, the disorderly conduct – but also the other abuses that took place, as far back 1660, at least.62 Ó Súilleabháin avoids going in to any details as to what this lewd conduct might have been, but Evans is a little more forthcoming – if only a little. The game, ‘The Bull and the Cow’ was clearly of pagan origin, Evans tells us, but then comments that the “circumstances [are] too indelicate to be particularized.”63 Likewise, Evans mentions a game called ‘Drawing the Ship out of the Mud’, which involved nudity of all the participants. In a similar game (Evans continues, as if this game is equally as scandalous as the previous one), the men wear women’s clothes while the women wear the men’s clothes, “and conducted themselves in a very strange manner.”64

At some point in the proceedings, a rest would be needed and games of a quieter and more gentle nature were indulged in. Riddles and tongue-twisters were always popular, especially amongst the younger participants. Perhaps a story was told, or songs were sung.65 Card games might be played, and these often took place at the table where the corpse was laid out, and the deceased was often dealt a hand as if joining in.66 Catch games – games meant to catch people out – were played, like ‘Ducks swim’. This game was similar to Simon Says, but here somebody began with some true statements – ‘Ducks swim’, ‘geese fly’, and so on, with each statement to be repeated by everyone else unless the leader said something that was patently false. Anybody who was caught out by copying a false statement was the loser, and usually got a slap of the strap for their troubles.67

Pranks were a big part of wakes as well. Pepper might be mixed in with the tobacco to prompt bouts of sneezing for anybody who lit up for a smoke, or else the pepper was blown through the keyhole so that everyone inside would fall about in fits of sneezes.68 Many of the pranks took advantage of the dim lighting and smoky atmosphere – people went round surreptitiously trying to prick others with a pin, and not get caught; shoelaces got tied together without the victims noticing (hopefully until they stood up and then tripped over to the amusement of everyone else). Sometimes, somebody would try to mimic the voice of the deceased and make as if the person had come alive again, or was speaking from beyond the veil. Often, when a person who’d died had suffered from arthritis or rheumatism, the body had to be tied down in order to keep it straight. The prankster would try to surreptitiously cut the ropes that were keeping the body in place, causing it to spring upright or at least move suddenly, and scaring those of a nervous disposition.69

When the time came for the funeral, the mourners gathered again, and at this point there were further displays of grief. Tears flowed freely, and cries and laments filled the room, the name of the deceased was called upon.70 After a while, the relatives would be taken out of the room, and the body would be put in the coffin, and sometimes small items were placed in the coffin too – a little money, food, clothes, holy water, and so on.71 which was usually set on some chairs. These chairs were shaken in all directions before the coffin was lifted off and taken on its way, and the mourners would often carry salt in their pockets for the journey, to ward off the ‘other people’72 – spirits of the departed, perhaps, or the Good Folk. Or both.

While everyone gathered waited for the procession to begin, athletic games were often engaged in – hurdling, jumping, and wrestling in particular,73 recalling the funeral games held in honour of Tailtiu at Lùnastal, for example.

For those who could afford it, professional mourners were hired to give the deceased the best possible send-off. Sometimes poets were hired to compose elegies or dirges, but mostly it was local women who were hired, who specialised in keening, or caoineadh. This is a form of ritualised grieving, where the keener cries, screams, wails, and gives verses of lament in honour of the deceased,74 and the similarity to the keening of the badhbha, or bean sí cannot be ignored. In early Irish annals there are frequent comments that on the death of someone important, that calves were kept from the cows as they and women bewailed the death in utter sadness. It seems they were deliberately starved, and in doing so the calves would cry in distress, adding to the effect of mourning as the women joined in. The Old Irish Penitential (dating to the eighth century) lists the penances that must be carried out by anyone who is found lamenting, with the penalties adjusted according to the circumstances surrounding the death (i.e. who died, and how), so it clearly has a long tradition and possibly pre-Christian roots.75

The keeners were usually paid, at least in part, in the form of food and drink, for their services, and Ó Súilleabháin notes that foreigners who observed the custom, “have said that the pitch and quality of their simulated howlings noticeably increased after they had been given a large glass of strong whiskey.”76 The practice drew much criticism from the Church – being mentioned in early Penitentials, from the eighth century, even – but like most of the other customs at wakes and funerals that were disapproved of and proscribed against, no real action was usually taken unless things got too out of hand.77

