Aitchison Gravestones

Blog 7 of the #GOONSBlogChallenge

A long time ago before I embarked on the Aitchison One-Name study I went to visit St Serf’s Churchyard in Dunning looking for a grave of an ancestor.  This is really where my love of visiting graveyards started, and I became a “Tombstone Tourist” or in other words a taphophile – a person who has a passion for and enjoyment of cemeteries.

There was a gentleman close to the gate who asked if he could help and we got chatting, he explained that he was a member of the Dunning Historical Society and that they had done a graveyard survey so any gravestone I might be looking for would be on this page.

He went onto explain some of the things up until that time I hadn’t known about gravestones and point out some of the older gravestones in the graveyard. One from 1623 known as the Rutherford Stone which is believed to be the oldest dated gravestone in Scotland and another from 1624, the Dowgal Stone.

Gravestones often have an urn with a mort cloth draped over it, he explained that this was to symbolise the length of life that had passed and therefore if it was a child you would have a mortcloth which was obviously much longer on one side showing that only a small part of life had passed.

Most people don’t look at the back of a gravestone but if you do you may be in for a very pleasant surprise. Many from the period of approximately 1750 – late 1800’s have lots of symbolism on them.

Masons who carved the gravestones often show tools of the trade of the deceased, skull and crossbones, egg timer showing the sands of time running out and symbols of immortality.

Tools of the trade can include many items such as:

  • Shuttle of a Weaver
  • Square and Compass of a Mason
  • 4 of a Merchant which symbolises a merchant who traded with all 4 corners of the globe
  • Plough or Sock and Coulter of a farmer
  • Shepherd’s crook of a shepherd
  • Hammer and crown of a blacksmith
  • Scissors and goose of a tailor
  • Scissors and gloves of a glovemaker
  • Wig of a wigmaker
  • Boat, oars of a boatman or ferryman
  • Cordiner’s knife and crown of a shoemaker
  • And in the case of the feature photo a boat and fish of the fisherman

Symbols of immortality include:

  • Winged soul or cherub representing the soul leaving the body and ascending to heaven
    • Sunrays representing the Glory of God
    • Palm Fronds, Evergreens representing victory over death
    • Torches facing downwards meaning the end of earthly life
    • Heart pierced with darts meaning the death of life of earth
    • Anchor meaning a message of hope
    • Pineapple, rosettes meaning a reminder of Heaven

Symbols of mortality include:

  • Skull
  • Crossbones
  • Sexton’s tools
  • Crossed Darts
  • Hourglass

The start of graveyards as we know them was in the early 1600’s and later during the 19th century the garden cemeteries started to appear that encouraged visitors to stay and sit a while in peace. London has several of these Victorian garden cemeteries including Kensal Green which is a 72-acre site housing over 65,000 graves and is the oldest of London’s public burial grounds. It has more mausoleums than any other cemetery in Britain and where I found the mausoleum of General Sir John Aitchison.

A large brick building with a clock on the side of a house

Description automatically generated

Gravestones come in many shapes and sizes from small, modest stones to the huge mausoleums. The materials are also varied.  Cast iron grave markers are probably the ones that have worn the worst over time with virtually all of them now unreadable as they have rusted away, and any names long gone.

Gravestones are a great way to verify genealogical information and give you details that may not have shown up in a census for example, children who died in infancy will never show on a census if they were born and died between the census dates. The next plot may give you family members as well, so graveyards are always worth a visit. It is a way of reconnecting with the past and “walking in the steps of our ancestors”. Wondering what life would have been like for them and what pain and suffering they had been through when finding multiple deaths on one gravestone.

Whilst doing some research for this blog I came across a website that I hadn’t heard of before – which seems to link to when a search is entered – so lots more data for me to explore there when I get some time. Its so easy to get side-tracked and start following leads, which is why discipline is so important when doing research. Finish one thing first before heading of another route.

There are now many websites dedicated to publishing information on gravestones such as:

Find A Grave –

Canadian Headstones –

Genealogy Bank –

Find A Grave in Scotland –

Deceased On Line –

Aitchison One-Name Study for any Aitchison gravestones –


  1. Dunning Historical Society –

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: