Walkers and cyclists exploring the Highlands and Islands of Scotland are likely to find coffin roads featuring on their route. As their name implies, these ancient tracks were developed so that the bodies of the dead could be carried for burial to the remote graveyards which are still such a feature of the West Highland and Hebridean landscapes. Journeys along them were often lengthy and arduous, with relays of six or eight men carrying the coffin either on their shoulders or on long spokes. The slow progress on foot from place of death to place of burial could last for two or three days and nights and symbolised the idea of death as a gradual journey.
Most coffin roads ran from east to west. Graveyards were often sited near a loch or on the edge of the Atlantic ocean, with bodies being taken to them from inland easterly regions. Highlanders desired to be buried in the west, the place of the setting sun. Celtic mythology shared the Ancient Greek idea of islands of the blessed, heavenly realms lying far out in the western seas. These were the perceived location of the next world, described in Gaelic as Tír na nÓg (the land of eternal youth).
Numerous superstitions attached to the coffin roads. There was a belief that if the coffin touched the ground the spirit of the deceased would return to haunt the living. Coffins were generally carried with the corpse’s feet facing away from home to avoid the possibility of the spirit returning to haunt it. The circuitous route taken by some coffin roads came from a desire to frustrate spirits, which were known to like to travel in straight lines, and they often crossed running water, something that spirits were thought unable to do.
Coffin roads were commonly associated with omens of death. Those gifted with Second Sight had premonitions of ghostly funeral processions along them which proved to be accurate predictions of future deaths.
The coffin roads symbolise the close relationship of humans to the landscape. They point to death as being something natural and part of the rhythm and cycle of life. The bodies of the dead return to the earth after their last journey over the hills and across lochs and seas, their escaping down the streams that are almost invariably found beside Highland and Hebridean graveyards to merge in the great ocean of divine love and find rest in the islands of the blessed.
This open, holistic and public approach to death is a world away from what happens today when people mostly die in hospital side rooms, their bodies are whisked away by an undertaker and, after lying alone and unvisited in a refrigerator or embalmed in a funeral parlour, are transported by hearse to be incinerated in a crematorium. As we begin to become more open about death, after more than a century of hushing it up, there is much we can learn from re-visiting the coffin roads and what they symbolised.
Ian Bradley is Emeritus Professor of Cultural and Spiritual History at the University of St Andrews. He read modern history at Oxford University, gaining a congratulatory first class honours degree, and pursued a doctorate on nineteenth century religion and politics. After working for the BBC and spending six years as a journalist and features writer on The Times, he read theology at St Andrews University, where he also gained a first class degree, before being ordained into the ministry of the Church of Scotland. A former head of religious broadcasting for BBC Scotland, he has taught church history and practical theology at Aberdeen and St Andrews Universities and served as Honorary Church of Scotland chaplain at St Andrews for twenty years. He is the author of over 40 books and a prolific preacher, lecturer, broadcaster and journalist, regularly contributing the Saturday Credo column in The Times.
Among his many books are Pilgrimage: A Cultural and Spiritual Journey (2009), Argyll: The Making of a Spiritual Landscape (St Andrew Press, 2015), Following the Celtic Way (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2018) and The Fife Pilgrim Way (Birlinn, 2019).
The Coffin Roads: Journeys to the West is the second in a trilogy of books on aspects of death and the afterlife. The first, The Quiet Haven: An Anthology of Readings on Death and Heaven, was published in 2021 by Darton, Longman & Todd and the third, Breathers of an Ampler Air: Heaven and the Victorians, is due to be published by the Sacristy Press in 2024.
The Coffin Roads: Journeys to the West by Ian Bradley (published by Birlinn, July 2022, £8.95)