With the paid keeners howling, and the mourners taking turns to carry the coffin on the (often long) procession to the church for the funeral, care was taken to make sure the longest route possible was followed, along otherwise disused tracks rather than the usual roads. Where rests were taken, in some parts of Ireland (such as Connacht) small cairns of stones were built by those present, and then the coffin was carried three times sunwise around the church once they arrived, or else they might process around a cross, a lone thorn tree, or other object encountered along the way.78

With the funeral service, the body was entrusted into the care of the Church, and in most cases was buried in the local churchyard (exceptions were made for suicides and unbaptised infants, for example, who were buried separately in cillin cemeteries, away from ‘normal’ burials).79 For the family, however, this wasn’t necessarily the end of their obligations to the deceased. Food was left outside the house “for some time after their burial,”80 and Evans reports instances of plates of food being left at the grave in Achill Island, while Danaher notes that any left-over pipes from the wake were left at the grave of the deceased, although any food left-overs were often given away as well.81 Sometimes the pipes were buried, particularly at local pre-historic burial sites, and the snuff from the wake was considered to have special healing properties.82

Death and burial in Scotland

“The Banshee” from Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland by Thomas Crofton Croker

While much the same can be said for Scotland as it can for Ireland, in terms of its approach to death and burial, there are many differences as well. On the one hand, these differences may be seen as local variations, but outside influences, and in particular, difference in the religious climate (i.e. the influence of the Kirk in Protestant areas of Scotland) can’t be discounted.83 The sources we have also tend to emphasise the perceived dangers surrounding the recently deceased as well, although in Irish sources this fact is usually implicit, if not openly discussed.

When a person died, the clocks were stopped in the room and mirrors covered over with cloth, as was customary across Britain as a whole. Dogs and cats were put outside due to the belief that if they happened to jump over the corpse, it would let the Devil in.84 A piece of iron – such as a nail – was stuck into the meal, butter, cheese, meat, or whisky that happened to be in the house at the time, lest they be ‘corrupted.’85 Presumably, it was believed that the departing spirit might take the toradh of the produce with it. As an added precaution, all of the milk in the house was poured onto the ground, and in some places – especially fishing villages, according to Gregor – onions and butter were also thrown out. The chairs in the house, and clothes belonging to the deceased were then sained with water.86

The bees were told of the sad news in hushed tones, and then they were ‘put in mourning’ – black ribbons were attached to the hives.87 The body was carefully taen aboot – that is, laid out and prepared for the wake, with a saucer of salt (or a sod of earth) placed on the chest, which was believed to prevent swelling (although originally appears to have been a charm against the devil).88

Until the funeral, the body was watched over, and in Scotland the wake was known as ‘the lyke’, or ‘the waukan’.89 Friends, relatives and neighbours would all come and see the body and give condolences to the family, and it was customary for everyone who came to visit to make sure to touch the body, for “should anyone see it and not touch it, that person would be haunted for several nights with fearful dreams.”90 Those who saw the body made a compliment to the deceased – “She’ll be a sair misst umman,” or “He wiz a gueede freen t’mony ane.”91

Upon their arrival, mourners were given a hot toddy, which were then drained to the memory of the deceased, and bread and cheese passed around. Another toddy followed, with the toast – “Consolation to the friends of the deceased,”92 then more bread and cheese, and more toddy or ale was offered. Eventually, the time came to go and see the body so that formal respects could be paid.

Plenty of tobacco was put out for visitors (which often gave the lyke-wake the nickname of ‘tobacco-nict’),93 and with all of the refreshments on top of the tobacco, quite a bill could be run up in providing for everyone during the time it took for the wake and funeral to take place – in some places up to eight days of waking, “no matter how loathsome or infectious the fatal complaint had been,”94 or perhaps a more tolerable three days.95 Isobel Grant notes that in the eighteenth century, the funeral for a chief might have cost up to £700 in accommodating food, drink and entertainment for everyone, and even the poor would try to save £1 or £2 to put towards a more modest send-off for their loved ones.96 Those who had come to pay their respects from afar would be given dredgy, or dirgy – a little bread and cakes to make their journey home with, while closer relatives and neighbours were given more generously of meat and drink.97 Whisky, tea, bread and cheese were freely available – or as freely available as funds provided.98

