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Caithness Field Club


Caithness Field Club Bulletin

The Pennyland Mausoleum at Victoria Walk, Thurso
(by Eric Voice)

Everyone in Thurso knows the Pennyland Mausoleum. Many pass close by as they take their Sunday stroll along beautiful Victoria Walk to Burnside. But how many know just what it is and its fascinating history?

You can't go inside now as the door and windows have been walled-up for over a century. Until the 1970s there was a marble plaque on the landward side telling us who's buried there hut that's vandalised and vanished. Ordnance maps mark the nearby cliff projection as "Chapel Point" and although it has no roof now we can see the roof clearly in watercolours of Thurso in the early 19th \ century. And if you look at the Eastern end there's the lower half of the window once above the altar.

The Mausoleum

We can't get in but unfortunately people still do - by climbing over the 10-foot high walls! And not doing the interior any good, either. Fires, picnics and unmentionables, too. We'll come back to that but first what can we deduce from the chapel in its present state?

The first surprising thing is that there is no stone floor, just soil, grass and weeds. Then, how many people realise when walking along the Victoria Walk that the surface level inside is up to their waist, three feet above the path That says at once that this is a mortuary chapel, for burials only, and that a large number of people have been buried here. Now it's clear that in recent years several wall-climbing visitors have had a dig in at least three places - looking for their ancestors, perhaps? One, we hear, dug down six feet but "didn't find anything". I Ie should have had his specs on, for if one looks closely at the soil he's disturbed you'll see a myriad of tiny bone fragments; he's dug through dozens of bodies!

Inside the Mausoleum

But let's look at the soil even more closely. Taking samples outside the chapel, in the field nearby and on the cliff edge, the acidity of the soil measures pH 6.9 to 7.3, that's just about neutral. But thimblefuls of the disturbed soil inside give pHs of 8.4, 8.6 and 8.7! That's remarkably alkaline, much higher than the soil on chalk downs, and suggests that there's a lot of calcium present. Bone, of course, is over half calcium phosphate, so let's try to estimate how much bone is present. Rough kitchen-table analysis of three small soil samples comes up with I 1.7 grams of fragmented bone per 100 grams of dry soil. The burial volume - that's the chapel area, 28 feet x 14 feet, times the soil level rise - gives a bone-fragment total of nearly a ton. With lessons from other excavations, that tells us the number of burials is at least 500! 500 burials in a tiny space like that! Can that be possible? Not nowadays, with present fashions and Regulations! But between 1440 and 1800, when we're told the mausoleum was in use, things were very different. Coffins weren't used except for interments in church vaults and burial was in a shroud only. Because consecrated ground was kept strictly to a minimum, burials were left untouched for only twenty years at most and then re-excavated for the next burial. Remember Hamlet? - Act 5, Scene 1. Hamlet watches the grave-digger throwing up bones and skulls...."Alas, poor Yorick - I knew him, Horatio...". Burials were shallow, too, usually two or three feet. Only after the 1850s Burial Acts was six feet legally imposed to lessen the spread of plague and cholera. So, yes, 500 is not an impossible number for so small an area and, without going into more gruesome detail, would roughly account for the rise in soil surface level. But we do need a more precise analysis of the soil calcium and organic material content.

The Marble Plaque inside

The marble plaque tells us that this was the Murray family burial chapel. Again, that number's reasonable. Suppose that in Pennyland House lived one Murray head-of-family and his wife. In those centuries the average woman in her thirty fertile years would have fifteen pregnancies with twelve live births. Of those, four would die at birth or before they were one year old while four more would not see their 'teens out. Of the four reaching adulthood, that's two male and two female, one would be the next head-of-family while his younger brother would be off, most likely to the Army. The two sisters would marry away, the family head would have a wife and with the common incidence of puerperal fever it's likely he would marry at least twice in his life. Putting all that together we can expect a total of twelve deaths every thirty years for the one family. We're told on the plaque that the chapel was in use from 1440 to 1800, that's 360 years, implying 144 burials over the whole period. But the plaque tells us also that this was the burial place of the Murrays of Pennyland, Scotscalder, Clairdon and Castlehill, that's four families. Taking each to average the same as Pennyland over the centuries, total burial numbers would be 4 x 144 = 576. And that assumes the chapel to be strictly reserved for Murrays, with no servants, nannies or distant relatives buried there also.

