The Coffin Roads by Ian Bradley

The Coffin Roads is the second in a trilogy where Ian Bradley, Emeritus Professor of Cultural and Spiritual History at the University of St Andrews, examines aspects of death and the afterlife. Many of us who walk in the West Highlands and islands have long been aware of the many footpaths which cross-cross the landscape. What I had limited knowledge of was that many of these are ancient coffin roads, along which the dead were carried to the west of the country where the machair or coastal sand made graveyard burial easier than the rockier land of the east.

Professor Bradley offers a truly fascinating and moving account of those funeral processions, often conducted in silence and over many miles, when the coffin was never laid on the ground, borne by mourners who changed places reverently. To ensure the wellbeing of the soul, coffins were often carried over water and over winding paths used only to carry the dead to their final resting place. Many of the cairns at stopping places along the way can still be seen. Focusing on eight coffin roads in particular, Bradley makes detailed reference to the Kilmartin Valley, to the well-documented Street of the Dead on Iona, and to the islands of Jura, Eigg and Barra, where customs are still honoured. He uses first-hand accounts in his descriptions of traditions such as the wake or the keening or crooning that accompanied the deaths and he outlines long-held superstitions that also existed or exist. Many folk still wish to be buried with their forefathers: the CalMac ferries still transport urns bearing the ashes of those who asked to be scattered on homeland far away.

In an age when death and funeral practices have become increasingly feared or secularised, Bradley describes vividly past eras where people looked death in the face, saw it as part of the living process and involved the entire community. His material is very well researched; the style scholarly but never heavy and I appreciated his thoughtful approach. It gave me a lot to think about.