Ahead of the launch of our new guided walking tours, discover the historical treasure that is St. Michael’s Churchyard…
A ‘Forest of Stone’ – this apt and evocative description of St. Michael’s Churchyard in Dumfries was penned by 19th century historian William McDowall and upon entering the imposing gates, you can see why. Even from street level, you get some idea of the rich variety of gravestones which clamour for position in an historic graveyard nearing a millennium in age. Once known as the Cemeterium Sancti Michaelis, the landscape of St. Michael’s comprises a fine collection of memorials; table stones, pyramid-style tombs, pillars, obelisks, grave slabs and mausolea, a feast for the eyes and source of endless stimulation.
Pre-Reformation, we have no real knowledge of those who were laid to rest here. Any records that once existed are now like the people they represented, turned to dust. We can only imagine the stories of those who dwell much deeper, supporting their descendants, creating a rise in the earth – a hill of the dead.
Many of the tens of thousands who sleep here were humble souls who lived and died virtually unnoticed. Others were famous; notable figures remembered for their great contributions to medicine, the arts, discovery, law-making and services to the town – too many disciplines and vocations to mention. Fascinating people and we’re sure their anonymous counterparts were equally intriguing. No doubt these souls could share the harsh realities of life back then. Among them, great characters and storytellers, talented, creative people – hard workers, born into poverty and scraping by, caring for their families while living in squalor.
St. Michael’s has many unique aspects, none more so than being able to boast the final resting place of Scotland’s National Bard – Robert Burns. Pilgrims from across the globe make the journey to Dumfries for a glimpse at his impressive domed mausoleum; its striking, brilliant white contrasting with acres of rich, warm sandstone.
Akin to a forest, some ‘trees’ will thrive whilst others become choked and decayed – this is true of St. Michael’s. Certain stones stand proud and tall, hardly marked by the sands of time; epitaphs clear as the day they were inscribed, complete. Others have not faired so well. Sadness pervades the areas around those stones that are split and toppled. Some have crashed to the ground leaving telling remnants of once grand memorials.
During a research visit, I noticed several chunks of heavy stone and among them, a beautifully carved lion’s head and anchor. Another shows an extraordinary carving of a weeping woman (or angel), a work of art which once crowned the McKelvie grave now sits at ground level, beginning a steep journey of decline. Thankfully though, she herself is still in good condition and will hopefully pique the interest of passers-by for long years to come.
Launching this August, we aim to raise the profile of this magnificent burial ground through our historic churchyard tours. Visitors and local folk can of course visit a graveyard and enjoy a day’s exploring at their leisure. Mostly Ghostly Tours however, will bring to life the incredible personal histories behind the stones. We have chosen a collection of enthralling accounts, reflecting a wide cross-section of people and events in Dumfries’ long history.
In the Year of Innovation, Architecture and Design, guests will observe outstanding funerary art and architecture, while discovering real people; well-known and lesser-known, privileged and modest, the beating heart of old Dumfries. Entwined with varied occupations and historical events, tales of enduring love, disease, prophecy and persecution, will form part of our guided graveyard tours.
After all, one key purpose of these often grand and imposing stones was that the deceased and their family would be remembered, to hold their place in society when physical life was extinguished, immortal memory. After the dust has long settled and those who once strode the earth have returned to it, we will awaken their life stories once again…