Mindin’ o’ mah digger mate – Gravediggin’ Days

Recalled by Graham Bathgate in Kerikeri, New Zealand

This was written tae be read oot at James’s “Funfurall”, his Minding Celebration in Christchurch, 11 February, 2023. It has noo been Scottified for mair realism, ra wye gravediggers spoke in thae days. 

Mah great guid thanks to the reader of this for me: I tried hard to attend from way up north but whit wouldah been mah fourth flight of the day doesnae flee in evenings arra weekends, an’ wur creatures needed to be fed. Apart frae tha’ there may be anither back-o’-mind reason for mah no’ gettin’ tae mah aul’ freenz tatty bye. It’s lightly touched on in this tribute.

James! He was aye James tae us at school (“skil” in the vernacular) in Perth long ago in the early 1960s. James’s freenz were Ewen, now in Glasgow; Lynda in Aberdeen; Dennis in Perth and John, deceased. I would also include Alan McDonald, Tom Bell and Rod Muir, good freenz at medical school in Embry – Alan is now in Barnsley, England; Tom in Brisbane and Rod’s aye in Embry. They a’ ca’ed him James  … or Jay Bo … Jay Bor … The Man … The Doc … or not infrequently something that’s  unmentionable here our of a basic sense of decency. One teacher at Perth Academy used to call him “Borovitch”, saying quite often, “You’re a bit of an eccentric, Borovitch” … confirming what we all knew but we preferred the Scottish epithet … “half-daft”.

James an’ I worked thegither in university summer holidays in Perthshire. We didnae want indoor work, so we were gled tae find jobs ootside, the weather pleasant eneuch e’en in a central Scotland summer. It was braw workin’ thegither, being left tae wursel’s labouring in wur ain time, maistly simply cutting grass with hand-operated machines ca’ed Flymos. It wasnae easy work because we had to cut around … the gravestones, some of them ancient and dilapidated. Our official work title was gravedigger and indeed we had to help Jock, the head gravedigger wi’ a bit o’ howkin’ on occasion. We’d aye hud a guid laugh at life and noo we often had a laugh with tombs and “stones” all around us. Occasionally we had to officially attend at a grave-side service, when we would wear thin, dark-blue, oilskin coats to hide our work gear – it was also suitable clothing to go with James’s middle name. Anyway, as soon as the family and friends were off at a respectable distance we would throw off our coats and start pitching the dirt into the hole. At one solemn service at a rural graveyard called Moneydie (pron. Mun-ee-dee) with only grave markers surrounded by a dry stone dyke and then fields, the coffin was ushered in by a bagpiper and a dozen bleak mourners all clad in black, some men in dark-tartan kilts, the women wearing heavy veils. We imagined later that there was a piper because the dead person had been a piper. Whatever, the oddity of the serious occasion in deep country resulted in James and me becoming convulsed with hard-to-control laughter, the kind no’ that easy to be rid o’ … nae prizes for who stertet giggling first!

So there we were, wur heids bowed, clothed in seriously awfy oilskins (and they were clarty; James loathed clart), hoping that naybuddy noticed we were gey near collapse. On a couple of occasions we had to turn our backs and heave as invisibly as we could. It was the longest graveside funeral service I’ve ever experienced although only about five or six minutes. It also made me wonder how two intelligent and educated people could behave so utterly opposite, having to put huge energy into not coming across as clowns at a solemn occasion where the other people around were lost in sadness and grief. The only thing I can say is we managed to be inconspicuous. In long hindsight I blame the bagpiper leading the veiled mourners in … and also our daft dirty flimsy coats! There may also have been a whispered comment frae yin o’ us aboot it being a grave occasion and we should be graver. Anyway, it was after this that we started calling funerals, “fun-fur-alls”.

Not surprisingly our chat in the graveyards would turn a wee bit morbid, aye jokey and poking fun at our situation sitting eating, propped up by a suitably angled ancient headstone. We wad hae a guid laugh more than half-seriously about no’ going to each other’s funeral saying stuff like, “I wouldnae be seen deid at your funeral.” And I’d say to James, “Ocht, no’ gon tae mah funfura’, tha’ll be easy for you!” I know he got the intended jokey crack there.

To conclude, here’s another little memory from the graveyards. In “Jockland” a sandwich is called a “piece” as in a piece of bread. Workers carried their piece to work for their lunch. I hope that it is still called a piece. After much cutting of grass of a morning in the graveyard, James and I would rest our weary limbs to eat our piece on a grassy plot, leaning back against a headstone. Of course, many of the stones bore the inscription R-I-P and we would have a guid hoot aboot “Resting … in Piece”, as we munched our “sannies” – I think we called it “Resting with Piece”.

James, you may be gone but we shared much laughter, many a joke, and your oldest friends will cherish many happy and daft memories.
James “Borovitch” … may you rest in piece … I’m sure easy enough to guess James’s and my preferred spelling of a Scottish sanny there!

Cemetery Snippits                           Originally written  June, 1971

It was down-to-earth work!

A drowned man was buried at Dunbarnie Cemetery, Bridge of Earn. He was unable to be identified because he had been under water so long. Seemingly he was three times his normal size. The undertaker had to stand on him to get him into the box.

Jock, the heid gravedigger said:

“They should a’ tacken the grape to him and let the water oot, should a’ punctured him, that wouldah made things easier.” 

The smell from his coffin was so bad that wee Jimmy, the other gravedigger had to have next day off. And even Jock admitted that he couldn’t eat his dinner that night. The undertaker when he came in to the cemetery for the funeral, discreetly walked the long way round to the grave to keep downwind.

Jock told us of a farmer who asked another farmer to get him a tinker to work as a crawboggle (scarecrow). Apparently this other farmer dressed very badly and when he arrived with the tinker, the farmer didn’t know which one was to be the crawboggle. 

Jock, on seeing a young woman dressed rather strangely in the street, although it was really quite tasteful, exclaimed:  

“That’s no’ the fashion noo, that’s frae the bad old days – even a crawboggle wouldnae wear they claithes.” 

Wed. June 23

Digging at Forgandenny, about five feet down we struck the end of a coffin at the head of a new “hole”, dated from 1951. There was absolutely nothing in it. The coffin handle came off and the end few inches of the coffin had to be dug away. 

Jimmy said that while they were digging at Scone once, they hit a 6-week old coffin. He said the “fumes” were rising out of it, the smell so bad that Jock got some Jeyes fluid to pour over the bad bit, then he covered it with grass. 

Graveyard Gobbits     Written July 1970

Filling up a “hole”, one of the regular diggers, said:

“Aye tramp the earth weel doon, so as she canna get oot!” 

The next coffin being only six inches away from the one just put in, Jock said:
“Aye, afore lang, her faither will be stickin’ oot his hand tae hae a grab at her.”    

Jock told us that some of the gravediggerss used to time their diggings so badly as to be still digging as they heard the hearse drive up, only then stopping. 

Some grounds are water-logged and you need to bail out when you get several feet down. The water can be bad for the hands, affected by nearby coffins.

July 15, 1970  Alec, one of the diggers came upon a coffin lying sideways across the hole he was digging. He said that he had to cut down through the coffin. I asked him what was in it. Just a few bones, ribs and bits of cloth. He said it was all right coz the coffin was put in way back in 1926.

Cemeteries must be cut and tended regularly to keep them tidy for 50 years after the last burial there. One where there are no more burials now is Old Scone Cemetery, hidden among the trees in the Palace grounds. It is still cut two or three times a summer.  Some of the stones there date back to the start of the 17th century.