‘Here lyes the remains’… visiting the ‘pits of hell’ in Grieg country

Out and about in ‘Grieg country’, on a visit to the Parish of Pitsligo, Aberdeenshire, our Honorary Director made an exciting musical discovery – the existence of a musical instrument which may well have been heard by the composer Edvard Grieg’s ancestors, but whose function and manner of performance present us, today, with an intriguing mystery.

On a clear day, in the bright sea-lit air of Buchan in Aberdeenshire, you can just make out the first words of the Edvard Grieg ancestral gravestone at Rathen Old Kirkyard: ‘Here lyes the remains…’ it reads, announcing, in beautifully carved letters, the identity of the occupants of the burial beneath. What you can’t see, is that the gravestone resting on the ground was once a ‘table monument’ raised on stone legs, now sadly, lost.

Monumentally Grieg! - in 3D

‘Here lyes the remains’ – see the Edvard Grieg ancestral gravestone at Rathen in 3D closeup with music by Grieg here.

Travel a puckle miles to the north west of Rathen, to the parish of Pitsligo with its two kirks, old and ‘new’ at Peathill, its ruined castle and once fine Renaissance gardens by the sea, and you’ll see plenty table monuments standing, today, just as they stood when erected in the eighteenth century. And what a remarkable story they tell, not just of the folks they commemorate, but of the forms and rituals and even the music of their lives. For in amongst the vividly carved ‘memento mori’ mottos that cover these Pitsligo stones – how can you not ‘remember death’ amidst such a tumble of monuments! – the unmistakable contours of a musical instrument begin to intrigue the eye.

Over and over it appears, the familiar, yet strangely unfamiliar shape of a bell. For it is no grand kirk-spire instrument you see depicted in these stones, but a small portable bell of ‘announcement’, a ‘mort bell’ with distinctive handle and visible clapper. A survivor from pre-Reformation times, the ‘mort bell’ or ‘deid bell’ was designed to be carried and to sound out its sweet but solemn tone whenever there was a death in the community. The property of the ‘kirk session’, out it would go through the tracks between croft, cott and castle, and onwards to the kirk and kirkyard where the beadle – the minister’s man – ‘jowing’ or ringing it ‘for and before’ the dead, would draw the community together, first by announcing the death, and then by leading the unfortunate’s funeral procession.

Stones may be silent, yet here, huddled between the two kirks, on this ‘peat hill’ once surrounded by its huddle of crofts sloping to the sea, they seem to resound with music!

Pitsligo mort bell (stone & real)
The ‘musical’ gravestones of Pitsligo with their fine ‘mort’ or ‘deid’ bell carvings. Amongst the stones is this example, discovered by the author to represent a strikingly realistic depiction of the actual, now disused instrument cast for ‘Pitsligo Kirk Session’ in 1742. The burial commemorated here, of a local farmer, dates from the same year the bell was cast – a remarkable find which suggests both a sense of community pride in its possession and great solemnity in its use. But is this ‘portrait-in-stone’ of a mort bell an isolated example? What might we discover by a little musical inspection of other old kirkyards in Scotland?
The long forgotten sound of the Pitsligo mort bell, or deid bell, rung specially for the Grieg Society of Scotland in August 2019 by Douglas Tait of Friends of Pitsligo Castle. Edvard Grieg’s great-great-grandparents at nearby Rathen understood the meaning of the mort bell’s ring, and perhaps even heard this very instrument, for it is the sound of an eighteenth century Scottish funeral. But how exactly should the bell be rung? Did the beadle sound it continuously, or at intervals, as he announced a death or led solemn funeral procession? Did he make meaning of its music by making his own rhythmic patterns, alternating single and double tones perhaps, or counting strikes of the clapper? It’s as tantalising a thought as it is a lost art.
Edvard Grieg, too, thought long and hard about the sound of ‘bell ringing’, and with radical result! Here is the middle section of his ‘Klokkeklang’ Op54n6 for piano. Full of open 5ths and almost empty of melody, Grieg feared it would be too much for his audiences, joking with a friend that they would think it ‘rett og slett forrykt’ – completely mad! Today, however, we can hear how it foreshadows the Impressionism of Debussy and Ravel. (Artist: Einar Steen Nokleberg).

