Comin thro’ the grain

  • The right to life

It was only after an hour or more spent in the office of John Lawson, Edinburgh City Archaeologist, pouring over detailed digital maps depicting the Siege of Leith fortifications and ancient pathways to the sea, that I realised we were not alone in the room. John’s office is reached by climbing a steep and winding old town staircase inside the Museum of Edinburgh on the city’s Royal Mile, passed glass cabinets filled with polished artefacts and through creaking, oak timber doors. Within the office, his desk is strewn with lever-arch files, scrolls and hardback books and is enclosed by a fortress of boxes stacked high in cardboard columns. Sitting opposite John at the other side of his desk, I suddenly realised with a mixture of horror and delight that I was surrounded by the medieval remains of 20- 30 of my fellow Constitutional Streeters in boxes.

The box closest to us was labelled skeleton 880 in thick, black marker pen. Carefully lifting off the box top to reveal the packed contents, John inspected various sample bags inside containing femurs and fibula as another might enthusiastically explore a picnic hamper of sandwiches packed at home earlier in the day, familiar and yet forgotten about for a while. Most obvious at the centre of the box was the skull. ‘Oh, a woman!’ exclaimed John. He could tell this by the less pronounced brow ridge, vertical forehead and sharp upper margins of the eye orbits. I cradled the smooth, soil-tinted skull of an adult female in my cupped hands and looked into her sightless sockets.

Most remarkable was the whiteness of 880’s remaining teeth, one or two of which had become dislodged and rattled around in the cardboard box like missing pieces from a second-hand jigsaw puzzle. John picked up an incisor and tried inserting it into various vacant slots along her jawline before finding an exact fit. He explained that the absence of refined sugar in the medieval diet accounted for the relatively good condition of her teeth compared to our modern-day addiction to sugar. Irn Bru and Buckfast being late additions to a sweetened, Scottish palette. And yet in contrast to the sharpness of her pearly-white front teeth, the back molars of 880 woman were noticeably worn-down from a lifetime of grinding grain, the staple diet of old, old Leither. Indeed, still today, Leith Docks imports cargos of grain from Canada and the Baltic states- wheat, oats, barley and rye. The mills, including formerly the Grain Silo at the foot of Constitution Street, thresh the different grains to become animal feed, flour for bread and, if the grain is of sufficient quality, it is syphoned off for whisky distillation.

Forensic experts from the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at the University of Dundee are painstakingly undertaking craniofacial analysis to reveal the likely faces of several of the 14th to 17th century Constitution Streeters unearthed during the six months of 2009 Edinburgh Tram work excavations. Some dating from as far back as 1315 AD and therefore five years ahead of Robert the Bruce signing Scotland’s original constitutional touchstone, The Declaration of Arbroath, the bodies of nearly 400 men, women and children were found on a previously unknown section of South Leith Parish Church graveyard. There were 302 complete burial sites found and a further 100 individuals in fragments of bones. It is likely that at least 300 additional skeletons were obliterated by utilities maintenance over the preceding years including in the engineering of a Victorian sewage system and twentieth century services.

The Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown described bone as subtle and long-lasting. In my own beach-coming amongst the Uig dunes on the Isle of Lewis earlier in the summer months, I had picked up the skull of a common gull, larus canus, and placed it as a sort of totem to nature gods on the steps of the Mackenzie sisters’ caravan during a week of solitary walking and reading in which I twitched like a small bird in my sleep, both embracing and wrestling with isolation. The beak-shaped lattice of collagen and calcium followed me home in my rucksack and now keeps watch on a shelf above my desk in Leith.

Although generally acidic, the silty soil deep under Constitution Street with its ancient remains of oyster shells provides good drainage and so the perfect subtle and long-lasting conditions for preserving bone. The remains are from the ordinary parishioners of South Leith, though intriguingly perhaps a third pre date the church’s foundation in 1483. As such some of the burials found may provide evidence of the nearby older medieval hospital of St Anthony’s destroyed in the 16th century but we can’t know for certain because the carpark of a budget German supermarket now marks the spot. Before the construction of what is now known as South Leith Parish Church (St Mary’s Church Pre-Reformation), the hospital chapel appears to have been the place of worship for local trades and craftsmen.

None of the graves excavated so far on Constitution Street date later than the last episode of bubonic plague in Edinburgh in 1649 when 2,700 people died in Leith – over half the population of the time. The practice of burying victims in mass graves, without coffins, beyond the town walls and the burning of all infected premises may account for this gap in Constitution Street burials. In his Life and Times of Leith book, historian James Marshall records that huge cauldrons stood bubbling on the Links sand dunes for the boiling of infected clothes. When Constitution Street as the wide thoroughfare connecting sea and city that we recognise today was first laid out in 1790, the Church of Scotland declared that it knew of no human burial sites on the land. Indeed, the gas mains man who first hit human bone digging a utilities trench in 2008, before the Edinburgh Trams project, was said to have been somewhat surprised too.