As in Ireland, Scottish wakes were formerly a merry affair, celebrating the unburdening of the departed with dancing and music accompanied by a free flow of food and drink. While Barbara Fairweather notes that this style of wake was dying out by the late eighteenth century,99 Grant gives a description of a wake held in Rothiemurchus, Badenoch, in the nineteenth century, that was held in ‘the old fashion’. Here, the deceased was shaved and dressed and propped up in his bed, while people from all around came to visit him and pay their respects. “After an abundance of refreshment,” with the dancing getting into full-swing, the jolting of the floor caused the body to fall into the midst of the dancers, mid-reel!100

In Napier’s youth of the early-mid nineteenth century, it was the duty of the local youths to stay up with the deceased, and unlike the unseemly antics of past traditions, Napier maintains that the evening was spent in a far more refined and dignified fashion befitting the treatment of the dead, as opposed to the dancing and drinking of previous centuries. Although it didn’t stop some young couples sneaking out for the chance of some flirting and even love-making… Instead, stories were told or read out loud – especially ghost stories – with the occasional refreshments of a glass of whisky, and tea and bread.101 Gregor describes a similar scene, with turns taken to read from the Bible, and conversations whispered in hushed tones. In some instances, however, there were the sort of pranks played that are typical of Irish wakes – somebody surreptitiously making the body move, or seem like the dead person is talking – but the general atmosphere was far more subdued.102 John Firth of Orkney mentions some games, especially card-games being played,103 but for the most part Scottish sources are keen to show a more dignified approach to wakes than their Irish counterparts.

When it was time for the body to be put in the coffin – time for the kistan – more refreshments were laid on, and the body was dressed in the grave-clothes.104 It was believed that the weather on the day of the funeral offered a sign for the state of the soul – good weather meant the soul was going to a good place, and would be at peace.105 As the coffin was lifted from the chairs on which it had been placed in preparation for the journey, the chairs would be knocked over and left there until sunset, when they were lifted upright and carefully washed – a way of removing the taint of death, so that they might be fit for use by the living again, and to discourage the spirit from returning to them.106

The procession to the funeral usually took place on foot, with up to eight men carrying the coffin on long spokes.107 Those who followed the coffin would step in and take a turn to carry the bier on the often long journey to the church, to share the burden of the coffin, as well as the burden of grief. In remote places, it could be miles to the church, plus the procession would avoid taking established routes in favour of the ‘kirk road’ where possible (a route specially set aside for funeral processions so they didn’t coincide with the living), and so the turns would offer a welcome relief for the carriers. Along the way, rest stops would be taken by the whole company, and in some parts of Scotland (as in Ireland), such as Skye, Lochaber and the Long Island, wherever the coffin had rested, a cairn of stones – a ‘resting cairn’ – was built to commemorate the deceased.108

The view towards Tomintoul, by

The view towards Tomintoul, by “Bill M”

Carmichael writes of a procession in Tom an tSochail (Tomintoul), where he says the corpse – in this case, being carried by horse-drawn cart – was taken out three times along the way to the church. Each time it was taken out of the cart, the horse was taken round sunwise three times in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit, before the body was replaced and the procession carried on a while.109

The procession was often accompanied by professional keeners, mainly up until the late nineteenth century, while in more recent times, bagpipers have taken their place.110 Before the procession departed, the professional mourners would begin a song in order to lament the dead. As the procession left, the tuiream, or mourning woman, would let up a plaintive cry – Carmichael, who observed it during his research for Carmina Gadelica, says, “At first her voice was low and tremulous, but gradually rose to a great height. The scene was striking.”111

Another song was sung, called the coronach, along the way to the church.112 The biggest display of grief was saved until the procession arrived at the church, with the praises of the deceased being sung as the mourning women hold on to the coffin. Even women who didn’t know the deceased, who happened upon the procession, would stop and ask who they were, so that they could join in with the lamenting.113

After the burial, there was further opportunity for refreshments, and larger receptions were often held in the barn to accommodate everyone, with mourners taking turns to partake of each ‘service’, or round of refreshments. Tobacco and pipes were handed out freely to each guest, and then bread and cheese with ale was offered, with groups taking it in turns to go to the table for their share. After this, came whisky with more bread and cheese then rum and biscuits, followed by brandy and a currant bun, and then wine and shortbread.114

