My break-cum-research trip to the Scottish Highlands last month took me to the lovely town of Dornoch in Sutherland where I wanted to visit Dornoch Cathedral. The word cathedral conjures up images of vast places of worship with high ceilings and often ornate decoration. This one is quite small, more of a church than a cathedral, albeit a beautiful one. My first visit was to check out a ghost story I’d read which is meant to have happened on the altar steps, or rather the original steps which were replaced either in the early 1600s or in Victorian times. The cathedral was built in the 13th century but was damaged often and reduced virtually to ruins during a clan battle in 1570. The ladies who were showing visitors round that day had never heard the legend, but they did know a lot about the place and pointed out the wonderful mortality stones in the walls.
When the cathedral was refurbished in 1924, the Victorian plaster was removed to expose the stonework, much of it from the 13th century. The walls are dotted with odd fragments used in the various rebuildings, including gravestones, columns and a lintel. It turns the Cathedral, still used as Dornoch’s parish church, into a virtual storybook.
Here’s a picture of one of four mortality stones dotted around the Cathedral. The carving is quite crude, almost child-like. The symbols are very interesting. There’s an angel at the top but she has a smile on her face, unlike the ‘angels of death’ you see on gravestones carved in later times. She’s the guardian of the tomb, and also of the deceased person’s soul. I’m not sure what the cylindrical objects on either side of her are. They might be drums, symbolising the call to the last judgement, or perhaps storage jars for seed – the hope of regeneration and new life. Beneath them are shepherd’s crooks, Early Christian symbols representing Jesus, the good shepherd.
In the panel below is a heart, signifying the dead person’s soul. Here it is crowned, the crown being a belief that the person died in good grace. It is also a symbol of glory after death.
In the bottom panel there’s a coffin, symbolising death, mortality and decay, with crossbones underneath. It’s interesting that there’s no grinning skull. On one side of it stands an hourglass, an obvious reminder that time is fleeting. On the other side is a symbol which I hadn’t seen on a gravestone before, a hand bell. Judging by its position mirroring the hourglass, I take it to mean the same. Tempus fugit! Time flies! One day, death will ring time on us too. The last two symbols in the lowest panel are spades. They are the gravedigger’s tools.
I love telling, listening to and reading ghost stories but perusing these mortality stones, made me come over all spooky. So I bought some books and postcards [and a wooden church mouse. They sell lovely church mice in Dornoch Cathedral] and hared it out into the warm sunshine. Somewhere close by I could hear bagpipes playing, and the laughter of children. They were rehearsing a dance for a wedding at the Dornoch Castle Hotel across the road, I think. Music, dancing, the laughter of children! The sounds of life and hope and joy!
I was so glad to be alive, in Dornoch, in August 2012! Tempus fugit! But not too fast. Please, not too fast! I still have many stories to tell.
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