Staring back at me from John’s computer screen was the life-like image of a woman who had lain hidden for over 600 years and is estimated to have been 30- 35, my own age, when she died. Although relatively old for her time, 35 can be an in-between, liminal age for today’s millennial women in the western world. An age where we rightly want to choose to be both mothers and careerists, or neither, but are constantly reminded by the medical profession and advert profiling that 35 marks the edge of the fertility cliff from which we must catch our depleting and falling eggs before all is lost to a cold, barren sea.

The title of J D Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, borrows from the Burn’s poem Comin Thro’ the Rye. Salinger’s protagonist, Holden Caulfield, misinterprets the poem to read ‘if a body catch a body’ rather than ‘if a body meet a body.’ In the realms of his dystopian imagination Holden keeps picturing children playing in a field of rye near the edge of a cliff, and him catching them when they start to fall off, like fatalistic lemmings, one by one.

Gin a body meet a body

Comin thro’ the grain;

Gin a body kiss a body,

The thing’s a body’s ain.

This body’s ain avatar on the screen in front of me showed a blue-eyed, young woman with long, brown hair and a height of 5’1. Her vital statistics read like an online dating profile. I had found a match. Two women sitting face to face across half a millennium of human history in the Leith area of Edinburgh. She was, and I am, linked by faint traces of distant mothers and daughters, connected by shared place not biology- traces now mostly forgotten but every so often, seemingly by chance, re-emerging like a brass etching portrait. Women who laughed, cried, swore, made love, grieved and felt something, briefly, of the messy mix of what it is to embody the right to life. My medieval Constitution Street woman most likely died at 35 from complications in late pregnancy, during childbirth or by catching a fever. The threat from infection was real and ever-present with foreign cargo and crew continuously arriving at the Port, together with poor sanitation and overcrowding in slum housing.

Back at John’s office at the Museum of Edinburgh, the pixilated women on the screen in front of me had no name. But she would once have had a name of her own and have been known. She would have had a family tree; all the ‘David Copperfield’ crap as Holden Caulfield put it. None of the 400 Constitution Streeters since rediscovered from the medieval past have names now, only numbers. I was sceptical of the sun-tanned, unblemished skin and the appearance of makeup presented by the facial reconstruction in front of us but John explained that this was due to an artist’s ink work and that other photoshopped results were plainer and perhaps more realistic. He also assured me that many of the Leith faces brought back to life were in fact a lot plainer and exhibit shared characteristics and although he wasn’t in any way suggesting inbreeding, there were several male and female skulls found with similarly very large foreheads and jaws.

While historians like to tell stories, scientists are in the business of evidential proof. Strontium and oxygen isotopic analysis from Dr Kate Britton at Aberdeen University from a sample of 18 of the Constitution Street bodies indicates that around 80% spent their childhoods in the Leith or Edinburgh area, with the remainder growing up within a radius of 20- 50km. The vast majority of the population died before they reached the age of 30-35 with peaks of mortality occurring in older children aged 7-12. Medieval Constitution Streeters would have been much more in touch with their own mortality than our present-day selves.

Someone who is in the business of life and death today is Bill, florist at Carolyn Designer Florists at 179 Constitution Street. The shop’s best seller is a floral tribute for funeral processions spelled out in capital letters. I watch Bill pin the wired heads of white carnations and lilies into soaked oasis frames bordered by reams of purple plastic ribbon. He lines the letters up on the shop counter to spell out MUM, NAN or BELOVED. The petals appear like an urgent text message shouting about loss. Bill tells me that the flower letters are particularly popular with local Asian families and that this causes him no end of strife because Muslim funeral ceremonies are required to take place quickly after a death, leaving Bill little preparation time. People keep bloody dying! he sighs.

Dead bodies from the past on Constitution Street were buried in the Christian tradition of east-west on their backs in closely arranged rows and only a few inside coffins. For centuries, our ancient neighbours lay perpendicular and witness to the daily tide of street surf washing north-south, up and down the street only 1.2 meters above. They were cheek by jowl to the foundations of present-day landmarks on the street, places like Carolyn Designer Florist, Kirkgate House, the Alan Breck Lounge and, perhaps most appropriately of all, the Boneyard Tattoo studio where owner Ritchie has a particular penchant for tattooing skulls. A self-confessed punk rocker, he boasts 86 skulls of various sizes adorning his own body.

‘From life-size down to the size of your fingernail. But that was out of a challenge. My best mate John who was like secondary guitarist in Nirvana- he was into his guitars and his skulls. And when he used to be away on tour, he would be like ‘ah ha, I got another 5 skulls done when I was touring Canada or whatever’. And I’d be like, well I’m a tattoo artist so I’ll just go and draw another six on me, he he!! So he could never win.’

No appointment necessary, cash-only, reads the sign outside the Boneyard Studio. I knock and Ritchie appears through the saloon-style swing doors. Despite his best efforts to appear ‘not really a sunshine kinda guy’, he offers a warm welcome to the tattoo studio he has run for 20 years on Constitution Street and concedes that, in his opinion, tattoos are mostly ‘for idiots’. He was born on nearby Lorne Street and used to come down to the Shore to visit his granny as a young lad. I asked him about what tattoos are currently on trend.

