The Mural Monuments of Crail Churchyard
Crail churchyard is remarkable for the number of its mural monuments which are only rivalled by those in Greyfriars churchyard in Edinburgh. However, they are now in desperate need of repair and this exhibition highlights the work done over the past 125 years to record and repair the monuments and the need to promote future conservation.
The monuments are important for their ability to demonstrate the development of a particular regional response to the new commemorative fashions and behaviours triggered by the Scottish Reformation. John Knox preached here in June 1559 so Crail church has strong associations with the Reformation. The mural monuments show the new forms of commemoration in the local community which due to an act of Parliament in 1593 banned burials within church buildings. It had the effect of promoting ever grander graveyard monuments and these are important on the grounds of the large numbers that survive and the quality of the workmanship. Crail was a prosperous place which was reflected in the size and quality of the monuments.
Crail Parish churchyard is located in the centre of Crail, a Royal Burgh and the church is located towards the centre of the site. In addition to over 20 mural monuments the churchyard contains around 500 gravestones. The repairs are the responsibility of the families although the Kirk Session intervened in 1864 when an inscription to Baillie Young was chiselled off by a new family wanting to take over the stone.
In 1893 Erskine Beveridge carried out a churchyard survey, recording the gravestones and photographing the mural tombs. He was a talented amateur photographer who inherited a successful linen manufacturing business from his father. He spent several successive summers in Crail, staying with his family at Kirkmay House. He estimated that since the 12th century sufficient soil had accumulated to raise the churchyard ground level five or six inches per century. The results of his work were published in “The Churchyard Memorials of Crail”.
A hundred years later in 1993 Crail Museum completed a second churchyard survey. Previously Crail Preservation Society had led two projects to repair selected mural monuments in 1973 - 1978 and in 1993.
The Beveridge photograph of the Patrick Hunter tomb
The James Lumsden tomb
Charles Rennie Mackintosh
The churchyard enjoyed numerous visitors attracted by its beauty and historical interest. Its mural monuments were an inspiration for artists and architects. Charles Rennie Mackintosh visited in the 1890s and sketched three adjacent monuments.
The Dial Stone
In the churchyard is the Dial Stone, an 18th century square pillar style sundial with its gnomon missing. It was used to measure positions of burials in the Sexton’s Book from 1769 to 1838.
The Dead House
This is the small castellated building behind the church. It is also known as a Mortsafe and has a slit window and stout door. Above the door is the sinister carving:
ERECTED for securing the DEAD
From the 18th century medical students were required to study anatomy. As the legal supply of bodies from executed criminals was limited, a lucrative industry grew up, particularly near university towns, where £7 - £10 per cadaver could be earned! To thwart the Body Snatchers or Resurrectionists from grave robbing, it became necessary to protect new graves with metal cage covers or heavy stone slabs. An armed guard could be hired or poor families would keep a grim watch overnight, in the cold and dark. The Sexton’s Book in Crail records measures being taken to protect graves in the early 1820s.
Crail Church built the Mortsafe, paid for by public subscription and after 1826 coffins were placed there for 6 to 12 weeks before normal burial.
A new Anatomy Bill in 1832 brought in new regulations for those studying the human body and ended the grisly history of the Body Snatchers.
The Mural Tombs Exhibition is well worth a visit where you can see more images of the tombs, together with some examples of tomb stonemason's tools and much more.