WALKERS and cyclists exploring the Highlands are likely to find coffin roads featuring on their route alongside drovers’ tracks and other traditional rights of way. Perhaps the most popular track carrying this somewhat macabre designation is the six-mile Stoneymoll Coffin Road from Balloch to Cardross linking Loch Lomond with the Firth of Clyde and forming part of both the John Muir Way and the Three Lochs Way. There are also numerous coffin roads on the islands of the Outer and Inner Hebrides, the best known being the four-mile track that crosses the south of Harris and provides the title for Peter May’s best-selling eco-thriller, Coffin Road.

As their name implies, these ancient tracks were developed so that the bodies of the dead could be carried for burial to the remote graveyards which are still such a feature of the West Highland and Hebridean landscapes. They tended to be specially designated for this purpose, and distinct from routes along which the living would pass on their daily business, although several were later adopted as public roads. Journeys along the coffin roads were often lengthy and arduous, with relays of six or eight men carrying the coffin either on their shoulders or on long spokes. They would stop at frequent intervals for rest and refreshment and to be relieved by another bearer party. The slow progress on foot from place of death to place of burial could last for two or three days and nights and involve several hundred bearers and mourners walking through wild and desolate country with their food, drink and bedding being carried by packhorses.

A feature found on most of the coffin roads, and still evident along the routes of some of them today, were the cairns built along the way. These marked the places where the bearer parties stopped to rest. In some cases, the cairns provided a platform on which the coffin was rested and stones were added to them by friends and relatives of the deceased, giving rise to the Gaelic saying, ‘Peace to thy soul, and a stone to thy cairn!’.

Most coffin roads ran from east to west. There are practical, cultural and spiritual reasons for this. On Hebridean islands, the east coast was often too rocky and barren for any grave to be dug and so those who died there had to be taken for burial in graveyards on the west coast machar with its easily dug sandy soil. Graveyards were often sited near a loch or on the edge of the Atlantic ocean, with bodies being taken to them from inland easterly regions. Highlanders desired to be buried in the west, the place of the setting sun. Celtic mythology shared the Ancient Greek idea of islands of the blessed, heavenly realms lying far out in the western seas. These were the perceived location of the next world, described in Gaelic as Tír na nÓg (the land of eternal youth). Christianity did not dispel this notion, as popular stories like the Voyage of St Brendan testify, and the Hebridean islands continued to be favourite places to be buried throughout and beyond the Middle Ages.

Numerous superstitions attached to the coffin roads. There was a belief that if the coffin touched the ground the spirit of the deceased would return to haunt the living. Coffins were generally carried with the corpse’s feet facing away from home to avoid the possibility of the spirit returning to haunt it and coffin bearers took care not to step off the path on to neighbouring farmland lest the crops should be blighted. The circuitous and meandering route taken by some coffin roads may be explained by a desire to frustrate spirits, which were known to like to travel in straight lines, and they often crossed running water, something that spirits were thought unable to do. Coffin roads were commonly associated with omens of death. Those gifted with Second Sight had premonitions of ghostly funeral processions along them which proved to be accurate predictions of future deaths. There are also stories of people being carried in coffins when they were still alive. One such involves a funeral procession along the Harris coffin road. When the bearers stopped for a rest, they heard a noise from inside the coffin. They opened it and found that the person inside was still alive so she was carried back to the east coast.

The often lengthy procession along the coffin road reinforced the idea of death as a journey. The passage from this life to the next was seen as a gradual rather than instant and marked by a series of rituals. Death was prepared for well in advance with young brides regarding one of their first duties after marriage as being to prepare winding sheets for their own and their husband’s interments. Those clearly near to death were visited and tended by family members, friends and neighbours. Semi-professional mourning women were brought in to sing the death croon and ease their passage into the next world. After death, the body was washed and dressed and left lying prominently in the front room of the house, often with a plate of salt placed on the breast. For a period of two days and nights, it was constantly watched over by a family member with a wake held in the house to which all friends and neighbours were invited and which often became raucous and exuberant. Once the grave had been dug and the mourners assembled, the funeral procession set off along the coffin road to the graveyard. After the interment, all those present were liberally entertained with drink and food, first around the graveside and then later at some local hostelry.

These rituals played a key role in easing and facilitating the grieving process. They provided numerous tasks, some of them back-breaking like digging the grave and carrying the coffin, which gave mourners a purpose and a focus at a time of emotional upset. They punctuated the period following death with familiar, reassuring domestic and community activities and blurred the hard edges between living and dying.

The coffin roads symbolise the close relationship of humans to the natural landscape. They point to death as being something natural and part of the rhythm and cycle of life. The bodies of the dead return to the earth after their last journey over the hills and across lochs and seas, their souls seen as escaping down the streams that are almost invariably found beside Highland and Hebridean graveyards to merge in the great ocean of divine love and find rest in the islands of the blessed.

This open, holistic and public approach to death is a world away from what happens today when people mostly die in hospital side rooms, their bodies are whisked away by an undertaker and, after lying alone and unvisited in a refrigerator or embalmed in a funeral parlour, are transported by hearse to be incinerated in a crematorium. As we begin to become more open about death, after more than a century of hushing it up and embarrassed avoidance of the topic, there is much we can learn from re-visiting the coffin roads and what they symbolised.

Ian Bradley is Emeritus Professor of Cultural and Spiritual History at the University of St Andrews. His book The Coffin Roads: Journeys to the West is published by Birlinn at £8.95.