Discover A Darker Side To The Scottish Borders


Discover A Darker Side To The Scottish Borders

A Short Road Trip Around Jedburgh

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Discover A Darker Side to the Scottish Borders: Body Snatching and Ghost Hunting

Hidden within some of the smaller parishes of the Scottish Borders, lies a dark secret that not many visitors may know about. 

A past that is rarely, if ever mentioned in the guide books, yet one that is in plain sight if you fancy exploring for a wee while. 

In this post I want to take you on a road trip to a few of the outlying parishes near the beautiful town of Jedburgh, a town with an Abbey and historical links to Mary Queen of Scots, and one where you’d be forgiven for thinking that body snatching passed by this town completely.

The route I took can be driven either way round, and it is only Eckford that sticks out on a slight limb. It took me about 3 hours in total, although you can take as long as you wish – you never know how long you’ll end up wandering through the gravestones.

 Jedburgh

Jedburgh Abbey. H. Maliphant via National Galleries, Scotland
Jedburgh Abbey | Roxburghshire H. Maliphant [Source]

At the height of the body snatching era, the population of Jedburgh and the immediate surrounding area was 5251 inhabitants, plenty of supplies therefore to go around. 

Although Jedburgh’s connections with body snatching may not be that obvious at first, as a town that was a busy transport hub in the 19th Century, it’s hardly surprising that this macabre trade wasn’t linked to the town in some way. 

But the links unfortunately, and perhaps somewhat surprisingly, are few and far between. There is a suspected link to body snatching in Jedburgh after a woman’s corpse was found near Ancrum, in 1825. 

The corpse was discovered because body snatchers were serving time in Jedburgh Jail and had been unable to retrieve the corpse. 

A mere 48 miles from Edinburgh, one of the major centers for anatomical study in the 19th century,  dark body snatching tales relating to Jedburgh are a little thin on the ground. 

There are really only two sites within Jedburgh itself that have links to this macabre trade, one is the Abbey and the other, is Jedburgh Jail & Museum. 

Jedburgh Abbey 

Although much of the former 12th century Abbey was gutted and the stone reused elsewhere, Jedburgh Abbey is still an impressive place to visit. 

Founded in 1138, Jedburgh Abbey, once home to the Black Canons, is now in the hands of Historic Scotland and is one of four principal Border Abbeys of this period, the others being Dryburgh, Melrose and Kelso. 

The Great Abbey Church, dedicated to St Mary the Virgin, served until 1875 as the parish church, only being forced to find a new site due structural deterioration.  

Burials within the grounds of the Abbey Church would certainly have been taking place when body snatching was at its height and so it is hardly surprising to discover that there is the possibility of there once being a watchtower here. 

Excavations on the site in 1990, a detailed survey of which is available on the Canmore website, revealed a possible link to inhabitants of Jedburgh being fearful of a visit from the resurrection men. 

‘a coffin comprising a lead box surrounded by timber planking. Attached to its exterior were some textile and thin beaten copper, the latter fashioned into shell-like patterns. Inside was a well-preserved, articulated skeleton with some hair still attached to the skull. Although its lid was missing, the coffin’s construction and the skeleton’s state of preservation suggest the burial to be of late 18th or 19th century date’

This ‘leaden’ coffin or box was found to be immediately above a stone sarcophagus, but unfortunately, it is thought that this earlier coffin and skeleton sustained damage when it was disturbed during the burial of the above. 

Jedburgh Castle Jail & Museum 

Little did I know when I entered Jedburgh Castle Jail & Museum that firstly I’d have the place nearly to myself for my whole trip and secondly, that I was about to see one of the finest mortsafe that I’ve probably seen to date. 

Built in 1823, Jedburgh Castle Jail & Museum itself was built on the site of old Jedburgh Castle. The Jail was designed by the same architect responsible for Calton Jail in Edinburgh, local man Archibald Elliot and is reputed to have been one of the most comfortable jails in Scotland. It closed in 1866  there are said to be heavy links with paranormal activity.  

If you’re familiar with my blog, you’ll know that I must be one of only a few people who like the idea of ghosts, but at the same time find them absolutely terrifying – quite a combination isn’t it!

But thankfully I didn’t know any of this before my visit and so I quite happily wandered into the original cell blocks still open at the museum, discovering the life of a few of the inmates and reading about its history. 

