Come into my (funeral) parlour
THE last hurrah of a memorably beautiful late summer in the Highlands has the herald of autumn in its sharpened evenings, as a great moon joins the sun in the sky at this latitude. Shadowing the combine harvesters that devour the last of the crop, the Grim Reaper has been busy, the sweep of his scythe a glittering arc as he gathers two more souls from our community.
It was during this season that my grandfather was buried in 1966. That September morning, a group of family, friends, neighbours, estate workers and retainers gathered on the gravel in front of the house. His box was carried down the steps and placed on a flat trailer behind one of the farm tractors. The procession followed the trailer on the mile to the grave outside the mausoleum. The day before, the Bishop of Inverness had performed an emergency consecration there when it had transpired that only the interior was hallowed ground.
Grandpa’s prized Aberdeen Angus herd lined the fences either side of the drive in their funereal black; one likes to imagine their lowing was a requiem and not just a salutation to the man and the tractor who brought their daily feed to the fields.
Thoughts of that day and attendance at two funerals have reminded me that Death thankfully doesn’t command the cachet he once did around here. The great Highland funeral, at its zenith in the 19th century, was a majestic, sometimes ribald, frequently long-drawn-out affair, to be dreaded as much for its ruination of the purse as of the flesh. For a clan chief, a whole year’s rents could disappear into weeks of hospitality for thousands either side of the committal.
At the burial of a kinsman of our Lovat neighbours, the grave had to be cleared of drunken mourners before the coffin could be lowered in. If you’d like to read a truly magnificent account of a Highland funeral, reach for Pigeonholes of Memory by Dr John Mackenzie. There, he describes the carrying of the body of his sister-in-law, Kythé, from Gairloch on the west coast for 60 miles to her burial at Beauly Priory in 1834. A bearer party of 500 young men in their Sunday best sailed up Loch Maree and then walked her in silence the rest of the way, building a cairn of 500 stones wherever the coffin rested.
Thomas Pennant was one of a succession of 18th-century visitors to the Highlands who wrote a rather sniffy series of travelogues which reached a crescendo with Dr Johnson and Boswell. Pennant, a Welshman, plainly disapproved of Highland wakes. They featured, he averred, ‘such gambols and frolics among the younger part of the company that the loss that occasioned them is often more than supplied by the consequences of that night’. Which is a roundabout way of saying they’re a hell of a good party and a proper send-off.
Recent funerals have turned my thoughts to what form I would like my own obsequies to take. The Inverness funeral parlour was, until recently, an exclusively male preserve, but when our ‘usual’ undertaker, ‘Coffin John’, went the way that even those of his profession must ultimately go, he left his daughter Vicky in sole command of the business.
Vicky is brunette, clever, petite, charming, a snappy dresser within the bounds of propriety and— I hope she will forgive me—has lovely legs. However sad the occasion, she gladdens the eye and quickens the pulse—not fatally, one hopes— when she steps out before the hearse. Under normal circumstances, this would cement her position in my letter of wishes.
However, last week, at a funeral orchestrated by her main oppo- sition, I stumbled on Francesca: blonde, creamy complexioned, curvaceous, a long ribbon of black crepe trailing from her dressagestyle topper and—this was the clincher—a little tapered, silverknobbed cane nestling in her leather gloved palm.
Vicky’s response to this threat, I believe, has been the addition of some rather fetching tartan lapels to her frock coat. I’m agog to see what Francesca can do next to escalate the Highland undertakers’ arms race. Seamed stockings? Higher heels?
When she reads this, my wife may veto both Vicky and Francesca, which is fair enough, but I hope she will allow me the revival of the Coronach, a party of keening crones accompanying the funeral procession. I feel that would add a touch of je ne sais quoi and historic authenticity to proceedings.
‘Wakes are a hell of a good party and a proper send-off’
Joe Gibbs lives at Belladrum in the Highlands and is the founder of the Tartan Heart Festival
Bad moon rising: there’s no rest for the Grim Reaper