The eternal flame of the soul burning forever in glory is represented by inverted torches on the sides of my great, great grandparents gravestone in Alyth cemetery, Perthshire. In life- or at the times these portraits were taken- Barbara Duncan and Alexander Mitchell looked like this:-
But I never heard their voices, and can only now very occasionally remember the voice of my dear grandfather who was born here in Alyth, and who, aged seventeen, helped bear his grandfather’s coffin to this grave.
Opposite are more recent gravestones which have photographs on the headstones. I recognise one. It is of Belle Stewart, the traveller singer, the ‘Queen Amang the Heather’. Her voice I heard, singing ‘The Berry Fields o’ Blair’ at Dundee in the early 80s. I can imagine her in my head or with a couple of swipes of my finger on my iPad I am listening to her singing now as I type this.
In Alyth Museum I recognise another face, the fine bronze bust of a fine man, Hamish Henderson- illegitimate, soldier pioneer, intelligence officer, poet, political activist, translator, bisexual, collector of stories and songs …and singer. Another swipe of the finger and he’s singing a duet with Belle Stewart, ‘The Overgate‘. n.b. The Overgate is a road in Dundee, the higher of two streets or gates (from the Norse “gata”) which run either side of the city church, the other being the Nethergate, the lower street. High road and low road.
All of these people lived long lives into their eighties, their nineties even, but on the Mitchell gravestone a short life is commemorated:-
who was drowned in the River Isla
25th Jun 1876 aged 14 years.”
He died rescuing his younger brother from drowning. ‘The Dundee Courier and Argus‘ reported how he moved from safety to danger:
“GALLANT DEED AT ALYTH.
BOY SAVING A BROTHER’S LIFE AND LOSING HIS OWN.
Three sons of Mr. Mitchell… went into the water hand-in-hand, and by some means one little boy…sank into a deep hole out of sight. His older brother, James (14), seeing the little fellow thus likely to be drowned, plunged down to the bottom, though he could not swim, and with a heroism worthy of the stake at issue, crept on his hands on the bottom of the pool, seized hold of his brother, gave him a vigorous push out of the place towards the shore, which had the desired effect in saving him, but most unfortunately James, the gallant hero of the noble deed, sank himself, and was drowned…the younger Mitchell, who for some time appeared in a critical position, but he recovered. Numbers soon appeared at the water’s edge, and by the aid of creepers pulled out the body.”
The younger boy was Charles and at the end of a long life he commissioned this stained glass window to be installed in Alyth Kirk.Christ walks on water before his own sacrifice.
“The people which sat in darkness saw great light; and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up. 17From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. 18And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. 19And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. 20And they straightway left their nets, and followed him.”
Later, standing on the bridge over the Isla the river, like time, slips by. The peaty mountain water glints over the golden gravel shallows in the August sun before it flows into shadow and unknowable depths and currents. Firmly anchored on the solid stone bridge it is disconcerting to watch the liquid water, flickered by the cooling and momentary flames of evening sunlight, moving under your feet. I think of James who thrashed from life to death in this water, from the earthly paradise of youth and the brink of manhood to such a sudden ending. And of another gravestone, in Poussin’s painting the pastoral shepherds of Arcady are shocked to discover in their earthly paradise a tomb, tracing with their fingers the inscription, “Et in Arcadia ego” (even in this paradise, I, Death, hold sway). Some Northern European peatland societies drowned sacrificial victims out on the moors believing they would propitiate their gods but now some of these mummified ‘Bog People’ have been resurrected to a macabre afterlife in museums.
Standing before a headstone has its own macabre sensation. To read the inscription, especially on an old weather- and time-beaten one necessitates walking over the grave or graves. The ground underfoot is uneven, it has been dug- and on a family lair, redug- many times. What was once solid, diminishes; spaces alter; transformations in substance and material take place. One is never quite sure that the ground will not suddenly give way, a deep hole could open up, you may sink out of sight and be swallowed up by the grave. All the more disconcerting, all the more frightening, as we know that with certainty Death- coming suddenly or not- will claim us all.
Footnote: On a bitterly cold February day my son Alexander and I visited the Mitchell family grave where clumps of white snowdrops heralded a resurrection, of sorts.