As I crossed over into the upper level of cells, I poked my head into those where the doors were open and then on the left, not quite half way down, my heart skipped a beat. 

There it was. A complete mortsafe, the type that would clamp around the coffin and be buried along with it, only to be lifted and reused once the cadaver within was no longer of any use to the surgeons. 

The thick iron lattice work still in pretty good condition, the mortsafe being in a perfect coffin shape. What’s not to like! 

But alas, try as I might I have been unable to find out anything about the mortsafe, all I know is that it arrived here at the beginning of 2017. 

Ghostly Sightings At Jedburgh Jail 

Many hangings took place inside the walls of this Georgian building and a lot of the paranormal activity can be linked back to some of the men that were hung here. 

Visitors to the Jail report being touched by unseen hands, hear doors bang closed on their own and more disturbingly to have seen full bodied apparitions, orbs and shadowy figures. 

Cell 18 seems to hold the most secrets and with many ghost stories connected to the site, you may like to read a post from Haunted Horizons who spent the night at Jedburgh Castle Jail and documented their experiences. 

One of the more popular videos on YouTube following a ghost hunt around the Jail is from Haunted Finders – even the clanging of the prison door at the beginning of the episode was enough for me however! 

Take a look for yourself and see what you think – I’d be happy to change the link if you can recommend a better video, just get in touch. 

Oxnam: Parish Kirk

Oxnam Parish Kirk, Scottish Borders

Some authors call Oxnam a plain church, but for me it’s an imposing building, casting a stark contrast to the dark skies that often appear when exploring. The site floods my mind with potential body snatching raids, and images of rank, unwashed individuals lurking behind the kirkyard wall are hard to erase. 

Plain it might be, but the origins of the Kirk can be traced back to 1153 when the Percy family, later the Dukes of Northumberland with their seat at Alnwick, gifted the site and adjacent lands to Jedburgh Abbey. The present church,  the one you stand in front of now, dates from 1738.

Oxnam is where my obsession with body snatching really kicked in. This is where I saw my first watch house and although it seems to get smaller every time I visit, on that first visit, eight years later, the site still sends tingles down my spine. 

Oxnam Kirk & How To Get There

Lying just off the A68 as you head into Jedburgh, on a minor road off Oxnam Road, Oxnam Kirk is pretty easy to find. Just follow the road round keeping your eyes peeled for a small sign of your right directing you over a little bridge after about 3 miles of driving. 

Keep a look out along the top of the hills as you’re driving here, you should be able to make out the whitewashed church on the horizon. 

Parking is at the back of the church, which means you don’t have to rush round this site to get it covered before someone scratches your car dumped on a well used roadside. 

Pause for a moment and take in the sweeping views as you push open the heavy iron gate to the kirkyard, imagining body snatchers sneaking out of Jedburgh, up through the woods and fields to the cadavers resting within. 

To your right lies the watch house at the end of the graveyard. Tucked tight up against the far right hand side corner of the site. Back in the day it would have had a clear view across these fields, the gravestones in front not yet erected. 

The Watch House At Oxnam 

Oxnam Watch House, Scottish Borders

If you don’t know what you’re looking at, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the stone building in the top right hand corner of the graveyard is an overzealous design of a garden shed. 

Although it may be used as such today, back when resurrection men were plying their trade, and when demand for cadavers for Britain’s dissecting tables was reaching its second peak in the 1820’s, watch houses similar to the one here at Oxnam were springing up in a surprising number of parishes.

The watch here had quite comfortable accommodation compared to some of the other watch houses I visit on my travels.

 A fireplace stands on the right hand side of the interior wall and there’s enough space to keep a nightly watch comfortable for the seven nights that they would have held vigil over the recently buried. 

The window, unfortunately now blocked up, was once quite a size and I wouldn’t have been surprised if the body snatchers saw the watch before they saw the bodysnatchers. I imagine it to have been glazed and to be similar to the one in the watch house at Cromdale in the Highlands.

I was lucky enough on a recent trip to find the watch house open and couldn’t resist a peek inside despite the thick dusty cobwebs caked to the doorframe!

Spiders for me fall into the same camp as ghosts I’m afraid! 

