Heritage consultant David Hicks brings us the stories behind some of East Lothian’s historic properties.
Today East Lothian’s graveyards are quiet contemplative places, but two hundred years ago they were the focus of alarm at a new crime wave. The graveyards at Prestongrange and Oldhamstocks churches both have seemingly unassuming buildings, which are actually relics of a time when the fear of body snatching was rife throughout the area.
Both graveyards have good examples of Watch Houses, built in the Georgian period to shelter the guard keeping a vigil over the freshly dug graves. They are simple one-roomed structures which look like small cottages. The buildings have windows facing into the graveyard, along with chimneys and fireplaces for the long winter nights when the bodysnatchers were most active. October to May were regarded as the ‘dissecting months’, as the bodies would last longer in colder weather. Some Watch Houses were even built with gun loops, so the guard could take pot shots at any intruders.
At Prestongrange Church the Watch House incorporates older memorials, including a highly appropriate skull and crossed bones from a headstone known as a Memento Mori.
The example in Oldhamstocks Churchyard dates to 1824 and is a well-built structure, with finely dressed stone and even a little nod to fashionable classical architecture in its decoration.
Both buildings are testament to the fear of body snatching in the early 1800s. At that time the medical schools in Edinburgh needed fresh corpses for their anatomy classes, but the supply of bodies was limited. As a result there was an illicit trade in bodies, with newly dug graves a target for thieves. Watch Houses were just one example of the community trying to keep their graveyards safe.
The need for Watch Houses disappeared in 1832 with the new Anatomy Act, which allowed a greater supply of bodies in the name of science. But some survived, as a useful meeting place for parishioners or storage. The humble Watch Houses at Prestongrange and Oldhamstocks Churchyards are now relatively rare examples, easily overlooked but with a fascinating story to tell.