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The Grave Robbers of Stirling

Concealed within the hundreds of crumbling gravestones at Stirling’s Church of the Holy Rude Cemetery, is a stone depicting a darker side to this pivotal city’s history.

Photo: The grave robber (left), shovel in hand, removing the body from the grave below. Found in the Church of the Holy Rude Cemetary, Stirling.

Grave robbers were infamous not only in Stirling, but around the UK. With a steep rise in the number of new medical schools at the turn of the 19th Century, demand for cadavers to be used in anatomy classes shot up considerably.

At the time, only the bodies of executed criminals were permitted by law for such use, but with only around 50 executions a year meeting the annual demand was a steep task that fell into the hands of the grave robbers, or ‘resurrectionists’.

Grave robbing was a lucrative business, with each high quality or ‘fresh’ corpse worth up to £7 and 10 shillings (around £350 today) or over a month’s salary at the time. Grave robbers themselves came from all walks of life and backgrounds, but grave diggers were especially good at the trade as they had access to and the inside knowledge of the latest burial sites.

How did they get away with it?

At the time, stealing jewellery or valuables that had been placed alongside the corpse was a punishable crime. However, extracting the body itself was not classified as a crime, only a misdemeanour in common law. This meant that although the bodies were taken, grave robbers left the high value items in the coffins, and the reward for the body itself was high enough that they were happy to take their chances on a misdemeanour!

To protect loved ones from this heinous act, many families took to guarding their loved one’s grave for at least 1 week or until the corpse would no longer be deemed ‘fresh’. Alternatively, wealthier families took to installing metal cages around the burial site, many of these you can still see around Scottish graveyards today.

Photo: Cages over graves at Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh

In 1832 the Anatomy Act was passed which provided an official route for these medical schools to access bodies. Although not much better, this Act put the grave robbers out of business as new corpses were sourced from deceased patients at asylums or workers at workhouses whose bodies had not been claimed by their families. This remained the case right up until the 20th Century, when a new Anatomy Act was passed!

If you want to see the gravestone for yourself and learn more about Stirling’s turbulent past – why not join us on a walking tour? Book online for the summer here

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