‘Well, the thing is, you think you’ve seen it and then somebody else comes in. You always get your fad tattoos. A few years ago, stars were the thing. And I’d probably, up to that point over a period of about 15 years, I’d maybe only done a couple of dozen stars in ma whole life. And about 5 or 6 years ago, I did nothing but stars. I can remember one day, I had 17 customers- 16 of whom got stars, I thought I had concussion! This one guy came in and asked me for a treble cleft. I wanted to marry him coz it’s not a star, ha ha! What you doin later?! But yeah, you get your fad things. You know, at the moment a lot of people are going for infinity symbols, like a figure of 8 on their side. But this week I’ve actually been in my element because most customers have been getting skulls, which is what I love doin! So, I’ve been quite enjoying masel this week.’

Tattoo needles punch through the epidermis, the outer layer of skin, and drive ink into the dermis, the deeper layer that’s mottled with nerves and blood vessels. I remember reading that traces from tattoo ink can sometimes be found on remains of a human body long after the decay of surface skin. The body’s complex processes that keep our skin free from infection are the same ones that allow ink to live forever in our skin.

Skull and crossbones tattoos are synonymous with the classic depiction of a fearsome pirate on the high seas. Routine local building works have uncovered the historical remains of bodies, possibly of pirates, who were hung in chains along the Shore area of Leith to act as a deterrent to others. The last execution for piracy took place on Leith Sands in 1822 on what is now a Sainsbury’s Local. The bodies of the two prisoners were reportedly taken for dissection at Edinburgh’s medical school.

Another sensational case in 1705 involved an Englishman, Captain Green, who was falsely accused of piracy against Scottish ships. Two years ahead of the Treaty of Union, anti-English sentiment was then very high and the judiciary were reluctant to acquit Green despite the lack of evidence. He was hanged at the far end of Constitution Street in front of a frenzied mob of 80,000.

The archaeological dig at Constitution Street was one of the largest and most important urban excavations of human remains undertaken in Scotland in recent years. When the contested Edinburgh Tram works likely return to complete the route from the city centre to Leith and Newhaven, former residents of the street will once again turn in their graves when the tarmac is sliced open, trenches cut, utility services dislodged and old faces revealed to new neighbours under the penetrating light of an expansive, northern sky. Our shifting, liminal land does not lie still.

As all the graves from recent digs predate the formal layout of the street in 1790, there are likely to be hundreds, if not thousands, more skeletons resting in a temporal peace further along the street and beneath the wynds and lanes running east toward the Links. Bringing up the bodies has only just begun.

I left the Museum of Edinburgh and stepped back outside onto the hum of the Royal Mile to join tourists, politicians, students and shopkeepers in the land of the living. Edinburgh, the city of constantly negotiated dualities, the gothic dark of the old town closes and the broad, sweeping terraces of the Georgian New Town; the extinct volcano in a royal park and enlightened advances in science and literature; fur coat and nae knickers. All is often not as it first seems in Auld Reekie. This, after all, is the city where Robert Louis Stevenson based his Jekyll and Hyde characters on the real-life body-snatchers, Burke and Hare. A century before the notorious grave-robbing case, wealthier families in South Leith hired armed watchers to spend nights in the churchyard after a burial to guard against intrusion. A display cabinet in the porch of the church contains the iron helmet and baton of a watcher.

I continued down the Canongate, past the Scottish Parliament, the Palace of Holyrood, Easter Road and eventually back into the guts of Leith. Walking the length of Constitution Street, I looked up and around to notice the presence of any change on the street. On this occasion, the addition of craft-bombed woollen stockings clothed the Burns statue and a new neighbour in my tenement stair could be seen framed by a lit window. I smiled too at the things that remain ever-familiar. A menacing gull hovered overhead with illicit chips dangling in its beak. And I remembered the stories– real or imagined- of how places like the Leith Corn Exchange (now Creative Exchange), Martin’s Bakery (now Pierinos fish and chip shop) and the Grain Silo at the Docks (now derelict) all came into being on the street and inter-link with one another.

Like the rye that becomes flour that becomes bread, we are constantly proving- proving ourselves to be strong and ready, resilient and adaptable. Ready for what will be added to the mix of history. Perhaps after the introduction to some of my street ancestors that lie beneath, I will cast my gaze down from time to time, toward the soil, sand and silt deep below and pat the ground gently with the sole of my foot in acknowledgement of a long line of human connection met comin thro’ the grain. For it takes death to make us all live a bit more.

On the north wall of South Leith Parish Church, there is a sculpture commissioned to commemorate all who are buried in Leith in unmarked graves. It features, in the shape of the Water of Leith river path, a text from 1 Corinthians, chapter 15:

When buried, ugly and weak;

When raised beautiful and strong.

When buried, a physical body;

When raised a spiritual body.

 

 

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