I’ll be honest and say that my first look inside this watch house wasn’t the earth shattering experience that I was hoping for. They rarely are to be honest as so many now are used as tool sheds. 

But before you turn in haste and close the door on this watch house, stop for a moment and imagine two or three men sitting around a table – atop is a bottle of whisky maybe, a single candle. The fire going and the conversation turning to more macabre tales, adding fuel to the probably already overactive imaginations of the watch. 

Would they have been discussing tactics and splitting up the roles of each of them just in case the body snatchers decided to pay Oxnam a visit?

I think they probably would have, after all, they were potentially about to come face to face with men from the criminal underworld, not to mention a naked cadaver roughly extracted from the grave and dropped onto the grass as they made their escape. 

Not a pleasant thought….now you can close the door. 

Memento Mori In The Kirkyard At Oxnam

Cast your eye over the graveyard and everywhere you look is lichen; the gravestones here crying out to be left alone from the scrubbing brush that has caused countless damage elsewhere. 

It’s easy to get side tracked at Oxnam, wandering hither and thither as you spot a skull out of the corner of your eye, but I’d hate for you to miss some of the treasures here. 

  • Classic memento mori line the path depicting rudimentary femurs, winged cherubs, hour glasses and toothless skulls – well known symbols of mortality.  
  • The chest tomb to the right alongside the church shows on one side, the figure of a man holding a bible and on the other, a simple skull and single bones
  • A red sandstone gravestone abuts the wall of the kirk, the name now lost as to the owner. Skulls flank the edges, interspersed with bones and hourglasses. Winged cherubs and a male figure dominate the stone. 
  • Near the back wall of the kirkyard as you head towards the watch house, keep an eye out for the memento mori on the imposing gravestone for Rev. Colden who died in 1736 aged 84. 
  • To the right of Rev. Colden’s grave lie three stones of similar character all carved with Green Men, and behind you, smaller simpler stones show classic memento mori symbols
  • The wall on your left as you walk away from the watch house has dotted along it some incredibly chunky gravestones carved with compact skulls, crossed bones, bour glass and winged cherub – quite a lot to squash into such small memorials. 

Punishment Jougs At Oxnam Kirk

Hanging on the outside of the Kirk wall, near to the vestry door hangs a set of punishment jougs. 

Punishment jougs consisted of an iron collar attached by a chain often to the church wall. This collar was then padlocked around an individual’s neck as punishment in both ecclesiastical and civil offences – drunkenness, blasphemy or failure to attend church for example. Dating from the 17th and 18th century, jougs were worn, as a general rule, from between one to four hours and were designed to bring shame on those wearing them.

With few examples still remaining, the punishment jougs at Oxnam still have their padlock attached, albeit in an incredibly rusty state. 

Although the chain lengths did vary, wearing a set of jougs, for however long, would have been uncomfortable by itself, but imagine if you were short or the blacksmith had skimped on the chain links and you had to stand on raised feet just to stop the collar from cutting into your skin. Ouch.

A further set of punishment jougs can be seen at Eckford further along on your route. 

Ancrum Old Parish Kirk 

In 1825, the parishioners of Ancrum were confronted with a decomposing corpse at the site of a quarry. 

Nobody knew who it was, but they all knew how it got there.

The corpse had already been prepared for packing and shipping and showed the classic signs of having been in the hands of the resurrection men. 

Tied up tight to make as small a package as possible, the woman’s arms were corded against her body, her hands found placed upon each shoulder. 

It was common for cadavers to be folded, or rather squashed into three’s, the torso determining the final size of the bundle. The lady who was found partially covered near the quarry that day in 1825 also had her legs bent backwards at her knees, tied tight against her thighs. 

After being taken to the church at Ancrum, the woman’s corpse was removed from its sack, and eventually identified as being the daughter of a man from the nearby village of Bedrule.

It is said that the body snatchers in question were serving time at JEdburgh Jail and were unable to collect their corpse, but you have to question, for a cadaver to be a prepared as this one was for transportation, what was it doing in the quarry in the first place, miles away from the nearest coach office. 

Could it have been enroute already, discarded by a nervous passenger?  

Finding Ancrum Old Parish Kirk 

The Old Kirk lies at the bottom of a steep bank (parking available) off the B6400 as you drive out of Ancrum and past the housing estates on your left. Follow the road to the end and you’ll find plenty of parking at the bottom. 

