One Church, Twenty-Five ‘Witches’ and a Thousand Skeletons

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to write more about historical places I visit (and not just historical novels I read). In that spirit I am offering a post about the Kirk of St. Nicholas in Aberdeen, Scotland, which I visited on New Year’s Eve 2017. Originally founded in the 1150s, it is a place where in the last few years archaeologists have uncovered evidence of a past as rich as it was horrible.

Kirk3Located in the heart of Aberdeen’s busy City Centre, the kirk stands out with it somber aspect, even among the famously gray granite buildings that are the city’s hallmark (especially on a rainy day like yesterday). From Union Street, one enters the graveyard surrounding the kirk through an imposing neo-classical gate, flanked by two ionic columns on each side. The gravestones are old, the granite on many of them chipped or cracked, and covered with moss.

The current church dates back to the 19th century, but there are still medieval elements embedded in its foundations, and a section where a medieval chapel of St. Mary used to stand has been the site of archaeological exploration for the last 10 years.

Kirk5The researchers have uncovered tar barrels, remnants of rope and a metal ring embedded in one of the walls, tell-tale signs that the place used to be a prison. City records show that two dozen women and one man were accused of witchcraft and held there before being taken away to be burned at the stake during the Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1597. In even deeper layers of the earth under the chapel, more than 900 skeletons have been found, some dating back to the 11th century. Studies are being conducted on them to better understand the diseases, diet, and other lifestyle factors of the area’s pre-modern population.

The city plans to rebury the bones at a newly built crypt by this Easter. Later, a heritage site will be set up which will hold Aberdeen’s vast collection of UNESCO-recognized medieval burgh records.

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