A Scottish Storyteller

Mary Elphinstone

It was a cold spring morning when my friend and I stopped off in Inverurie on the way home from a party the night before. We got some snacks for breakfast and made our way to the old graveyard in the hope of finding some of the old pictish carvings that have been moved there for safekeeping.

We found them and were just considering climbing up the old Motte which is situated within the graveyard when there was an eerie voice coming seemingly out of nowhere...

"Mornin'!!! Huv ye ever heard the story o' twice buried Mary?" (When I tell this story, he sounds a lot like Private Fraser from Dad's Army. That might help you hear him in your mind). We looked around and first of all saw no-one, but eventually, just over the dyke of the kirkyard, we saw a wee grinning mannie, walking his dog by the burn. He then told us the story of Mary Elphinstone...

Well, many years ago in the village of Inverurie, there lived a young lassie who had been happily married for a good few years to a very handsome man (some versions of the story have him as the local minister) with whom she was very much in love. Things were going well and some say she was expecting her first child when poor Mary became very unwell. Despite the best of care and prayers from friends and family, Mary's condition declined until finally, one night, she slipped away.

Her husband was absolutely distraught and couldn't think of a life ahead without his beloved Mary! He was so distraught in fact that after the funeral, he couldn't even bear to go to his wife's wake, let alone stay with her body for the next few nights. For you see, this story takes place at a time when The Ressurectionists were hard at work in Scotland's Graveyards. These were grave robbers who would secretly remove the newly-deceased from their graves, cart them off to the nearest university town, and sell the bodies to the medical school who would then use the bodies in anatomy lessons. Of course, all this was highly illegal! It had only been a few months since Burke and Hare had been punished for their part in the sale of cadavers to in Edinburgh.* With Aberdeen University not too far away, the guarding of the body of loved-ones was common in this part of Scotland and mortsafes and watch houses can still be found in graveyards in this area today (Banchory Devenick and Cluny are just two).

But back to our story... The local inn that night was busy, with many wishing to raise a glass (or two!) to young Mary's memory. How tragic to die so young! And her poor husband! He won't leave the house you know! Too upset to come to her wake or to stay by her body!

Now let us picture a couple of dark characters... sitting in the corner of the inn drinking their ale. Let's call them Big Jimmy and Wee Jimmy. They aren't graverobbers really - just opportunists! They're a bit down on their luck, they've been out of work for a while and have spent the whole day in Inverurie looking for houses that seem easy to rob. Just imagine their ears pricking up at this! Poor Mary Elphinstone... Buried just today in her wedding finery! And no one to guard her grave?

Well, the two of them quickly finished their drinks and in the silence of the night, they picked up their old cart and horse and made their way through the streets to the graveyard. By now the moon was up and there was just enough light to see Mary's newly dug grave. Shovels were taken from the back of the cart and they begin to dig. Well, it wasn't not long before they reached the coffin, hauled it out of the ground and prised the lid off... and there lay Mary in her wedding dress, pale and beautiful in her endless sleep. Wee Jimmy grinned at Big Jimmy as he spied a big shining red ruby ring on her wedding finger, "Just imagine how much money we can get fur that! We'll eat like kings for a month!" he said and Wee Jimmy started pulling it off her finger.

Well, he tugged and he tugged, but it just wouldn't move. "Haud on there," whispered Big Jimmy, and off he went to the cart where he found a small hand saw. Surely the anatomists wouldn't take much off the price for a missing finger! "If we can't haul the ring off, we can cut if off just as easily!" said Big Jimmy, eyes gleaming.

Well, dear reader, I can let you in on a secret now... For Mary wasn't actually dead! She had merely slipped into a coma, and I suppose it was quite lucky for her that these grave robbers had come along - otherwise she might have ended up buried alive! Of course, when Big Jimmy started to saw at her finger, the pain was enough to shock her out of her unconsciousness. Waking up in a coffin, in the graveyard, in the dead of night, having her finger sawn off by a man stooping over her as another stood by in the moonlight with a shovel over his shoulder? Well it was all Mary could do to let out a bloodcurdling scream! What a shock for for Wee Jimmy and Big Jimmy! A screaming corpse!? They had never been so terrified in their lives! Dropping their tools and leaving the cart behind, they ran away so fast they didn't even bother to use the gate. Heaving themselves over the wall of the kirkyard, they vowed that this graverobbing business was bad for the heart and that they might just move out of the area and find a nice respectable job somewhere else... I'm glad to say they weren't seen again in Aberdeenshire.

For Mary, stranded in the kirkyard, there was nothing to do but to head off home in her bare feet.

At home, her husband had been drowning his sorrows (as one might have expected!) and had nodded off in front of the cold hearth. A frantic knocking at the door woke him from his slumber and he shook his head muttering "If I hadnae jist buried my beloved Mary, I'd swear that was her knockin'!" He put it down to the drink and the upset and tried to go back to sleep in his armchair. But the knocking continued. Eventually he dragged himself to his feet and went to answer the door.

Well! Imagine his shock when he opened the door to find Mary standing there in the moonlight - pale as pale could be, with her feet all dark from the mud, bedraggled hair, moaning his name softly and holding up her cut finger from which the blood had started to run. It is said that Mr Elphinstone fainted from the shock!

And Mary? Well I'm glad to say she returned to full health and went on to have a fine family and live a long and healthy life. And when she died? Well, she was buried in just the same place she'd woken up in all those years before.

If you go to the old Inverurie Kirkyard today, you can still see Mary's grave. And if you put your ear to the gravestone? Well you might just hear her knocking!**

Inverurie Kirkyard - showing the motte and the carved stones in the foreground (closeup of the Inverurie Horse above). If memory serves me right, Mary is buried near these three stones (away from the motte).

* Burke and Hare weren't actually guilty of grave-robbing, but of multiple murders. But that's another story...

** I kid you not! Leave a comment if you want to know why ;)

Labels: , , , ,

2 Responses to “Mary Elphinstone”

  1. # Blogger Granny Sue

    I'll bite! Please tell the story...  

  2. # Blogger Poz

    Thanks Granny Sue :)
    Well, supposedly when you put your ear to the grave you can hear a knocking sound!

    And you do!

    Why? Well, there's a burn goes underground to join the Urie. The bubbling of the burn underneath the grave makes the knocking sound - which kind of spoils the story. Until then it's pretty spooky though!  

Post a Comment

© 2006 A Scottish Storyteller | Blogger Templates by GeckoandFly.
No part of the content or the blog may be reproduced without prior written permission.