Once here, you’ll find the ruined shell of the parish church, ivy romping away over the stones. The graveyard is a picturesque one, although very damp underfoot if your visit, like mine, results in the heavens opening as soon as you step out of the car.  

Eckford: Parish Kirk

Eckford Watchtower Scottish Borders

If you’ve not heard of Eckford before, then you’ve not heard the story of ‘Dandy Jim’, the courageous individual who swapped places with a corpse while the body snatchers were trying to catch up with their horse galloping across the fields. 

The year was 1829 and James Goodfellow, better known as Dandy Jim, was returning home after visiting his sweetheart, his route taking him past the kirkyard at Eckford. 

After noticing a horse and cart tied to a nearby tree, the young buck put two and two together and quickly formulated a plan. 

Sending the body snatchers only means of transport galloping across the nearby fields, he quickly swapped places with the corpse in the back of the cart, all wrapped up in a cloth waiting to be packaged ready for the nearest medical school. 

Putting the image of climbing into some sheeting that had so recently surrounded the naked body of a corpse, let alone the smell that must have been assainling up the nostrils of this individual, Dandy Jim was about to embark on a journey that would put the fear of God into any body snatcher. 

Returning with their trusty steed, the horse was quickly harnessed to the cart and the body snatchers headed off in the direction of Kelso. 

Halfway along the road to Maxwellhaugh, on the modern day A698, one of the body snatchers suspected that the corpse they’d just lifted was still warm. 

‘Warm you Say’ cried Dandy Jim as he threw back his covers. 

Legend has it that because of Dandy Jim’s courageous moves that day, the parishioners rallied round and raised enough money to build the small watch tower that you see standing in the kirkyard today. 

Eckford Punishment Jougs

The jougs here are very easy to find, they’re hanging on the side of the kirk wall and can be seen as you walk up into the site. 

Not quite as complete as those at Oxnam, the jougs here are missing their padlock. 

Finding Eckford and Dandy Jim’s Legacy 

Eckford is incredibly easy to find and can be found on the left hand side of the busy A68 as you head out of Jedburgh. You’ll pass a sign showing Eckford to your right, just after Crailing , ignore this and carry straight on. 

Eckford Kirk comes up fast so keep your eyes peeled. There is a small parking bay at the side of the Kirk, but please don’t obstruct the gate to the field as this is in constant use. 

You’ll know you’re in the right spot as you’ll see the watchtower just in front of you. I won’t lie and say the church is a picturesque one, for it isn’t, I wonder what authors make of it if they think Oxnam is plain. 

Hobkirk (Bonchester Bridge): Hobkirk Kirk 

Hobkirk Pairsh Kirk Scottish Borders

It is at the unassuming location of Hobkirk that a dark body snatching tale plays out. 

The parish church at Hobkirk was not altogether a happy place. There was certainly no love lost between it and the parishioners who preferred to be worshipping at the nearby Southdean Kirk instead. 

But when factors outside their control forced them back to their own Kirk at Hobkirk, they reluctantly, nay begrudgingly, were forced to make repairs to their own Kirk so that they still had somewhere suitable to worship. 

In this rather far fetched tale involving the Reverend at the time,  Revd. Nicol Edgar, we see the Kirkyard being haunted by an apparition in the form of a tall man wearing a blue bonnet.

Ghosts In The Graveyard at Hobkirk Kirk

Not content with haunting the graveyard, watching graves being dug, this apparition had even taken to sitting in the pews during service, which quite naturally was petrifying the worshipers of Hobkirk. 

Taking matters into his own hands, the Revd. entered the Kirk one evening at midnight armed with a hefty Bible and a sword and proceeded to sit himself in front of the pulpit scratching a protective circle in the ground around himself. 

Eventually movement was heard in the corner of the Kirk and a mole was seen to appear from out of the ground. 

This mole, growing larger transformed into the apparition that had been terrorising the parishioners, dressed from head to toe in blue. 

This vision in blue, a cattle dealer who had been murdered on his way back from Lammas Fair, wanted his murder to be brought to justice and all he asked for was a quiet corner in the kirkyard to lay his head till the hand of justice caught up with him. 

