Mortsafes and Body Snatchers

We left Fortingall and headed off to find the village of Logierait: Lag-an-rath, ` hollow of the castle ‘. We were looking for the Logierait Parish Church in order to see the cages over the graves called mortsafes.  Logierait sits where the rivers Tay and Tummel meet near the A827 just a little bit west of the A9.

The church was easily found as we drove in to the village, but not so the entrance.  We missed the entry, and wound around a bit. We found ourselves on a one lane gravel road leading to the edge of the old railway bridge that spans the Tay— which had a very threatening sign warning us not to cross.  So we didn’t.  Driving on the left side of the road has become easy for me, but backing up in to a turn still gets my somewhat dyslexic brain confused.  With guidance from my two co-navigators, I easily executed the turn-around and we continued our search for the entrance to the Church. We drove in to a vacation rental area that was located next to the Church, and Kyle went in to the office to ask how to get in to the parish grounds. The gentleman in the office allowed us to park our car in his lot and walk over a small creek to the cemetery.

In the early 18th century, there was an increasing need for cadavers for dissection at the growing medical schools in Scotland.  The original source for the dead bodies had been executed criminals, suicides, and paupers that had been given to the schools by the government for the purpose of education. The allotment by the government was one body per medical school each year. The Parish Church in Logerait was a prime source of executed criminals since the Dule Tree, an ancient ash tree from which the thieves and murderers of the district were hanged and left to rot, is just nearby.

As laws changed and fewer people were hanged for their crimes, the corpse count went down. And medical schools’ need was rising at the same time, so people turned to grave robbing to fulfill the need. Those who made their living by robbing graves came to be known as Resurrectionists. In order to protect the sanctity of the dead bodies, various things were done to prevent grave robbing: groups of night watchmen were formed, stone slabs were placed over graves, and by 1816 mortsafes were invented.

Mortsafes were devices that were made of iron or iron-and-stone.  The idea was that the weight of them would deter grave robbers. Oftentimes, they were more complex and designed of heavy iron, padlocked for even greater security.  They could only be removed by the two people who had the keys. Mortsafes were placed over the coffins for about six weeks. When there was sufficient decay of the corpse, the mortsafe would be removed and used at another grave site.  Over time, groups were formed that made and rented mortsafes out to graveyards, especially those near medical schools.

Grave robbing met its own demise after the passage of the Anatomy Act of 1832 which required the licensing of anatomy teachers. It also allowed unclaimed bodies and those donated by relatives to be used for the study of anatomy, ending the need for body snatching.  The Act was passed after the trial of William Burke who, along with his friend, William Hare and their respective women, committed a series of murders (the West Port murders) in Edinburgh in 1828. The corpses of their 16 victims were sold to Dr Robert Knox for use in dissection in his anatomy lectures. Their victims were people alone in Edinburgh, and they were strangled so that the bodies would be intact for dissection.  In a karmic turn-around, Burke was sentenced to be hanged and his body sent to the University of Edinburgh Medical School for public dissection. Reports show that there was some rather bizarre and disdainful behavior towards his body….including a purse being made out of his flesh.

Hare, having supposedly ratted his friend out, was set free along with the two women.  All three of them had to be taken in to police custody several times as they each tried to live in different places in Scotland, but were recognized and attacked by mobs.  What finally happened to all of them is unknown, but it seems all of them were eventually taken out of Scotland.  Knox, who was never charged, escaped the mob outside his house that was burning his effigy, and moved to London where he continued to teach anatomy.

The Logierait Parish Church, like so many in the Scottish countryside, has its beginnings before the onset of Christianity in Scotland. There are two Pictish stones connected with the Church: the one in the churchyard was discovered in (or before) 1878 and the other one was moved into the church. Both are classified as Class II Pictish stones, which means they are dressed stones with relief carving. The present church building dates from the early 1800’s, but is most likely built on the same site as a church built in the 8th century which was dedicated to the Bishop of Iona.

After our leisurely drive through the Breadalbane and our stops in Killan, Fortingall and Logierait, we headed on to Pitlochry where we had just enough time to shop at the Heathergems store before we drove out to Edradour Distillery for their last tour of the day.

About Kate Cowie Riley

Kate writes two blogs currently: "Weaving the Magic Thread ~ the texture of my life", a collection of auto-biographical essays; and "Scottish Heart", where she shares her love of Scotland and the trips through Scotland that she both plans and guides. She is also Copy Editor and Lead Contributor Emerita for "Celtic Family Magazine". Kate retired in 2013 from nearly 40 years in Private Practice as a Somatic Psychotherapist & Bodyworker, Massage Therapy Instructor, Sivananda Yoga Teacher, Spa Director, and Consultant, who also wrote & taught about Eco-sustainability and WellBalance. Her professional blog, "The Riley School of Integrated Somatic Bodywork" is also retired. All of Kate's blogs are copyright by Kate Cowie Riley; all photos are copyright Kate Cowie Riley, unless otherwise stated. All photos and text or part thereof are not to be used for commercial purposes or without written permission from the author. All photos must be used in their original form, no addition or alteration are allowed. Any advertisements that are seen on the Wordpress sites are in no way supported by Kate Riley.
This entry was posted in Ancestry, Body snatchers, Breadalbane, Eco-travel, Ecology, Grave Robbing, Land trust, Lorgierat Parish, Mortsafe, Scotland, Scottish ancestry, Self drive Scotland tours, Travel, Uncategorized, Women Writers. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Mortsafes and Body Snatchers

  1. Pingback: Una gabbia per i morti « Silent Blog ▪ guazzetto di Fantastico, libri, scrittura e curiosità varie

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