MacOzymandia: Visit to a Scottish Cemetery

August 3, 2012


Inverness, Scotland, April 23, 2006

As the Ness River slowly weaves and wends through the town of Inverness on its way to Loch Ness, it passes under a white metal bridge walkway. That walkway continues across a small road and soon narrows into a brick-paved alleyway between two churches before ending at a modest street. The church on the right is tall and modern; the church on the left, on the other hand, is much older, slightly elevated on a hill and surrounded on three sides by about a hundred graves. Protected from street noise by a one-store-deep row of shops on one side and a steep berm on the other, the churchyard is quiet and still. In the center, a craggy tree serves as a corkboard for a few memorials, messages, and ribbons. A sign on the wrought-iron entrance reads, “Church of Scotland-The Old High Church.”

I wandered the graveyard alone late one afternoon as the weather grew Scottish and the sun retreated in the western sky. Cemeteries are collected and corralled storytellers, and I was game for a tale. The graves told stories of souls long forgotten by the crowds doing their daily duties mere meters away. Somehow the wrought iron gate and low stone fence kept out not only the city noises but time itself. I meandered from grave to grave looking at sons, wives, husbands and parents. One faded stone told the sad fate of a young man who had fallen from a castle wall two hundred years ago. Whether a green guard or a careless soldier, a misstep ended his life. A tumble, then a crumple of bone and blood at the base of a cold castle wall.

Along the wall facing the Ness, my eyes pulled me to a tall pink obelisk. Like an eager and schoolboy suckup flailing for the teacher’s attention, the stone called to me. The piece was straight, tall, and proud, the letters crisp and deep. It stood above the rest, a silent troubadour, eager to tell a sad tale for the cost of a moment’s attention. The stone stood planted defiantly in the grass, seemingly hurled there from the leaden heavens by God himself, where it had stuck with a thump in the soft green sod. I called upon it, and the stone said, “In memory of John Ritchie, who died in 1852 and his wife Janet Fraser, daughter of…” and so on until the final line, “Erected by their daughter Jessie.”

Just a few feet away, a very different stone sang a very different story-a difficult life, by reckoning and appearances. Eloquent in its brevity, the faded gravestone bore four lines, only two complete words, and a date. The first line read simply, “A.R.” The second bore two distinct words: Shoe Maker. Shoe-space-capital M-aker. The third line read, “A. Mc L.,” and a few inches lower, nearly covered by green blades, was the date 1832. This stone seemed not to have freshly fallen from the sky but instead sprouted humbly from the ground, weathered during one and three-quarters centuries of cold and rain. The top was smooth and rounded, stooped low in shadow and deference to the Ritchie obelisk.

Who was this nameless shoe maker, this lowly cobbler, who created not luxuries but common necessities affordable to rabble and royalty alike? His name is lost, reduced to a cryptic (and cheaper) abbreviation. Like modern men, he was defined by his work. The shoe maker’s leather goods have long since rotted away or ground down to dust on the city streets, now stirred up by passing Hondas and Fords.

In the gathering chill, I realized that I also am a shoe maker; we all are. We will live our lives and produce a few shoes or widgets (or words) before our final recline. Our loves, our laughs, will be lost to the winds and the cold rivers. I will be content with a shoe maker’s grave-or none at all.

In truth, it’s likely that few of Inverness’s 50,000 citizens ever heard of either the Ritchie or the shoe maker. Even Jessie’s gleaming pink obelisk in the quiet cemetery next to the metal bridge over the cold river can’t compete with modern matters. Villagers are going to and from work, answering cell phones, cursing politicians, watching soap operas and sports, buying milk, wondering about kids today. They are not stopping by the Old High Church cemetery to hear tales of falls from castle walls or a few words about a man who made shoes 175 years ago.

The weather grew fouler as cold and darkness crept in. The city began sprouting lights as I turned to leave. I dug in my pocket, found a tarnished two pence piece, and pushed it between the grass and the stone at the shoe maker’s grave. The price of a story, from one shoe maker to another.