Once buried, it was believed that the soul would remain in the churchyard, watching over it until the next soul was laid to rest there, and on the days where it happened that two funerals were scheduled, there would be races and even fights to be first, so that the other poor soul was stranded in the churchyard before another funeral was to happen.115 The night after the funeral, bread and water was also sometimes left out in the place the body had lain during the wake, in the belief that the spirit would return for just that night. Without receiving its due hospitality, the spirit would not be able to rest properly.116


From the earliest archaeological evidence of the Celts in Scotland and Ireland we see a varied practice, with underlying similarities. There is a sense of continuity with the past, and even though huge cultural changes were under way at the time, the fact that the dead were sometimes laid to rest in older burial monuments reinforces the idea. We might see this as a belief in returning the dead to the ancestors, who were integral to the landscape. Similarly, the belief in the bean-sí as a foreshadowing of death – sometimes a shadowy figure with no name, sometimes known as the Badb, Áine, Bó Find, the Bean-nighe – who take on the role of death-messenger can all be seen to be both goddesses and ancestors; they come to claim their own, and in some cases, these messengers can be seen to haunt certain areas.

While the custom of waking the dead is often seen as quintessentially Irish, and to a lesser extent, Scottish, the practice was once widespread across Europe. While not necessarily exclusively Gaelic in origin, it nevertheless does appear to have ancient roots, and ones that have become well-established in Gaelic (predominantly Catholic) culture.117

What is apparent in the traditions that have survived is that while the laying to rest of the body was exclusively within the realm of the church, the preparation for that time was almost exclusively within the realm of the family and the community. Given this fact, and the perceived abuses and immoral behaviour that accompanied the wakes in both Scotland and Ireland, it’s no surprise to find that the Church made many attempts to clamp down on the practice.118 This was arguably more successful in Scotland than it was in Ireland, but either way it was simply time and wider changes in culture that saw the practice erode from being observed over a period of days, to just one night, if at all.119

While the practice of the wake, on the one hand, allowed for an elaborate ritualised period of mourning, it was also designed to show goodwill towards the deceased, and to allow an adequate period of transition for the newly departed soul to get used to their new condition120 – as shown by the fact that the deceased was often treated as if they were still around (being dealt in a hand of cards, or being involved in the dancing, for example). The same principle can be seen in the assemblies that took place from the time of some of the earliest records, on and off, until relatively recently in many parts of Ireland. Many of these assembly sites are associated with prehistoric burial sites, suggesting an intimate link between the assemblies (usually at Lùnastal), and those who were buried there.121

The wake can therefore be seen as something of a liminal period between living and dying – a transitionary period where both the living and the dead accommodated each other. The fact that many of the games and amusements, the refreshments and entertainment, can be found at many other festival occasions122 further blurs the lines between the two, bringing an element of normalcy during a period of great change.

To many, as much as the wake provided a catharsis to the mourners, wakes and funerals were merrier occasions than weddings; the ultimate festive occasion.


