I set out last weekend to revisit, this time with my digital camera, one of my favourite graveyards, that of the Parish Church of Pencaitland in East Lothian. I last came here over twenty years ago but with old technology and the photos lie in some poly bag in some box in some cupboard…
This is an attractive small church which shows its history. Unlike some I have visited where a well-meaning or wealthy 19th century ‘benefactor’ obliterated the old with the new, this building shows in its fabric many of the styles of the past, doors become windows, windows with differing shapes of arch, doors are added or bricked up. There is not an overall plan.
It has changed over the centuries since the perhaps 13th century, inside and out (this visit I saw only the outside) but it still sits near the centre of its village community.
Which makes it easier to stand in a corner and try and connect with the past.
Moreover, the church is set in a well-kept churchyard sprinkled with gravestones dating back to the 17th century at least. Some, the very oldest, include the symbols of trades, for the farmer, the taylor, the mason. Others have cherubs clutching scrolls. Most frequent of all are the skulls, the bare bones.
Others, no less reminders of memento mori, and sorrows past, rely on words
Happie in birth match comely feature
And every virtue gracing nature
In nothing cross’d but barren wombe
All that was flesh rests in this tombe
Robina, aged 15 months/ Alexander 14 months/ Alexander, 9 months/ George 3 years/ Robert 1 year….
However I am here in Pencaitland because there is a family association. This was the home of the Simson connection of my family tree.
There is a plaque on the side wall of the west tower. An aunt died young in 1716, her mother and two sisters, in their 20s died ‘of a violent feaver’ in 1736
At the end of December 1755, in the manse which lies alongside the church, my ancestor David Plenderleath opened up his new leather-bound notebook and began the one volume of his diary which survives. The present manse dates from the early 19th century, some 50 years after the Reverend Mr Plenderleath picked up his quill to set down his reflections and, just a few days early, his New Year’s resolution:
The last book I writt any observations
I thought might be of use for composing
my mind & preserving in memory what
I might wish to ???? ended in the
close of the year 1754. During this
year I have only written on pieces of
paper which fall by & I lose one
great benefit of writing, taking a review
of what is past and therefore have
this day begun to write in this book
& after some general remarks on
occurrences thro this year that were
of some consequence I shall write
down the present state of things as
to me & mine, & then waiting for
divine counsel shall propose what
ought to be henceforth in dependance
on a superior end and be steadily followed
out by me if the Lord sees meet
to lengthen out my life–
What was the reverend gentleman doing here in the closing days of 1755? Visiting the in-laws, or, given the information on the plaque, his father-in-law Matthew Simson, then Minister at Pencaitland. David Plenderleath had been ill and was still feeling under the weather. It is not clear whether he had his wife Helen and young children with him or whether he had left them at home in Dalkeith where he had been Minister for the past ten years.
To be continued.