The Story of the Fintray Vault

Aberdeen Journal – Tuesday 15 December 1925

In the churchyard at Fintray, Aberdeenshire, there is a well-built vault, now used for keeping tools and such like, that rarely fails to draw the curiosity of some of the members of any funeral party. Through the kindness of Mr James Cumming, retired chemist, Stonehaven, I have just had the pleasure of following the history of this interesting parochial relic.

It is recorded in two beautifully written minute books marked, ‘Minutes of the Resolutions and Transactions of the Committee appointed by the subscribers for the erection of a Vault in the Churchyard of Fintray, 1839’  The minutes begin in 1830, and go on, with yearly money statements annexed, to 1868. There are also printed ‘Regulations for the Management of he Vault in the Churchyard of Fintray.’ These deal with what persons were to be entitled to use the vault, how long the bodies were to be kept ‘until they deemed unfit subjects for surgical dissection; the quality of the coffin, etc. A committee of management is provided for, and a rule says:-

                                     ‘There shall be four key-bearers, members of the committee, who 
                                      must attend to open and shut the Vault at all times necessary: but
                                      it will be desirable that those wishing admittance will give the 
                                      key-bearers at least twenty-fours hours previous warning: the said 
                                     key-bearers to be men living in Hatton, or as near it as they can be got’

Four Months’ Wait 

In passing, it may be remarked that the iron door and lock for the vault, which the four key-bearers had to attend to open, was supplied by the Aberdeen firm still in existence, Messrs Barry, Henry and Co., and cost £4 4s 6d. The whole cost of the vault was about £60, and was defrayed by subscription. The accounts contain a complete list of the subscribers and payments during  the thirty-eight years the minute books cover. 
A ‘list of the dead bodies deposited in the vault’ is entered with the utmost care, with the date of deposit where and of interment. the first deposit was ‘the body of Alexander, son of Wm. Hervie, crofter in Hatton, a subscriber,’ deposited 1st July 1830, and interred 23rd October after. In one case we find an entry with a note ‘coffin thought insufficient’ when the body was interred two days after being deposited in the vault. 

The minute books give no hint of what was the cause which led to this movement.(It was in 1829 that Burke was hanged in Edinburgh). The first minute just states that a meeting ‘called by advertisement in the ‘Aberdeen Journal’ on the purpose to deliberate on the best means of protecting the bodies of their deceased relatives from the depredations committed by the body stealers’ was held. William Anderson, Hatton, was called to the chair. He was of the same Andersons as the Bog and Balbithan Andersons. 

 A ‘Resurrection’ 

But what did lead to the movement appears from information gathered to be as follows:- A man, James Hogg (the Christian name is not altogether certain) a farmer in the Balbithan district, was buried on a Saturday. Next day some of the folk on their way to the kirk went into the church-yard, and among these was George Cameron, a village shoemaker, who had been at the funeral the day before. After looking at Hogg’s grave Geordie declared that it had been tampered with, that one end was lower than the other, and that ‘ the gravedigger wud never hae left it that wye;.
The news spread, and after church it was proposed that the grave should be opened, and this was done. Pieces of rope and grave clothes were found by the diggers. The coffin was found to be empty. The lid had been smashed, a rope put around the neck of the corpse, and then it had been pulled out. This saved the violaters (sic) from opening the whole grave, and was the cause of one end being lower than the other.
Some time after a trunk, minus head, arms, and legs, was found in a sack at the back of hte dyke near Cothal Mills by some boys going home from school, and it was buried in Hogg’s grave. Mr Cumming’s father, the late John Cumming ( a name still held in honour in the parish), who was clerk to the Vault Committee for several years, and two other boys found a piece of canvas between the churchyard and the church, which had been used to prevent any earth from the grave being left on the grass. A small square stone, neither name nor date, but initials only, near the gate marks the spot where what remained of poor Hogg was re-interred. 

Another Attempt

There had been other attempts at body-snatching, as the people thought. It is reported that one morning a horse in a gig (sic) was found wandering near the churchyard and was never claimed. It was supposed that the owners had suspected they were being watched, and had bolted before they got anything done, and were frightened to come back and claim the horse and gig.