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"Resurrection and Riots"

 

During the early decades of the nineteenth century medical science was advancing rapidly and medical and private anatomical schools were being established throughout the country, nowhere more so than in Edinburgh, which was establishing a reputation for pioneering medical work not least in the discipline of anatomy under Dr. Robert Knox.

Public anatomical dissections were staged, accessible not only to medical students but, with the aim of spreading scientific knowledge, to the public at large and at times these attracted considerable attendance both from the scientifically curious and from the lurid.

The trouble was that prior to the passing of the Anatomical Act of 1832 there were just not enough bodies to go round. The only bodies available for dissection where those of convicted murders and then only those convicted of a particularly heinous murder, those who had committed suicide, bodies of persons who had died in correction houses and dead foundlings.

As a consequence a roaring trade in body snatching developed, the anatomy schools perhaps choosing to turn a blind eye of the exact source of the bodies supplied for dissection.

 


Stevenson's "The Body Snatchers
 
Painting of an anatomy lecture

 

It was against this background that in 1826 a Mr. Howden, a farmer from Whitelaw and a Mr. Mark Cossar, a Duns innkeeper, were returning form Gifford Fair when somewhere about Hardens Hill they chanced on a trap coming in the opposite direction apparently containing three passengers. Two of those were unknown  to the two travellers but the one seated in the middle whose complexion was to say the least somewhat pallid seemed vaguely familiar.

The intrepid pair, and there seems to have been some suggestion of a slight over indulgence on their part at the Inn at Longformacus which they had frequented, challenged the northbound travellers two of whom however immediately ran off leaving the third lifeless and motionless. It very quickly became apparent that this was in fact no living person but the body of one Peter McGall who had been interred but a day or two previously in the Churchyard at Edrom.

The two brought the body and the trap back to Duns. The body of Peter McGall was buried for a second time and it is believed that one Mary Manuel from Allanton claimed a possibly unique distinction of preparing a body for burial not once but twice. There is no record of McGall's internment (or reinternment) in the Old Parish Records (although these are patchy in the extreme) nor would there appear to be any gravestone surviving.

The horse and trap were impounded by the Magistrates, the horse being claimed by a Kelso horsedealer apparently hired out in the normal course of business. No claimants were forthcoming for the trap but the following spring rumours abounded that the trap also had been claimed. Public feeling was raised and a mob gathered. The trap was at this point in a store in Murray Street but notwithstanding the reading of the Riot Act by the Sheriff the mob broke into the store removed the cart to the Market Square where it was burned amongst scenes of general disorder.

There seems little doubt that the gravedigger at Edrom was in league with the body snatchers and it might appear that several bodies had been so removed. The coffin in which McGall had originally been buried was found under a culvert on the Edrom/Buxley Road still known today as McGall's Bridge. It is recorded that up until about one hundred years ago there were iron hooks under this bridge on which coffins had been attached to keep them and the contents dry pending removal. No sign of these hooks remains today.

 
McGall's Bridge
Dr. Robert Knox