Dunblane CathedralThe Beast & The Bell

In old Scots a kirkyard is often called a ‘Howff’. The name is fitting as, in the auld tongue that word simply signifies a ‘Meeting Place’. Death – the Pale Rider – they says, is ‘The Great Emancipator’…’the poor man’s only friend’, as Rabbie Burns would have it. After all, be we Baillie, beggar or thief we’ll all return to the dust and the dirt when our time comes. Death is the great democrat of them all.

We’re all equal in death, aren’t we? Well…not quite.

Our genteel ancestors, after all, had social standards to maintain! They were not inclined to inter the poor alongside the great and the good. What would people say?

In ages past they’d bury villains to the North of God’s Acre. The worthies – those with a little silver to spare – would be planted in the South. In the Eastern quadrant of the kirk-yard – nearest the church, and closer to God – you’d have clerical types, ministers, elders and the like. And to the West, the wastrels.

Mind you, perhaps it was the downtrodden and destitute who had the last laugh…

The cost of planting the poor was covered by the kirk charging a fee of Two Shillings for hire of the Parish Mort-Cloth – a black velvet drape used to cover the casket of richer folk as it lay in the church before burial. An extra charge was made for tolling the Mort-Bell, announcing the passing of their dearly beloved brethren to the town.

No one, save for the Church Elders, was allowed even to touch this Death Bell, and for it to be heard to chime by any other hand was seen as a portent of ill omen. …as the 17th-century citizens of Dunblane could testify.

Picture the scene: it’s the dead of night, when bairns lie napping in their cots, their parents huddled in their pillows sleeping the sleep of the just – or trying to. Many feel the need to keep one wary eye open, as if in fear of some terror in the night, for there has been talk of witches and bogles in the town, and sleepless nights have been the norm for many in the weeks just past.

Then – sudden, sharp and clear – a sound cuts like a knife through the still night air. The Cathedral Bell – the Mort bell, that proclaims the passing of the worthies of the town and sounded out their coffins’ march from kirk to grave. But why should it chime now, in dead of night? Surely the Elders of the kirk were all a-bed - the kirk itself locked up tight!

The anxious Beadle heard the baleful clatter, leapt from his bed and raced to meet the Town Guard, then raced to the Cathedral door. There they found that half the town were gathered, huddled tight by the old oak door, shivering as they heard the harsh clamour of the old iron bell, within.

The Beadle put his eye to the keyhole – then fell back in horror! There, in the pale moonlight by the altar he saw, but for a fleeting second, a horrible, hairy, horned beast, and heard the clatter of cloven hooves upon the great stone floor. He summoned up his strength – his fiery faith in his Creator – and threw wide the heavy doors, ready to confront the hellish horned foe his thundering heart told him must lie beyond: Beelzenub, the Prince of Flies; the Fallen Samael; Azazel; Satan himself, in the form of a Great Beast..

Well, truth be told, it wasn’t quite the Beast he’d bargained for. Some trickster had crept into the kirk and tied the bell-rope to the horns of a grumpy great Blackface Ram.

Still, it wouldn’t be the first time a grumpy old goat had caused trouble in a Scottish church...just ask 'Auld Staney Breeks' at Cowane's Hospital!

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