Coffin Roads

If you are ever in the Highlands of Scotland you may be able to find a coffin road. These roads were different from everyday roads and footpaths. Coffin roads were pathways in which coffins were carried from rural settlements to registered burial grounds. The task of carrying a coffin a long distance would have been a difficult and lengthy one. Several men, maybe up to eight, would carry the coffin either on their shoulders or on large wooden poles. These roads would be long, winding and sometimes over water. This was a deliberate act to frustrate spirits as people believed spirits could only travel in straight lines. Also, spirits could not cross water. The extensive procession along coffin road would also symbolise that death was a gradual journey not instantaneous.

The coffin itself was to never touch the earth, as there was a superstition that the corpse would return to earth and haunt the living. Therefore, when the men rested the coffin would be laid upon large stones or cairns. Once the men had rested, they would add a stone to the cairn to mark the passing of the deceased.

Most coffin roads ran from east to west. On the Hebridean Islands, Scotland, the east coast was to rocky to dig any type of grave so the dead were carried to the west side of the island where the soil was more sandy. Also, old graveyards tended to next to a loch or on the Atlantic Ocean coastline meaning that eastly regions would have to travel to the burial site. Ancient Highlanders preferred to be buried where the sun would set and near the ocean as there were old beliefs that this was where the location to the other world (Tir Na Nog) was.

Nowadays, some of these coffin roads have become modern day footpaths. The most popular track is the six-mile route called the Stoneymollan Coffin Road from Balloch to Cardross. There is also a four-mile coffin road that travels east to west along the south of Harris.

The one thing that coffin roads do symbolise is the close relationship Highlanders had with the landscape where they lived. Death is a very natural part of life and part of the rhythm of being alive. Bodies return to the earth that cared for them in their lives after they take their last journey over rough terrane.

I hope one day to walk along one of these coffin roads to bear witness to what these roads truly represent. Perhaps in our modern way of treating death and dying we should look back upon the old ways, that appear more holistic and accepting of death. I recall at a young age my grandfather being laid out in the front room of his house for three days. This allowed friends and family to visit to pay their last respects. Relatives would have a drink and spend a lot of time in that front room with my grandfather laid out. When I recount that memory to people now, they are aghast that such a thing would happen. I find it strange that death is hushed away where people die in austere hospital/hospice settings away from their home and everything they loved. Granted some illnesses require specialist care but I do know where I would prefer to die.

-Ann B-

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