- Last Updated: Saturday, 29 September 2018 16:11
- Written by Graham Brooks
SYMBOLISM ON TOMBSTONES.
Graveyards as we know them only really statrted around 1600, previous to this the space around the church was empty of monuments and gravestones. the area was used for fairs and markets and archery practice etc. These were outlawed in Scotland in 1692.
People of high rank and those who could pay were buried inside the church. In Scotland this was banned under during the reformation in the 1560s, although it continued as an income for the church or minister. The prohibiting of burial in the church mean't that every man had the right to be buried in his own 'lair' in the churchyard. The original 'lairs' were marked by head and foot stones and it was in the early 1600s that dates and initials were carved on the headstones, from which developed the variety of carvings etc. we see today.
A lot of tombstones have carvings on them which have symbolic meanings.
SYMBOLS REPRESENTING MORTALITY.
SKULLS OR DEATH HEADS
( skull on tablet to Drumno Drockil Amillia Frazer died Feb 1759 Invermoriston old church)
They may be viewed in profile,
face on or at an angle. The degree of detail varies with the masons ability. Some are a simple round face with little anatomical detail.
Some do have teeth depicted.
Others show a full skull with bottom jaws shown.
Skulls are often shown with bones in the classical pirate 'skull and cross bones' arrangement.
An early painted wall tablet with a skull and cross bones painted on.
two girls supporting a skull on the end panel of a table tomb at St Kentigerns church Crosthaite. The significance of the girls holding up their skirts is not known. The neighbouring tomb has a similar scence with the girls supporting an hourglass. (for Elizabeth Christian died November 1732.)
Occasionally the number of skulls carved on a tombstone represents the number of people commemorated. Odd skulls also have angel wings associated.
Skulls with grass or other greenery sprouting from them, known as a greenman' can represent life after death.
Further examples can be seen here.
BONES - usually shown crossed and usually associated with a skull. These are usually in the classical pirate 'skull and cross bone' pattern.
Occasionally the bones are crossed vertically.
They can occasionally be single.
A single bone on a tombstone at St. Monans, Fife.
A pair of femurs mounted vertically on a tombstone St. Kentigerns churchyard Hoddam.
A tombstone with the top part of 3 femurs on St. Kentigerns Churchyard Hoddam.
A pair of bones laid parallel below a skull. Dornock Churchyard Margaret Holiday February 1741.
The degree of anatomical detail varies from a general bone representation through to accurate depictions usually of femurs.
SKELETONS - usually laying down wih varying anatomical features and accuracy. Occasionally they are pictured dancing when it signifies life after death. If it is carrying either an arrow (dart), scythe, hourglass or some other death symbol it represents the figure of Death known as 'the King of Terrrors.'
(Hourglass on tablet to Drumno Drockil Amillia Frazer died Feb 1759 Invermoriston old church)
The way in which the hourglass is carved has a meaning. Singularly upright time has run out, lying on side a mans life has ended abruptly usually prematurely or with wings and in some cases with the motto Tempus fugit (Time flies) or in flames representing eternity.
SEXTON'S TOOLS - usually pick and shovel sometimes crossed.
A pair of crossed spades.
CORPSES AND DEATH BEDS. Corpses are rarely shown in coffins but occasionally in deathbeds.
RIBBONS - usually used to tie symbols together.
COFFINS - Usually a simple six sided shape or though some can be very ornate.
CROSSED DARTS -
SYMBOLS OF IMMORTALITY AND BIBLICAL.
WINGED SPIRITS (CHERUBS) The most common symbol found. They are usually on the top of a stone. Representing the soul leaving the body and ascending to heaven.
A spirit on tombstone St. Michaels Dumfries.
Most Spirits are carved in relief this one at Ewes Parish church is carved in 3D.
A very basic carving of a head and 'wings' to represent a spirit at Ewes Parish church. Note also the toppled hourglass, skull and cross bones.
On this tombstone the wings hang down and are crossed. Loweswater Parish Church.
A pair of angels on a tombstone in Castle Carrock Churchyard. Thomas Bolton died Aug 1782.
ADAM AND EVE. Adam and Eve with an apple tree and snake.
RESSURECTION SCENES. Bodies rising to heaven clad only in loin cloths.
BOOK. Usually depicting a bible.
An open book ontop of a closed book. Bowness on Solway Churchyard.
FLAMING TORCH. Representing eternal life. Torches facing downwards meaning the end of earthly life.
SUNRAYS - Representing the glory of god.
PALM FRONDS, EVERGREENS - Representing victory over death.
HEART PIERCED WITH DARTS - meaning the death of life on earth.
ANCHOR - Meaning a message of hope.
FRUIT - Eternal plenty as in the fruit of life. When on a vine as Christ is to Church.
PINEAPPLE - A reminder of heaven. Or a sign of hospitality, a good host.
GRAPES - Represents Christ. If on vine represent christian faith.
SYMBOLS REPRESENTING TRADES.
HAMMER. All trades that use hammers such as cobblers.
BLACKSMITH. Usually anvils, horseshoes and pinchers.
TAILORS. Pressing iron and shears/scissors.
An unreadable stone in Dalton churchyard showing scissors and a smooting iron, the tools of a tailor.
GARDENERS. rake, hoe and spades.
GAMEKEEPERS. Gun, powder flasks, fishing rods etc.
MERCHANTS. The number 4 is often used as a symbol for trading with the four corners of the world occasionally ships.
FARMERS - Plough or sock and Coulter.
SHOEMAKER - Cordiner's knife and crown.
WEAVER - Loom, shuttle and weights.
MASON - Square and compass.
