History

The decision surrounding where to bury loved ones has been one of profound importance throughout human history. As it involves a conscious choice about the appropriate place for the deposition of their earthly remains, these landscapes can be assessed for their possible emotional resonance. Music has also often been a feature of funerals in the past and the likely emotional impact of this aspect can also be assessed in the landscape in which the funerals took place, along with more practical considerations such as how close the mourners would have to be to hear the music and singing.

Viking funerals: numerous Viking funeralscapes are still visible in Scotland due to the Scandinavian’s common use, and re-use, of burial mounds, along with coastal erosion often exposing Viking burials without mounds. But our knowledge of the funerals themselves is limited because the Vikings operated predominantly in an oral (non-written) society. However, from various historical snippets written by outside observers, poetry, and archaeological finds a much fuller picture of Viking funerals has begun to emerge. Yet a full consideration of funeralscapes has yet to be attempted, and nor has the role of music within the funerals despite evidence that music and chanting were performed. In terms of music, the eye-witness account by Ibn Fadlan of a Rus (eastern Vikings) funeral on or near the River Volga in 922 specifically mentions chanting and primitive percussion – the beating of sticks on shields. As this funeral was a ten-day event involving various ceremonies, including feasting and the excessive consumption of alcohol, it is likely that music occurred at other times. The Old English poem Beowulf, set in Scandinavia, may also shed light on Viking funerary practice. At Beowulf’s funeral a woman sings a lament and later twelve men appear to chant about the deeds of the deceased. Archaeologists have also discovered a number of Viking Age instruments, including bells, rattles, wooden trumpets, bone flutes, and panpipes. Some of these instruments have been found in graves, and it has been argued that in these cases the instruments may have been played at the funeral before being deposited in the grave.

St Donan: our contemporary information on St Donan is limited and much legendary material appears to have become woven into his story in the centuries after his death. He was a contemporary of St Columba and his death is noted in the Irish Annals of Ulster for 617, where it is said that he and his followers were burnt to death on Aig (Isle of Eigg). Recent archaeological work has established that the small cemetery south of the ruined church at Kildonnan, Eigg, is the likely site of Donan’s monastery, death, and burial. The Annals of Ulster state that 150 followers died with Donan but they do not record who was responsible for the atrocity. Some later versions of the story have Donan beheaded rather than burnt, and reduce his followers to 52. They also blame a pagan Lady of the Isles and/or Viking pirates for killing the Christians, the latter being historically implausible if Scandinavians are meant since Donan died long before the Viking Age.

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