Nevertheless, in spite of the dating on the marble plaque, there seems to have been at least one more burial after 1800 and not a Murray at that. It's said that Alexander Dunbar of Scrabster House was "buried in the vault" in 1859 although the chapel must have been in a pretty shabby state by then. He left funds in his will for the building of Dunbar Hospital at High Ormlie, opened in 1882, and we're told that well into the 20th century the Pennyland mausoleum was known as Dunbar's Tomb. By the 1850s burials would have been in coffins but there's no sign of a "vault". If there is one, it's not in the chapel centre, accepting the ancestor-seeking digger's claim of a "six foot" hole. Nor is there evidence of a vault entrance anywhere. No surviving memorial tablet either, a "must" for the 19th century middle-class. Has anyone information?

One of the Wall Monuments

Now let's go back to the chapel itself. The present structure appears to date from the late 16th/ear\y 17th century. Inside are two wall monuments and two memorial recesses. The two monuments are typical of the late 17th / early 18th century, with entwined "pillars of Hercules" (the origin of the dollar symbol, $) on each side. One of them commemorates ("here lyes entombed") Richard Murray of Scotscalder who died in 1678 and his wife 42 years later, in 1720. Richard Murray, we're told on the marble plaque, was an MP in 1643. That would be in the Scottish Parliament as representative for Caithness, which had its own MP from 1641 onwards. A very difficult and controversial time! The Civil War had started in August 1642 and wasn't going too well for the English Parliament. So the next year Westminster entered into a treaty with the Scottish Parliament, the "Solemn League and Covenant". Scottish MPs agreed that "all fencible men from sixteen to sixty" from all counties in Scotland should form an army of 21,000 against Charles 1st. That needed a year to assemble and then in January 1644 the army marched down into England accompanied by a committee of MPs. Charles eventually gave himself up to the Scots army in 1646. What part did our MP, Richard Murray, and those Caithness "16s to 60s" play in all this, I wonder? Does the Murray family history tell us?

The Wall monument to Richard Murray

The same monument records that Patrick Murray of Pennyland, Richard's eldest son, was buried here in 1719. Patrick, according to the marble plaque, was MP in 1698 although the Scottish Parliamentary records list him as MP for Caithness as early as 1689. Again, difficult times! The Murrays were Episcopalian and likely to have supported the "popish" James II (VII of Scotland). When James escaped abroad in 1688, "being conscious that he had a joint in his neck", the accession of the "Dutch Calvinist" William III would have been much resented by the Murrays of Pennyland. Nevertheless it seems that Patrick continued as MP for at least another nine years. In 1707 the Act of Union ended the independent Scottish Parliament but there's no record at Westminster that Patrick transferred there as an MP. But then Caithness was no longer a separate constituency. Again, Murray genealogists can perhaps tell us more.
Now the two empty memorial recesses. Their size and proportions are as usual for standing ornamental memorial slabs - or could they have held marble busts? One recess is lower, nearer to the ground than you'd expect, as are the two wall-monuments also, but that's because of the floor rising with accumulating burials.

That brings us to the later history of the chapel. Unused for burials after 1800 according to the plaque, the roof which was intact during the first quarter of the 19th century had probably collapsed by the last quarter. Then around 1880 or 1890 it seems that a Murray decided to tidy things up. The remnants of the roof were removed together with the gables and the tops of the walls levelled, filling the East window. A layer of slabs formed a fascia for the coping stones. The walls still retained much of their interior plaster although after another hundred years of exposure without a roof it's now almost all gone. The missing pediment of the earlier James Murray memorial was cemented back into position and the contents of the memorial recesses removed, if they hadn't been before. Are they still in the possession of the Murrays? Marble busts, perhaps?

The South doorway and the Western of the two South windows were then walled up. The earlier sand-and-lime mortar of the chapel walls would have seriously eroded through the centuries so the outer surfaces were re-pointed using rapid-setting Portland cement, unlikely to have been available before the 1860s. The lichen on the coping slabs supports a date of something over 100 years ago.Finally, as the blocking of the doorway prevented entry to see the monuments, a marble plaque was cut to fit the Eastern of the two South windows, informing the world that the Murrays were buried here. Before cementing the slab in place a photograph was fortunately taken, as the plaque was smashed by vandals in the 1970s to get through the window and damage the interior. This window was walled-up in the 1980s to prevent further access. But youthful agility was not taken into account and entry continues by climbing over and pushing off the coping stones. As for people with ladders searching for their ancestors, well.........

Here, then, is a significant record of centuries of Caithness history and a light on earlier ways of life and thinking. Yet the Pennyland Mausoleum is neither a Listed Building nor a Scheduled Monument! As far as I am aware, no public money has ever been spent upon it, nor for a hundred years any private money either. What can be done to prevent continuing vandalism and decay? The local Murray family has moved on; will the Highland Region take responsibility for the chapel's future?

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