From the archive, 15 February 1984: Grave problem on Iona

Originally published in the Guardian on 15 February 1984

The romantic island of lona, off the western coast of Scotland, is facing a problem arising from its chief claim to fame. Attracted by the number of Scottish kings and saints whose bones lie by the ancient abbey, far too many people want to be buried there as well.

Iona is where in Macbeth's words: "Duncan is in his grave; after life's fitful fever he sleeps well." But many local people are worried that the murderer's later assertion, "Nothing can touch him further," may prove incorrect. Duncan and the other 47 kings of Scotland buried on the island are under pressure from a variety of determined applicants for an Iona grave. Among them is the widow of an American whose body has been refrigerated in Oklahoma for two years while she pursues his request (and her own to join him in due course).

Prompted by many of the 200 islanders, whose forefathers were often interred on the neighbouring island of Mull because of lack of room on Iona, the community council has now asked for a clear directive on burials from the local district council, Argyll and Bute. This manages the small graveyard on behalf of the abbey and has the power to refuse any application.

The district council does not want to speak ill of the dead but recognises that some of the more modern burials on Iona involved people whose links with the island were tenuous. Generations of islanders, not to mention the progeny of 48 monarchs, have left room for thousands of genuine but highly remote claims – like the Oklahoman's – to ancestors who lived on Iona and sat on the throne.

Many of the modern residents of the island feel that all outsiders should be politely refused, now that only 100 "lairs," as burial plots are known in Scotland, are left. Each of these is permitted to take only three internments and the room for expanding the graveyard is minimal, with important archaeological sites on all sides.

"I think that many of them feel that people with no real connection are being buried there," said Mr Willie McGarva of Argyll and Bute's information department. "We've had the request from the community council and we've set up a three-man group to prepare guidelines."

Shortage of space is a novel problem for Argyll and Bute, which has the largest area of any district council in Britain. But a solution is not expected to take long.

The likeliest result is a requirement for clear and recent connection with the local councillor and the director of tourism and leisure, whose department looks after graveyards, acting as final arbiters.

Martin Wainwright


Martin Wainwright

The GuardianTramp

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