Grave Stirling

A burial-ground has occupied the site west of the Holy Rude Church since 1129, when the first Dominican chapel was built here.

Those seeking 12th-century tombs, though, are destined for disappointment. For most of Stirling’s history those who could afford such memorials were laid to rest in Elite Lairs beneath the church floor. This practice ceased in 1623: officially ‘to avoid the great abuse and profanation of God, his house, in burying of dead corpses’, but actually because the stench within the kirk had become unbearable – forcing rich revenants to slum-it with the scruff stiffs, outside!

Our oldest gravestone is dated a little earlier than this, in 1579: a large, flat ‘Throughstane’, marked with the arms of the Gibb family, the initials of the deceased, and the symbol of a hammer, mallet and chisel appropriate to a family of Masons and Quarriers, but no name. Names are rare on these early stones, as such identification would be a sign of sinful Vanity. Who you were didn’t matter. What you were, did. Nearby stones bear other traditional icons of Death (a skull, crossed-bones or hourglass), Resurrection (an Angel, Green Man or Orobouros) and, most importantly, Occupation (a symbol of trade or business).

Some, like the Service Stone, bear more sinister markings: the deep scars of musket-shot, suffered during General Monck’s siege of Stirling Castle in 1651, and the Jacobite assault of 1746, when this peaceful churchyard became a battleground.

Further strife was to come, in November 1823, when graverobbers seeking corpses for medical study and dissection came to call. These ‘Resurrection Men’ might have been forgiven for thinking that the body wouldn’t be missed. After 700 years as the Burgh’s only burial-ground it was desperately overcrowded.

The valley between the Kirk and the Castle was annexed in the 1840s. Once host to public fairs, horse markets, and even the occasional witch-burning, the new Valley Cemetery was to be landscaped ‘as an ornamental cemetery according to the most approved manner of a modern necropolis’ by evangelist William Drummond, its straight lines and regimented rows inspired by Scripture:‘ the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain’ (Isaiah 40:4)

Ordered symmetry in an ordered cemetery!

Condemned as ‘the resort of idle loungers and the scene of horrible filth’, the Ladies’ Hill, dividing the old and new graveyards, was also transformed. Drummond boasted that it was daily ‘visited by parties of ladies and gentlemen, come to enjoy views the like of which is not present in any cemetery in Europe’. Statues of prominent Protestant preachers, Knox, Melville and Henderson, were erected, alongside local dissenters James Guthrie and Ebenezer Erskine, their stories told daily through devotional guided tours.

Towering over it all stands the pyramid of Salem Rock. Added in the 1860s, it is Drummond’s personal tribute to his 17th-century Covenanter hero: it’s four faces displaying the titles of publications printed by his family firm, the Drummond Tract Depot.

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