Come into my (funeral) par­lour

Country Life Every Week - - My Week - Joe

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

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