MINER - The tools of his trade spade and pick
WRIGHT - Square and axe.
FERRYMAN - Boat and oars.
PORTRAITS. - Busts of the deceased. these I suppose this is a 'poor mans' version of the full body effigy that is seen from the medieval period through to the 19th century on various table tombs and usually commemorating Lords, Bishops etc.
TOMB ANWOTH OLD CHURCH .
Part of a large sarcophagus monument to the mother and two wives of John Gordon. High relief carving of skull, crossbones, hour glass and book and tautologous 'MEMENTO MORI'. Probably dates to 1635.
OLD PARISH CHURCH MINNIGAFF.
Tombstone to Patrick McCurg died 174-.
Has a cherub at the top with a hour glass laid on its side below above a skull and cross bones and possible a coffin below that.
BARNARD CASTLE CHURCHYARD
skull with two bones.
ST. OLAFS CHURCH Skull on a wall plague.
TUNDERGARTH CHURCH Nr LOCKERBIE.
This churchyard contains a number of tombstones with skull and crossed bones carved on them and the style would suggest a common mason.
tombstone to Jean Reid Died March 1728.
Tombstone to John Hennel died Nov 1747.
A slight variation on the crossed bones at right angles vertical compared to the normal diagonal cross. This one also has a heart on the top border.
William hall died October 1768.
An unusual decoration is it meant to be flowers either side of the skull?
Tombstone to Adam ..... died Feb 172_
Tombstone of John Johnston died November 1729
A sylised skull and bones.
John and Helen Curries March 1748 and April 175_
A very similar design skull and bones with an hour glass below
John Little March 1743.
John forsyth Died December 1772.
Preacher Middlebie hill.
A skull by itself at the base of the tombstone also showing an hourglass and spirit.
Tombstone to John Bell Died January 1774
A full skull showing lower jaw and teeth. Hourglass to side.
A skull surmounted above a spirit.
A small skull.
2 very similar designed gravestones with a fallen hourglass above a skull and crossbones. There are attempts at architectural pillars on either side. the arched top in one case has an angel in it. Both have unreadable inscriptions) The design of them would suggest they are by the same mason.
Skull and cross bones with an attempt to architectural design with the pillars either side. (unreadable inscription)
Skull and cross bones on a slab Glenelg Churchyard.
Crossed bones beneath an angel James Clark died Skull and crossed bones unreadable. A small skull over fallen hour glass with pilasters
Janaury 1777. unreadable name died 1780.
3 very simlar gravestones with a heart and hour glass on each. All three are difficult to read. The first is to a Bridget. 2nd one is to William Herring. 3rd one has a date of 1737.
LANERCOST CHURCHYARD, Hour glass and Heart simply inscribed into the stone.
CHERUBS, ANGELS AND SPIRITS.
OLD PARISH CHURCH MINNIGAFF.
A cherub on a tombstone surrounded by a very ornate surround.
An angel in the same cemetery.
BARNARD CASTLE CHURCHYARD
This churchyard has a number of tombstones and alter tombs with winged spirits on
Two cherubs lifting a crown.
John Watson died October 1800
One of a number of winged spriits carved into the top edge of a table tomb. (see for further details)
These appear to be two not very happy winged spirits.
Hugh Blenkinsop died January 1805.
Tomb with a cherub above a skull.
Invermoriston old church
Spirit on tablet to Drumno Drockil Amillia Frazer died Feb 1759.
Spirit on end panel of chest tomb Tundergarth Church. (unreadable top)
ST MARY'S LOCH GRAVEYARD. A badly eroded gravestone with a spirit at the top and a skull below.
BEWCASTLE CHURCHYARD. A spirit. Mary ....... 1746
2 spirits on a tombstone St. Michaels, Workington. Johnathan Thompson died November 1716.
A singke cherub St. Michael's, Workington. Mary Fisher date unreadable.
An unusual feature of 3 chrubs in a circle with upturned torches flanking LANERCOST CHURCHYARD
A spirit with a possiblew garland underneath .
A rather unhappy looking spirit with wings drooped.
A spirit with a smiley face. Loweswater parish church.
An angel Dalton Church.
A flaming torch inverted. one of four on each corner of a large sarcophagus tomb.
James Grant died june 1863.
A pair of inverted torches beside an urn.
Knarsdale Churchyard. Inscription unreadable.
A hand holdong an open book. William Elliot September 1805.
A large bibe.
Thomas Hutchinson Died February 1866.
Farriers pinchers, hammer and horse shoes.
John Carruthers son of Samuel of Old Mill How died 1st November 1788 aged 19 also Wife of Samuel Betsy Robinson died 12th January 1798 aged 68.
A pair of horse shoes, hammer and pinchers.
James Hutchins esq. Died June 15th 1740 aged 46.
A tombstone with a wide variety of symbols on. A square and hammer for the mason. Skull and crossed bones, a hourglass and a probable coffin.
To the children of Thomas Clark and Elizabeth Low.
Symbols of a hammer and heart.
James .... died May 1724.
Graves stone in Wanlockhead cemetry (lead mining town) besides the usual symbols of bones and skulls there is also symbols of his trade of miner as a pick, hammer and shovel.
Gravestone with multiple bunches of grapes on the vine.
Kirkpatrick Fleming Churchyard.
A pineapple as a finial (opposite presumably fallen off) Georg Relph died January 1781. St Kentigerns, Castle Sowerby.
Presumably the bust carved on the top of this tombstone is meant to represent the person commemorated. It would be difficult to define it in any other way.
George Relph Died January 1781. St Kentigerns, Castle Sowerby.