Burying the Pest

The Ordnance Survey Name Book entry for Pest Knowe, in the parish of Kirkmaiden, Wigtownshire contains a passing reference to ‘burying the pest’:

“Pest Knowe: A green spot on the farm of Auchneight where it is said some ceremony was gone through for banishing an epidemic disease called burying the pest.”[1]

‘Pest’ place-names are not particularly common and none appear to make any mention of ‘burying the pest’. However, I did find a description of the ritual elsewhere.

There is only one other Pest Knowe in the Name Books, in Hume parish, Berwickshire:

“A small earthen Mound, in the south east corner of the old Church yard of “Hume”; tradition points this out as the place where those who died of the Plague when it raged so fiercely in this Village in 1681 were buried. “Pest” being the Common name given by the people of this County to the Plague It was opened a few years ago by Lady John Scot when residing at Stitchel House, but there were no bones, or any human remains discovered.”[2]

Pestknowes appear under ‘Pest’ in DSL, which cites JM Corrie’s Droving Days (1915):

“The virulence of the disease [murrain] is still attested in the topography of Glencairn, . . . by the name of “Pestknowes”, applied to sandy knolls where animals affected by the disease had been buried.”[3]  

Elsewhere in D&G we find Deadman’s Hirst, Dumfries: “A Slight Eminence, where tradition says – persons were interred who died of the plague in remote times”.[4] The name’s no longer used and the developers of the site decided not to resurrect it. These days it’s Birchwood Drive, Paterson Place, Calum Road and Calum Drive.[5]

There are a handful of Pest Houses in English place-names and Peter McNiven (@peadairbeag) drew my attention to Bothan Na Plaighe, Gaelic ‘plague bothy’, in Callander.[6]

I’d given up on finding out anything more about ‘burying the pest’ but one day happened to be scrolling through Trotter’s Wigtownshire volume of Galloway Gossip and stopped on the entry Burying the Plague. I’ve copied it below in its entirety:

“Long ago Galloway used to be terribly ravaged by the Plague, which came every now and then, and killed everybody it came near. At last people began to understand it better, and so every back-end lots of people were employed to watch for it coming, and raise the country. It usually appeared in the grey of the morning, like a small black cloud flying low down near the ground; generally when there was little or no wind; and it was said to have a kind of fuis[t]ed smell about it.
                Whenever the watchers saw the Plague coming they gave the alarm, and the kirk bell was set a-ringing, and a lamb was killed, and the two hind legs stuck on long poles and carried out to meet the cloud, while the minister and elders came out and brought the kirk-Bible with them, and everybody came running after them to help them to lay the plague.
                The minister followed the cloud with the open bible, whiles reading a chapter, and whiles giving out a psalm; while the elders made a circle round about it, and the people stood round them, singing the psalms like mad; and inside the circle two men with the legs of mutton on the long poles were walking about, trying to reach the plague-cloud with the mutton.
                As soon as they got the cloud to stick to one of the legs of mutton, they moved slowly and cautiously to some piece muir-land close by, where some men had been getting ready a grave about three feet deep to bury it in; usually on the top of a knowe.
                When they got to the grave, the minister put up a prayer, and at a certain part of it the elders helped the one whose leg of mutton had catched the plague, to lower it carefully into the hole; and when they got it in, nine stones were set up over it like a fittin of peats, and over the stones a number of skraws, or thin sods were placed to prevent the mools squeezing the plague out, and then the place was carefully covered up and a tummock made over it.
                The minister then put an awful curse over it, which would come on anybody that disturbed it; and after another prayer they went home rejoicing.
                There are very few parishes where there is not a Pest-knowe yet, though they are fast disappearing under the combined influences of dairy farming and gentility.”[7]

Trotter is a tricky informant, and had it not been for the reference to ‘burying the pest’ in the Name Book I would have read this with an enormous pinch of salt. The account is given additional credence by the record of chasing and catching a cholera cloud in the parish of Nigg, Ross and Cromarty discussed by Projit Bihari Mukharji.[8] A range of similar motifs in early modern Scandinavia and northern Europe are surveyed by Timothy R. Tangherlini,[9] and are well worth comparing with Trotter’s account.

The Old Statistical Account for Kirkmaiden records that: “In 1717, nearly 37 died of the small pox. In 1721, 46 died, mostly of fevers. In 1725, there were 43 who died, mostly of the small pox. In 1785, 47 died, mostly of an epidemical fever.”[10]

You’d do what you could to avert tragedies like these.

