Today’s post is written by Archaeologist, Egyptologist and Death Historian Lorraine Evans, founder of Morte Photography. Founded in an attempt to stem the tide of destruction that Evans witnessed in many burial grounds her blog was born in the autumn of 2013 to bring to life the plight of such historical and architectural treasures found within.
OK, I admit it, the Pirates Graveyard isn’t really a burial place for pirates, in fact the correct name is St. Regulus’ Graveyard, but as almost all the gravestones bear skull and cross bones the locals have named it thus. Tucked away at the eastern tip of the Black Isle, in the pretty village of Cromarty, Highlands, Scotland, the Pirates Graveyard is a tranquil yet evocative site. The graveyard itself is not signposted, but you will know when you have reached your destination as the entrance path is just opposite the servants’ tunnel (now disused) that leads up to the secluded Cromarty House.
The ruins of the old chapel of St. Regulus once occupied the edge of a narrow projecting angle, but it is now lost by the encroachment of the adjacent ravine. What remains are a few shapeless mounds and the grassed-over walls of the private chapel of the Urquhart clan chiefs. Entry to the crypt is still possible today. A single flight of stairs lead down into the musty darkness, the crypt opening protected by the Urquhart clan crest, situated proudly above the doorway.
A few yards from here there is a rather splendid skull and crossbones gravestone, which bears the name of the ‘burnt cook.’ According to local tradition it is said that the children of Cromarty must spit on this particular stone as they pass by. Why is not known, there is no account of its origins, although in Clavis Calendaria it states that in some places in England it was customary for people to spit every time they named the devil. Maybe he was just a really bad cook!
The graveyard has a particular significance to the highly-acclaimed writer and renowned geologist Hugh Miller. Opposite the Urquhart crypt stands the little headstone of Hugh and Lydia Miller’s first-born child Eliza, who died of a fever aged only seventeen months. In fact, this is the last piece of stonework that Miller carved. Several of his ancestors lie beside her and before their marriage, the Pirates Graveyard had been one of Hugh and Lydia’s trysting places during their long courtship.
Hugh Miller gives an interesting description of the gravestones in his Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland. He states:
‘They are mostly all fashioned in that heavy grotesque style of sculpture, which, after the Reformation had pulled down both the patterns and patrons of the stone-cutter, succeeded, in this part of the country, to the lighter and more elegant style of the time of the Jameses. The centres of the stones are occupied by the rude semblances of skulls and crossbones, dead-bells and sand-glasses, shovels and spectres, coffins and armorial bearings; while the inscriptions, rude and uncouth as the figures, run in continuous lines round the margins. They tell us, though with as little variety as elegance of phrase, that there is nothing certain in life except its termination; and, taken collectively, read us a striking lesson on the vicissitudes of human affairs.’
A somewhat derogatory account of what I consider to be some of the most stunning gravestones that have survived to date. But Miller was writing at a time when Presbyterianism ruled the day and such emblematic insignia was considered an affront to such religious dogma.
Viewed from the ruins of the crypt, the designated burial ground clusters beneath a fence of trees, where a number of seventeenth and eighteenth century grave slabs, each one intricately decorated in the ‘memento mori’ style, sit. For those unfamiliar with the term, ‘memento mori’ is Latin for ‘remember you will die’ and it gives its name to a unique style of burial sculpture, which includes the skull and crossbones, angels of the resurrection, dead-bells, coffins, spades, timers and so on. The Pirates Graveyard is exceptional in that practically every grave-marker above ground falls into this category. I have chosen just a few examples for your enjoyment.
The so-called ‘Davidson Stones’ lie sheltered beneath the branches of a large Cyprus tree and consist of a delightful matching pair of ‘husband and wife’ memento mori grave slabs. Although the dates have been somewhat eroded the style of sculpture fits neatly into the eighteenth century pattern. The inscription reads as follows: ALEXANDER DAVIDSON notar public in Cromarty who died (? eroded) spouse ELSP(eth?) (? Eroded)….Sapienter Sincere
The second example belongs to a member of the Urquhart clan and dates to 1712. It consists of your standard memento mori carvings complete with an Urquhart heraldic shield. The inscription reads: Here lyes the body of JOHN URQUHART glover in Cromarty who died in 1712 and his spouse MARGARET SIMPSON/who died the—–of——-MARY THOMSON his second spouse.
Leaving the best to last, it could be argued, is the quite stunningly beautiful ‘Swan Stone.’ Lying precariously on its side, and somewhat ‘green’ in nature, this particular example is one of the oldest grave slabs to be found in the burial ground, the earliest inscription notes the death of a JO.SWAN in 1675. Again we find the standard memento mori carvings of a skull and crossbones et al but also the unusual addition of a ship, a ship with sails no less. It, therefore, begs the question, could there be a ‘pirate’ connection after all?
So there you have it. I hope you have enjoyed this brief introduction to a gem of a graveyard and if you are ever venturing into these distant lands, a detour to St. Regulus is well advised. You will not regret it.
You can see more of Lorraine’s work and photography at Morte Photography.
13 responses to “The Pirate’s Graveyard”
Nice article but two pretty serious errors – firstly Cromarty is a town not a village, in fact its been a burgh, royal burgh and county town of the county of Cromarty, so never has been a village.
And locals never call it the Pirates Graveyard – its always been the St Regulas Kirkyard, now Graveyard. Visitors and incomers who are sadly ignorant about the long history of Scottish funeral carvings may call it thus in error, but locals never do.
Sorry for the confusion – referring to your last point: we acknowledge that it is not its official name in the first paragraph – for the purposes of the article however and the recognition that a skull and crossbones generally has with most people, the blog was so named. We welcome any kind of clarification (and please feel free to tell us more about the funeral carvings of Scotland).
I have always know it too be the pirate graveyard as as I was told it that name by locals!
I have always known it too be the pirates graveyard as I was told by locals that was its name, I believe many locals to refer to it as the pirates graveyard!
I’ve lived in Cromarty for 40 years and I’d say almost all of the locals refer to it as the Pirates Graveyard. There’s a nice new railing been added at the entrance of the graveyard, I reckon that’d be the first that a lot people were aware of it’s true name.
[…] The Pirate’s Graveyard. […]
A great article and definitely a place that I would like to visit!
Re – pirates graveyard was named by a boy in our primary class in cromarty school – we were having a local history lesson by the teacher miss mackay and had to write an essay on what we were taught – as all story’s had to be read out the reference to St regulas stuck – so it’s been called that since 1963/4 by most of us locals .
[…] 2. The Pirate’s Graveyard […]
[…] and carved. It has a scalloped edge to it and looks like an exquisite postage stamp, it’s in the old graveyard in Cromarty and I saw it during my two week residency there. In the poem I tried to show that while we love and […]
I understand that there are four graveyards around the village of Cromarty. Is the “pirates” graveyard the same one as the Old Gaelic graveyard ?
No, that’s a different cemetery at beside the Gaelic chapel.
I’m a native of the North East of England (no, not a ‘Geordie’ though dangerously close..) .. I’m also an ‘Oil & Gas’ man, I first visited The Highlands and this region in particular in 1985 to work at Nigg Bay.. I returned several times there after with the most recent being 2021.. I stumbled across the Memento Mori funeral carvings earlier this year, they have been misconstrued as Pirates and Templar graves.. they are sprinkled throughout Scotland.. whatever they are they are nothing if not a signpost to history and stark reminder of ‘we’re not here forever’.. I’d happily take the 7 hour drive from my home to visit St Regulus Burial Ground..fantastic, and but a speck in the magnificent Highlands