Revd. Edgar granted him this wish and he was never to be seen again wandering amongst the gravestones. However, this isn’t the end of the tale, for the links with body snatching don’t start until the Revd’s own death some four years later. 

Body Snatching At Hobkirk: The Theft of Revd. Nicol Edgar

Hobkirk Parish Church Scottish Borders

You’d think the parishioners of Hobkirk would have been grateful that their Revd. has ridden them of the ghostly apparition that was stopping them from attending church on a Sunday. 

Quite the opposite. They became incredibly wary, some even believing that he himself was a warlock and that he too would soon be prowling around the graveyard.  

In an attempt to stop these perceived hauntings, it was decided to steal the Revd’s corpse and rebury it in the scrubland on Bonchester Hill. But as the thieves, for they weren’t body snatchers in the true sense of the word, made their way up the hill to their chosen location, one of the Revd’s arms came loose from its bindings and slapped one of them across the face. 

As you would, the Revd’s corpse was immediately dropped and the would-be body snatchers fled the scene, not giving a second thought to the corpse that they’d left exposed on the hillside. 

Many hours passed by before a second band of body snatchers made their way up the hillside to rescue the abandoned corpse, returning him to the grave from whence he came, the gravestone marking what was to be his final resting place. 

‘Here lys Nicol Edgar, son of the Laird of Wedderlie, who died upon the 31 May, 1724, aged 67 years. And his spouse Susanna, who died 30th June 1713, aged 52’ 

From North & South of the Tweed:Stories and Legends of the Borders: Jean Lang (1913)

I didn’t see the Revd’s gravestone when I visited, but I’ll be honest, I wasn’t really looking. I was distracted by the few bits of memento mori that are dotted through the site and writing up my notes. If you do visit, I’d love to see if you can find Revd. Edgar’s grave.

Finding Your Way to Hobkirk Kirk on the Outskirts of Bonchester Bridge

Speed your way up through Northumberland and over into Scotland on the A68 and you’ll be met with some of the most fantastic landscapes throughout the whole trip. 

Just over the border, on the A6088 to Hawick pull up in one of the many roadside opportunities and stop for a while to admire the view. Much less crowded here than at the official viewpoint on the Border, plus you may be lucky enough to hear a woodpecker like I did while grabbing a welcome coffee I’d packed especially for the journey. 

Here you’ll pass a signpost for another body snatching location, Canonbie, which if you have time you may wish to add as a small detour. It’s about 28 miles away. 

Eyes peeled to the left for the B6357 and travel down into Bonchester Bridge. Here you’ll find a sign for Hobkirk. There’s parking outside the Kirk. I still encourage you to visit even though this site doesn’t excite the senses as Oxnam will – grab a seat on one of the benches in the Kirkyard and perhaps see if the legend of the murdered cattle farmer is true…

Other Body Snatching Locations Nearby 

You’re entering the start of body snatching territory and so there’s a few sites that aren’t too far away if you have the time for a bit of a detour 

Canonbie | United Parish Church 

As one of the largest graveyards in Scotland, Canonbie is certainly worth a visit for the genealogy aspect alone.

In relation to body snatching, tucked right at the far corner of the site is a very unassuming watch house – please don’t be like me and get all excited over the mausoleum of William Mein C.B, Late Lieutenant Colonel & Commander of the 52nd Regiment. 

You can read more about Canonbie and my visit, as well as watch a drone flight over the site on the link below to another post of mine. 

Lennel/Coldstream | Lennel Old Parish Church

Just over 20 miles away in the border parish of Lennel/Coldstream lies a bit of a treat if you fancy the detour. 

The site has recently been renovated, meaning that the dilapidated morthouse and ruined church that was once overrun with ivy has now been transformed and lies in a very neat gravelled area within the graveyard itself. 

To the right of the ruined church and embedded in the grass is an extremely rusty mortsafe. Some have called it an iron gravestone marker, but most beg to differ, including me. You can clearly see the edges of this mortsafe, the irons bars across its chest. Whether the inhabitants are still beneath, is another question. 

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Suzie
diggingup1800@gmail.com
I've been researching the macabre world of body snatching since 2005 when I looked at the topic in depth for my Under Grad dissertation. Since then, I've been absolutely fascinated by this often forgotten side of Britain's history.