1 Mummification in Bronze Age Britain.
2 Raftery, ‘Iron-age Ireland’, A New History of Ireland Volume I: Prehistoric and Early Ireland, Ó Cróinín (Ed.), 2005, p171.
3 Raftery, Pagan Celtic Ireland, 1994, p189; Duffy, Medieval Ireland, An Encyclopedia, 2005, p388.
4 Duffy, Medieval Ireland, An Encyclopedia, 2005, p388.
5 Raftery, ‘Iron-age Ireland’, A New History of Ireland Volume I: Prehistoric and Early Ireland, Ó Cróinín (Ed.), 2005, p171.
6 Cunliffe, Iron Age Communities in Britain, 1975, p287; Raftery, ‘Iron-age Ireland’, A New History of Ireland Volume I: Prehistoric and Early Ireland, Ó Cróinín (Ed.), 2005, p171.
7 Cunliffe, Iron Age Communities in Britain, 1975, p291.
8 ‘kist’ – pronounced with a hard ‘c‘.
9 Raftery, ‘Iron-age Ireland’, A New History of Ireland Volume I: Prehistoric and Early Ireland, Ó Cróinín (Ed.), 2005, p173.
10 Duffy, Medieval Ireland, An Encyclopedia, 2005, p53.
11 Mallory, ‘The World of Cú Chulainn: The Archaeology of the Táin Bó Cúailnge’ in Mallory (Ed), Aspects of the Táin, 1992, p129.
12 Mallory, ‘The World of Cú Chulainn: The Archaeology of the Táin Bó Cúailnge’ in Mallory (Ed), Aspects of the Táin, 1992, p129.
13 Hingley, Settlement and Sacrifice, 1998, p53; Carver, Surviving in Symbols, 1999, p22-23.
14 Hingley, Settlement and Sacrifice, 1998, p53.
15 Carver, Surviving in Symbols, 1999, p23; See also, Raftery, ‘Iron-age Ireland’, A New History of Ireland Volume I: Prehistoric and Early Ireland, Ó Cróinín (Ed.), 2005, p173.
16 Carver, Surviving in Symbols, 1999, p22-23. Pictish monuments are generally split into two classes – Class I and Class II. Class I types are usually found on stones, slabs or boulders, and only show symbols of stylised animals or abstract artwork. Class II types are usually upright slabs, deliberately set in place and carved with both symbols, Christian imagery, and scenes of people hunting, at war, or acting out stories from the Bible. Class I monuments are thought to be earlier because they show no evidence of Christianity, suggesting they are pre-Christian in origin. See Carver, Surviving in Symbols, 1999, p19.
17 Carver, Surviving in Symbols, 1999, p24.
18 Carver, Surviving in Symbols, 1999, p24.
19 Carver, Surviving in Symbols, 1999, p24.
20 Hingley, Settlement and Sacrifice, 1998, p53.
21 Information panel at Cairnpapple hill.
22 Ritchie and Ritchie, Scotland: Archaeology and Early History, 1991, p98-99.
23 Hingley, Settlement and Sacrifice, 1998, p53.
24 MacKenzie, Scottish Folk-Lore and Folk Life, 1935, p286.
25 Shaw, Folk Songs and Folklore of South Uist, 1977, p9.
26 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p262.
27 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p239.
28 Shaw, Folk Songs and Folklore of South Uist, 1977, p9.
29 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p234-235.
30 Lysaght, Banshee: The Irish Supernatural Death-Messenger, 1986, p198.
31 Lysaght, Banshee: The Irish Supernatural Death-Messenger, 1986, p193-4.
32 Lysaght, Banshee: The Irish Supernatural Death-Messenger, 1986, p197.
33 Lysaght, Banshee: The Irish Supernatural Death-Messenger, 1986, p194-196; p205-206. In the case of the Fitzgeralds, their connection with Áine is arguably a way of legitimating their claim to land that has been usurped from Irish chiefs.
34 Fairweather, Highland Heritage, 1984, p37.
35 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Folk Custom and Belief, 1967, p54.
36 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Wake Amusements, 1967, p28.
37 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Folk Custom and Belief, 1967, p51.
38 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Folk Custom and Belief, 1967, p53.
39 Danaher, In Ireland Long Ago, 1962, p173-174; Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Folk Custom and Belief, 1967, p53.
40 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Wake Amusements, 1967, p14.
41 Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 1957, p290; Danaher, In Ireland Long Ago, 1962, p173-174.
42 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Wake Amusements, 1967, p10.
43 Danaher, In Ireland Long Ago, 1962, p173-174.
44 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Folk Custom and Belief, 1967, p53-54.
45 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Folk Custom and Belief, 1967, p53-54.
46 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Wake Amusements, 1967, p67.
47 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Wake Amusements, 1967, p10.
48 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Wake Amusements, 1967, p31; p67.
49 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Wake Amusements, 1967, p163.
50 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Wake Amusements, 1967, p117-118.
51 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Wake Amusements, 1967, p48.
52 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Wake Amusements, 1967, p40.
53 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Wake Amusements, 1967, p31-32.
54 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Wake Amusements, 1967, p39.
55 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Wake Amusements, 1967, p40.
56 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Wake Amusements, 1967, p46.
57 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Wake Amusements, 1967, p49.
58 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Wake Amusements, 1967, p56.
59 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Wake Amusements, 1967, p66.
60 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Wake Amusements, 1967, p49.
61 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Wake Amusements, 1967, p71.
62 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Wake Amusements, 1967, p19.
