The Church of The Sculls

St. John’s Kirkyard, Gamrie, Banffshire.
The view from the cliffs of the kirkyard, overlooking Gardenstown.

High on the cliffs above the small fishing town of Gardenstoun, or Gamrie as the locals still call it, sits the ruins of a kirkyard that was built on the site of The Battle of the Bloody Pits of 1004 where Norse raiders were slaughtered by the Scots. Like most parts of this coast, it is a place of sweeping beauty. We happened upon it out of curiousity– seeing the walls of the ruins from the town below.  Climbing up the lumpy path from the single track gravel road, I felt an eeire disquiet in this remote place, even before I learned more of it.

We know so little of these “raiders”. Christian historians have often distorted their history, reducing the Norse folk during the Viking age to cartoonish berserkers. We know that they are part of us– through recent DNA testing and before that, the fragments of language that have adhered to places– the the churchyard itself or “kirkyard”. Kirk, meaning church, is borrowed from Old Norse. That we have so little left of that time when the Norse people ruled an age of world-changing seafaring expertise, artistic and spiritual vision, will remain one of our great mysteries.

St. John’s Kirkyard commemorates the annihilation of a Viking party– built and rebuilt over centuries after the battle. Legend has it the Scottish general promised to build a church on the site if the Christian God could just prove that he was on their side. The church was built at the foot of the “Bloody Pits” where the Norsemen’s bodies where piled after the battle. This area earned its name from the carnage, and the scavengers who fed on the bodies. History records them as cattle raiders who were surrounded as they waited for a fair wind to aid them away. Skulls of the vanquished were displayed in the walls of the church behind the pulpit even into the 19th century, hence the its other name: The Church of the Sculls.

Angel or departing spirit on a grave in St. John’s Kirkyard.

One wonders what happened to the skulls of the Norsemen that were once on display. The surrounding area could be said to be one very large, unquiet grave, but the graves inside the walled yard are something else– some of the most fascinating examples of 18th century momento mori that I have seen are here, often coupled with the crossed femur bones, an hourglass and bell. The path I walked to get to the yard may have been an ancient corpse road, and was no doubt used by parishioners for 800 years who trekked over miles to worship there through all weather from the surrounding villages.

What a hard life is a fisherman’s. Standing in the ruins I thought of the sermon on Jonah from Moby Dick, where the pastor seems to be “praying at the bottom of the sea” and his voice was “like the continual tolling of a bell in a ship that is foundering at sea in a fog–”

“In black distress, I called my God/When I could scarce believe him mine/He bowed his ear to my complaints-/No more the whale did me confine.
“With speed he flew to my relief,/As on a radiant dolphin borne;/Awful, yet bright, as lightning shone/The face of my Deliverer God.”

The congregation sings, drowning out the howling storm outside the church.

And, here now, I feel a bristling in the wind from the hillock above. Without a familiar song to guide them, the other bones in their shallow pits turn.

Momento Mori in St. John’s Kirkyard.

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