This wild, rangy graveyard is a few minutes walk from where we now live, and long-term readers of this blog will know that graveyards are some of my favourite places to visit. In particular, those older fields where no new occupants can be interred, so that in my wanderings I don’t disturb any mourners. It’s more than that of course. Old graveyards have a certain quality to them. Hard to define in a single word – still, perhaps? sad, softly fumy with greenness overgrowing, with old trees reaching above well-settled grass. They are places to walk and think slow, graveyard thoughts.
Dalry is a wonderful spot for exploring. According to this history student’s Yelp review, the only reason the cemetery exists is because of a Cholera outbreak in the 1830s which filled the other extant graveyards in the city. Now closed, but with twenty-four hour access for the curious, Dalry cemetery displays signs of both benign neglect and selective management, which adds to its charm. The main paths and the edges around some stones have been mowed, but off the beaten track the nettles have sprung up high like a protective cloak or sea around unreachable graves.
The council have knocked down many of the stones, which I think they do in order to protect walkers from injury when they fall. But this does add to the feeling that the dead who lie here are somewhat forgotten. Which draws me nearer to those whose markers still stand.
This white stone was for a young man, I think. It draws the eye from all the way down on the path to the exit.
I love when professions are recorded on the graves – there was also a ‘master plumber’. But this goes far and above the others, telling where Ms Rea, governess, died. It says below the cut-off, she died in 1861, along with the line ‘I have longed for thy salvation’.
My mind ran wild with the idea that this woman died in strange circumstances, which led those left behind to write the line with something like doubt for her soul. Once home, I typed her name into google, and there she was, on a census twenty years before her death, twenty years old, a governess at a farmhouse in the parish of Yarrow, Selkirkshire. Irish in origin. It took the help of David Greig to fill in other clues: Kilgraston was or is a Catholic school for girls. So Elizabeth Rea died at forty or so, probably unmarried, still a governess. Though there is room for ambiguity: why a governess and not a teacher? And why so young (or was that a good age for 1861?).
Another Elizabeth has a stone which gives an entirely different impression. I haven’t researched Elizabeth Purdie (mother) and Davina Welsh Christie (mother and grandmother), who were buried together in this plot, but I feel like I should, given the eerie feelings I got standing over them. In the above picture you can see the grave at a distance. Here it is up close:
Now, I’m not generally a superstitious person. As much as I believe in the afterlife, ghosts and haunted spaces are another matter entirely. I love the idea of them, the way certain places seem to hold on to their past – usually unpleasant, usually bloody – in a near visible way. I am generally affected, as I walk around an old battleground or castle, by the atmosphere lent by mossy stone or my own knowledge of the history. I will think of those who died and wonder at their lives, at the cruelty which took them in such violent ways.
But here it was hard not to pause. Not to shudder just a little at the dark barren ground around the grave. All of the plants had died back. They had not been cut – it was simply that nothing grew. Now, maybe (given the signs of mourning here, which were on no other grave that I could see), the family or someone else sprayed the area around about with weed killer. That would be a good, rational explanation, wouldn’t it? I’d like to be rational. But something made me hesitate after taking the picture, and pick a sprig of what was either hemlock or queen anne’s lace and leave it in the flower holder. To pacify or show respect to the spirits or Purdie and Christie, yes.
The problems of an over-active imagination. Or we can say it was a point of overlap, a thin place. If we like. All I can say is that old graveyards are a great place for research into fiction, because they are broken chains of meaning, which nature is attempting to erase, and writers tend to grub about for meaning, letting their minds fill the gaps. I’m not sure if I’ll go to google for the two companions, because I rather like not knowing. If you do go looking, feel free to leave a comment here.
By the way, in that picture above I was not crouching. The stalk of that plant (hemlock or queen anne’s lace?) is about seven feet tall. I reached for the smaller stuff to leave behind in courtesy. And now, back to planning this third novel, with my mind all teeming with overgrown weeds.