Update 1 February 2021

@TitusWrites on Twitter altered me to the following extract from the Minute Book kept by the War Committee of the Covenanters in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright in the Years 1640 and 1641.[11] This was edited in 1855 by J. Nicholson and the extract comes from his preface to Notices regarding the Plague or Seikness in the Appendix, not from the 17th century sources themselves. Here the pest isn’t hunted but passively absorbed from the air by raw flesh and peeled onions:

“In many places the mortality was so great, that the formalities of enclosing the body in a coffin and burying in the church-yard were abandoned, and trenches were dug, into which such as died of the plague were thrown. Many superstitious rites were also practised in order to avoid the attacks of this dreaded disease, and in several places the people suspended pieces of raw flesh and bunches of peeled onions on poles, under the impression that whatever infection was in the air would be drawn to and absorbed by them; these after hanging for some time, were taken down, enclosed between two pewder plates and buried with great ceremony. Several of the spots, where the plague was thus interred, and which are generally known by the name of the pest-yards, can still be pointed out in various parts of Scotland, and according to the popular belief, if any of these places were opened, the plague would again break forth, with renewed virulence and desolate the surrounding country.”[12]

Update 25 March 2021

I’ve just received a copy of the excellently entitled Statistical, Historical, and Miscellaneous Memoranda of matters connected with the Parish of Kirkmaiden also an Autobiographical Memoir of the Life of the Author and his Deposition from the office of Schoolmaster after he had taught in the parish for the space of 47 years, and for no other reason than having refused to abjure that Creed which he had subscribed at his Entry to Office Written in 1854 in the 80th year of his age.

Entry 6 in the chapter on Antiquities is about Pest Knowe. It’s written around a decade after the entry in the OS Name Book and 23 years before Trotter’s Galloway Gossip was published in 1877. There are no details of the rites connected with burying the pest, but it’s notable that the two young men who defied superstition to open the knowe found, like Trotter describes, stones set “like a fittin of peats”:

The Pest-Knowe. A small relict of antiquity consisting of a little round hillock of earth, stands on the moor land of the farm of Auchneight, called The Pest Knowe. It is now nearly defaced, and but little regarded, though, for many bygone generations an object of dread.

In bygone ages, a pestilential disorder not unfrequently ravaged the land. Our ignorant and superstitious ancestors, on such occasions were wont to assemble, and with many rites, now forgotten, perform a ceremony called burying the Pest, under the conviction that they would thereby arrest the progress of the prevailing epidemic.

On such an occasion, the little hillock in question was, no doubt, raised, and no person would dare to lay a sacrilegious hand upon the heap, the belief being that such conduct would be, not only fatal to the individuals concerned, but would anew spread death and desolation over the land.

About 70 years ago, two young men, in defiance of the superstition, but with a dread of the populace, should the thing become known, secretly, and during the night opened the tumulus, hoping to find something curious or valuable, but discovered at its centre only a few long stones set on end like “A fitting of peats” and inside of these a lot of pure ashes.”[13]


[1] Wigtownshire OS Name Books, 1845-1849 Wigtownshire, volume 87 OS1/35/87/15 [link]

[2] Berwickshire OS Name Books, 1856-1858 Berwickshire, Volume 24 OS1/5/24/17 [link]

[3] DSL: Dictionary of the Scots Language, Dictionar o the Scots Leid s.v. Pest [link]

[4] Dumfriesshire OS Name Books, 1848-1858 Dumfriesshire volume 11 OS1/10/11/48 [link]

[5] The National Library of Scotland, Leabharlann Nàiseanta na h-Alba, Map Images, Explore Georeferenced Maps, Side by Side [link]

[6] @peadairbeag “This is just north of Callander. Wonder how many other such places there are…?” Twitter, 13 March 2020, 7:24 PM [link]

[7] Saxon [Robert Trotter] (1877), Galloway Gossip or the Southern Albanich 60 years ago by Mrs Maria Trotter, Wigtonshire, pp. 120-121 [link]

[8] Projit Bihari Mukharji (2012) “The “Cholera Cloud” in the Nineteenth-Century “British World””, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 86, 303-332 at 303-304 [link]

[9] Timothy R. Tangherlini (1988) “Ships, Fogs and Traveling Pairs: Plague Legend Migration in Scandinavia”, The Journal of American Folklore 101, pp. 176-206 [link]

[10] Kirkmaiden, County of Wigton, OSA, Vol. I, 1791, p. 155, accessed via <https://stataccscot.edina.ac.uk/> [link]

[11] @TitusWrites “Minute Book kept by the War Committee of the Covenanters in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright – from the Appendix: “Many superstitious rites were also practised in order to avoid the attacks of this dreaded disease, and in several places the people suspended pieces of raw flesh…” Twitter, 21 November 2020, 10:16 PM [link]

[12] J. Nicholson (1855) Minute Book kept by the War Committee of the Covenanters in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright in the Years 1640 and 1641, Kirkcudbright, p. 245 [link]

[13] William Todd (1854 [2010]) The Parish of Kirkmaiden 1854, Stranraer and District Local History Trust, p. 40. The book can be purchased at <stranraerhistory.org.uk/publications.html> [link]

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