Another bell, or rather, not the bell itself, which was ‘rent’ in 1797, but the intricately carved belfry which once housed it, strikes the musical imagination at Pitsligo. Erected in 1635 by Alexander Forbes, 1st Lord Forbes of Pitsligo, ostensibly to Dutch design, and with a delicate Italianate touch, it makes an elegant statement on the gable of the old kirk, which Forbes himself, as ‘laird’ or landowner, caused be built. Alexander, like many Scots noblemen of his time, was a man of learning, with merchanting and military links to continental Europe and Scandinavia. If he survived to hear the tolling of the bell in the splendidly cosmopolitan bellcot of his commissioning, then it was not by long, for he died but a year after its construction. His funeral was a musical affair too, marked, we learn from family papers, by pageantry and the calling of trumpets.

But if Pitsligo kirkyard and its old roofless kirk seem to echo with the music of the past, so too does the interior of the ‘new’, but now disused nineteenth century parish kirk which replaced it – as I was soon to see.

Guided by Douglas Tait of Friends of Pitsligo Castle, I was lucky enough to follow my little musical trail within. Through the door and into the gloom we went, past the fine nineteenth century organ with its silvery array of pipes, past the pulpit with its carved panels brought from the old kirk, until before us, and above us, set with unashamed magnificence into the wall of the kirk, loomed the wooden ‘laird’s loft’ – a deep upper gallery once the private pew area of the Forbes family during worship. Dating from the 1630s, and like the gravestones and old belfry out in the kirkyard, it too is carved, richly carved, and a source of music to the mind. For it was here, four generations of Forbes lairds and their household sat each Sabbath, joining the congregation in the singing of a psalm – a psalm almost certainly from one of the Aberdeen-published psalters of the seventeenth century, psalters with notation, which gave Scotland sacred tunes such as ‘Bon Accord’, still sung today.

In turn, on more secular note, perhaps we should be singing the praises of Pitsligo, for, as Douglas explained, the parish is not just famed for the physical heritage left us by the 1st Lord Forbes of Pitsligo, Alexander, but by the life and character of his great-grandson, the last and 4th Lord, also called Alexander. This Alexander Forbes was a Jacobite – a supporter of the Stuart dynasty – and a philosopher. He was active in both the 1715 and 1745 uprisings and fought at Culloden, after which he was attainted and his estate plundered and sold. His fate was the beginning of the end for Pitsligo Castle, as a residence, but as a place of reflection, perhaps only the opening of a new chapter?

Douglas has worked tirelessly, not just to try to keep grounds and buildings from further decay, but, with others, to re-envisage the site, centring on the ‘new’ kirk, as a place of education and enlightenment, a working museum of heraldry. Just looking round the castle and the two kirks, you can see why. There are some fine coats of arms to be seen, and passing glance at their armorial detail seems to make fitting conclusion to my musical trail, for it occurs to me: is it any wonder Edvard Grieg, whose ancestors toiled just 5 miles inland as the crow flies, was proud of his Scottish ‘family crest’, carrying it everywhere on his watch chain? But that’s a story for another day! And talking of stories, Douglas is reminded of an amusing anecdote attached to the parish placename.

Back in the seventeenth century, a local minister, frustrated at the frugality of the lairds of Pitsligo, Pitullie and Pittendrum – when it came to kirk repairs – is said to have dubbed their lands the three ‘pits of hell’! A biblical reference, and pun on the ancient placename ‘pit’, meaning a place of abode of the Picts who peopled the area a millennium and more ago, it is perhaps a ‘lang tale’, owing more to local humour than reality. But it’s a grand tale, and a grand measure of just how much tradition and heritage bring personality to a place.

I take one last look from the castle gate and its lost, grassed-over garden, back up the hill to the two kirks. If the ‘mort bell’ sounded for the castle after Culloden, and the old kirk after it was unroofed in the twentieth century, surely it mustn’t be allowed to sound for the ‘new’ dressed-granite kirk built only 1890 and kept in continual use for a century? But, as Douglas reflects, that’s perhaps a task ‘for another generation’. It’s certainly a major undertaking, but imagine if the bell now hanging in the ‘new’ kirk could ring out a note of celebration, announcing a new future for the building and the community around it. That would be something! Admittedly, the auld abandoned craws’ nest now damping its ‘ring’ would first need ‘dingin doon’ – not down to the ‘pits of hell’, but down to the ground amongst the ‘musical’ gravestones of Pitsligo!

Pitsligo (Blaeu atlas of 1654)
‘Grieg country’ as mapped 1654 – families of Greigs, including the composer’s paternal ancestors farmed here. Grieg’s great-grandparents are buried at ‘Rathin’, today’s Rathen, bottom right. (Image: Joan Blaeu ‘Atlas’ of 1654, courtesy of the National Library of Scotland)

Author: Dr Sally LK Garden (Sep 2019)
With thanks to Douglas Tait, Friends of Pitsligo Castle, for recording in sound and image, the Pitsligo mort bell of 1742.