Things I Learned in a Scottish Graveyard

            One does not require “schooling” to learn. It often helps though—and with good teachers, it helps considerably. Knowledgeable people willing to share, educational places, and instructional things surround us. I have known and know now some highly educated, erudite individuals having not a single degree to their names and a few without a diploma, for that matter. I say this not to disparage a formal education and the hard work and struggle that often goes into acquiring one but to note that those who truly desire education—not simply credentials—have the power to obtain it.

           To become educated, however, with or without formal schooling, there are certain prerequisites, individual qualities, and proclivities required. First of all, one has to be teachable. No, I’m not simply speaking of brain power. Brain power may, in fact, be the least important of all. I am speaking of a desire and willingness to learn. In addition, one needs to be curious, willing to investigate, willing to accept help, and willing to study all manner of books, nature, people, art, and graveyards.

            “Graveyards!” you say.

            “Yes, graveyards.” Graveyards tell stories and often explain the world to us—at least in part. In fact, here are several things I learned in Scotland while wandering around an hour or two in Edinburg’s illustrious Greyfriars Kirkyard:

  • Writers to the Signet are not poets, authors, or journalists although you will come to see in their graveyards how much Scots admire these scribblers. No, Writers to the Signet are solicitors.  In American English, they are lawyers (attorneys), but very special lawyers indeed. I was quite flummoxed after seeing stones such as the following:

In memory

of

JOHN WATSON

Writer to the Signet

Founder of

JOHN WATSONS INSTITUTION

Died 5th November 1762

Erected by

The Keeper, Deputy Keeper &

Commissioners of the Society

of

Writers to His Majesty’s Signet

Now, that should stir an American’s curiosity I should think. So, I did a little investigating. It turns out that Writers to the Signet were “originally officers charged with responsibility for documents passing under the Signet, the seal of the Kings and Queens of Scotland.” (www.wssociety.co.uk). Documents for court actions required the King’s Signet, that is to say, his official seal.

It appears that solicitors’ designation as “writers” comes from the responsibility they had in drawing up (or writing) documents, or writs. Writers to the Signet were selected and charged with the additional responsibility of passing documents under the Signet. It was a high appointment headed by the Keeper of the Signet, an Officer of State under the Monarch. In other words, Writers to the Signet referred to the special solicitors who as agents of the King or Queen authorized his/her stamp on approved writs. Writs could not proceed to court without the seal.

Although there still exists a Society of Writers to Her Majesty’s Signet, its members have had no official responsibilities since 1976 when its authority over the Monarch’s seal was consolidated into another agency’s work. Since that time, Writers to Her Majesty’s Signet is simply a professional organization with a storied and honored past. Most of the “writers,” however, celebrated in Greyfriars Graveyard were those who “back in the day” had actual authority.

  • Thomas McCrie, DD was a beloved clergyman, honored author, and biographer of John Knox, as his monument in the graveyard proclaims:

In Memory of

Thomas McCrie, D.D.

The Biographer of John Knox

Born 1772    Died 1835

A Christian and a Patriot

In Him Were United

The Softer Virtues of Private Life

With High Disinterested Spirit Of The Times

 Which His Writings Have Illustrated

Raised By His Genius As An Author

To Eminence In The World of Letters

He Rose Still Higher In The Estimation Of His Flock

By His Affectionate Fidelity As A Minister of Jesus Christ.

Under the Banner Of Original Secession

He Contended With Unfaltering Firmness

For The Principles Of The Reformation

The Memory of Whose Champions

He Has Vindicated And Embalmed

In The Pace Of Imperishable History.

This inscription not only gives us insight into the life of this clergyman/writer/patriot/Christian (oh my!) but also begs a few questions about John Knox. I seemed to remember Knox as a religious zealot that changed Scottish church history or maybe even Scottish history in general, but my study of western civilization being more than a few years back, I had to do some research.

According to a detailed article in the online Britannica (more depth could be found in historical accounts and biographies—research/academic libraries, good school libraries, and good bookstores), John Knox (1514-1572) was, indeed, the leader of the Scottish Reformation and founder of Scottish Presbyterianism. Because of fear of the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, he often found himself preaching in England, Frankfurt, and Geneva, thus his influence traveled from Scotland into the Continent. War raged in Scotland between Protestants and Catholics. Protestants, with the help of Queen Elizabeth I, finally won out. Knox helped set up the reformed Church of Scotland, though turmoil abounded. Vast volumes concerning the Reformation in various parts of Europe and particularly in Scotland are available.

  • Life is hard and then you die. In addition, to learning of the poignancy of life, its temporary nature, and many people’s stubborn ability to endure, you can learn from this memorial stone some Christian theology, Biblical scripture, as well as renew your acquaintance with Roman Numerals.

PENUEL AUGUSTA MACKENZIE

SECOND DAUGHTER OF

JOSHUA HENRY AND HELEN ANNE MACKENZIE

BORN 15TH AUGT 1824  FELL ASLEEP 25TH OCTR 1877

JESUS ONLY” WAS HER “ALPHA AND OMEGA”

“THEY THAT BE WISE SHALL SHINE AS THE BRIGHTNESS

OF THE FIRMAMENT AND THEY THAT TURN MANY TO

RIGHTEOUSNESS AS THE STARS FOR EVER AND EVER”

“SHE RESTS FROM HER LABOURS AND HER WORKS DO FOLLOW HER”

“SHE LOVED HIS APPEARING”

ROM. XII, 6.15. PHIL.1.9. REV. XXII. 1.8

FRANCES MARY

HER ONLY SISTER

BORN 16TH OCTOBER 1821  DIED 28TH DECEMBER 1909

HAVING OUTLIVED 11 OF HER NEAREST

AND BEEN LEFT ALONE IN SCOTLAND

YET WITH A GOOD HOPE THROUGH GRACE SHE COULD

TESTIFY THAT ‘GOD IS FAITHFUL’ ‘THE GOD OF ALL COMFORT’

ABLE TO MAKE ALL GRACE ABOUND’

‘ABLE TO GIVE MUCH MORE THAN THIS’

1 COR. 1. 9., 2 COR.1.2, IX.8., 2 CHRON. XXV. 9

  • Writers find inspiration in unusual places. J. K. Rowling found names for some of her characters in her Harry Potter series from tombstones in Greyfriars Kirkyard.

Anne Potter and Robert Potter inscribed here.

George, Farquhar ESQ.

Thomas Riddell Mary Jane Scrymgeour

Mary Turner Scrymgeour

Mrs. Elizabeth Moodie
William McGonagall

“AND THAT’S ALL I HAVE TO SAY ABOUT THAT.”

BIBLIOGRAPHY

“John Knox,” Britannica. britannica.com 9 Aug 2022

“Moving with the times for 50 years.” WS The Signet Library. wssociety.co.uk 9 Aug 2022

“Society of Writers to Her Majesty’s Signet,” Wikipedia. en.wikipedia.org 10 Aug 2022

“What on earth is a Writer of the Signet?” LinkedIn. Linkedin.com 10 August 2022

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