63 Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 1957, p291.
64 Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 1957, p291.
65 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Wake Amusements, 1967, p32.
66 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Wake Amusements, 1967, p67.
67 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Wake Amusements, 1967, p106.
68 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Wake Amusements, 1967, p66.
69 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Wake Amusements, 1967, p67.
70 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Folk Custom and Belief, 1967, p130-131.
71 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Folk Custom and Belief, 1967, p55.
72 Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 1957, p292.
73 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Wake Amusements, 1967, p53.
74 Taylor, ‘Bás InÉirinn: Cultural Constructions of Death in Ireland,’ Anthropological Quarterly, Vol 62 No. 4 The Uses of Death in Europe, 1989, p180-181.
75 Lucas, Cattle in Ancient Ireland, 1989, p7-11.
76 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Folk Custom and Belief, 1967, p137.
77 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Folk Custom and Belief, 1967, p138; p157.
78 Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 1957, p292-293.
79 See here.
80 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Custom and Belief, 1967, 57.
81 Danaher, In Ireland Long Ago, 1962, p174.
82 Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 1957, p292.
83 Ross, Folklore of the Scottish Highlands, 2000, p121.
84 Napier, Folk Lore, Or, Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within this Century, 1879, p40.
85 Gregor, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North of Scotland, 1881, p206.
86 Gregor, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North of Scotland, 1881, p206.
87 From J. Maxwell Wood, Dumfries, 1911, in Bennett, Scottish Customs From the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p230-31.
88 Napier, Folk Lore, Or, Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within this Century, 1879, p41; Bennett, Scottish Customs From the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p220.
89 Gregor, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North of Scotland, 1881, p209.
90 Napier, Folk Lore, Or, Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within this Century, 1879, p42.
91 Gregor, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North of Scotland, 1881, p210-11.
92 Gregor, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North of Scotland, 1881, p209.
93 Gregor, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North of Scotland, 1881, p209.
94 Bennett, Scottish Customs From the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p220.
95 From Lewis Grant, Strathspey, 1983, Bennett, Scottish Customs From the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p271.
96 Grant, Highland Folk Ways, 1961, p368.
97 Napier, Folk Lore, Or, Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within this Century, 1879, p42-43.
98 Gregor, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North of Scotland, 1881, p209.
99 Fairweather, Highland Heritage, 1984, p49.
100 Grant, Highland Folk Ways, 1961, p368.
101 Napier, Folk Lore, Or, Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within this Century, 1879, p41; p44.
102 Gregor, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North of Scotland, 1881, p209.
103 From John Firth, Orkney, 1920, Bennett, Scottish Customs From the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p273.
104 Gregor, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North of Scotland, 1881, p209.
105 Napier, Folk Lore, Or, Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within this Century, 1879, p43.
106 Gregor, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North of Scotland, 1881, p212.
107 Gregor, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North of Scotland, 1881, p211-12 Grant, Highland Folk Ways, 1961, p369.
108 Grant, Highland Folk Ways, 1961, p369; Fairweather, Highland Heritage, 1984, p49.
109 “an ainm Athar, an ainm Mic, an ainm Spioraid.” Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica Vol III, 1940, p370.
110 Newton, A Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World, 2000, p161; Grant, Highland Folk Ways, 1961, p369.
111 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica Vol II, 1900, p309.
112 Fairweather, Highland Heritage, 1984, p49.
113 From John Lane Buchanan, Western Isles, 1782, in Bennett, Scottish Customs From the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p275-276.
114 From J. Maxwell Wood, Dumfries, 1911, in Bennett, Scottish Customs From the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p233.
115 Grant, Highland Folk Ways, 1961, p367.
116 Gregor, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North of Scotland, 1881, p213.
117 Taylor, ‘Bás InÉirinn: Cultural Constructions of Death in Ireland,’ Anthropological Quarterly, Vol 62 No. 4 The Uses of Death in Europe, 1989, p179-181.
118 Bennett, Scottish Customs From the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p232; Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Wake Amusements, 1967, p23.
119 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Wake Amusements, 1967, p165.
120 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Wake Amusements, 1967, p171.
121 See Ettlinger, ‘The Association of Burials with Popular Assemblies, Fairs and Races in Ancient Ireland’ in Études Celtiques Vol 6, 1953, p30-61.
122 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Wake Amusements, 1967, p162.