Were you hoping I was done hopping in Charleston, S.C.?
When you’ve got sights like the one pictured below, it’s just too hard to leave without talking about as many burial grounds you can. And this churchyard has a playground in it. More about that later.
After leaving St. Michael’s Churchyard, we headed down Meeting Street a short block to First Scots Presbyterian Churchyard. Find a Grave has about 800 burials recorded. The congregation was established in 1731 when a dozen Scottish residents left the Independent Church of Charleston, now the Circular Congregational Church (yes, I’m writing about that one soon). In its early days, it was known as Scots’ Kirk.
Built in 1814, the current building is considered the fifth oldest church building in Charleston.
Scottish brothers John and James Gordon built First Scots’ current building. The design is thought to be inspired by Baltimore Basilica in Baltimore, Md. and contains a number of Scottish symbols in the stained glass windows and a symbol of Scotland, the thistle, on the wrought iron grilles. This building replaced an earlier wooden church.
The Story of the Bells
Although First Scots has two bell towers, the original bells were donated to the military during the Civil War. It’s said that the bells were never replaced to honor the Confederate dead.
In 1999, a bell built in 1814 was reinstalled in the northern tower. St. Johns Church in Preston, Lancashire, England, had eight bells in its own historic church, but no longer needed them when a replacement set was acquired. First Scots made plans to bring the seven working bells to Charleston and hang them in their towers.
However, the southern tower was found to be too weakened from the 1886 Charleston earthquake to support the six smaller bells. As a result, the largest of the bells from St. Johns was hung in the northern tower. That 1,470-lb. bell was funded in large part by congregant Bonnie Workman, so the bell is named “Bonnie” in her honor.
Playing on Graves?
So I mentioned a playground earlier. There are four different sections to the First Scots Churchyard. The main churchyard encompasses the sanctuary. Near the rear of the sanctuary where a parking lot is located, there’s an area of stones along a side wall. There’s a back burial yard surrounded by a similar wall of stones. Then there’s a small yard surrounded by a high brick wall covered in stones. In the middle of it? A playground.
So how did that happen? My guess it that with the blessing of the congregation, the markers were pulled up and put on the surrounding walls. I could find nothing online to indicate when this happened. I’m not sure how I feel about it because the thought of children romping on graves is a bit disconcerting. However, this was a decision made by the congregation and they must have felt it was the right thing to do to provide a place to play for their younger congregants.
Back to the rest of the churchyard. One of the most interesting markers Frank pointed out to me was done by one of Charleston’s best known carvers for his very own family, Thomas Walker. It definitely stands out.
The scene on this marker is unlike any I’ve seen before. No winged skulls, no cherubs, no flowers. It’s basically a stone carver’s workshop. In the middle is an oval coat of arms that contains a compass and three brick towers, which bears a strong likeness to the Mason’s Company of Edinburgh. Walker was likely a member, having left Scotland for Charleston around 1790.
Grave Marker as Advertising
In their book, Historic Gravestone Art of Charleston, South Carolina, 1695-1802, David Mould and Missy Loewe interviewed art historian Diana Combs about this marker. She commented that the stone serves as a combination history of his family members with an advertisement for his business. The variety of implements that stone carvers of that era would have used are apparent.
Walker, who was a member of First Scots, has a number of his markers in the Churchyard that are worth pointing out. He liked urns and you can see examples of them here and there.
“The Son Most Dear”
This one features a smaller urn for Thomas Turnbull, who died on Oct. 13, 1795 at the age of 25.
Thomas also favored grander urns like this one for John Cunningham, who died in 1799 around the age of 23. I apologize for the small size but it came from a larger photo I took that day.
I’m reaching a little further back in time with this next marker to the 1760s. Mould and Loewe point out that John Rattray’s marker might be a British import because it doesn’t look like what we usually see in terms of New England’s style and the upper crust Charleston markers. Decorated above it with a scallop flanked by flowers is a chubby-faced cherub surrounded by feathers under his chin. Wings, trumpets and palm fronds are also featured.
What do these items signify? The scallop and flowers often symbolize rebirth while palm branches are associated with spiritual victory. The trumpets symbolize Judgement Day. All in all, there’s a lot going on here but it works wonderfully well.
So who was John Rattray? He was born around 1716 and eventually became an attorney, practicing in Charleston. In addition to his law practice, he had two plantations and owned 60 slaves. He represented the St. Helena Parish in the 21st (1754-1757) and the 22nd (1757-1760) Royal Assemblies and the Prince William Parish in the 24th Royal Assembly (1761).
On November 14, 1760 Rattray was appointed Judge of the Vice Admiralty Court, a post he held until his death on Sept. 30, 1761. Other offices he filled were Firemaster for Charleston (1755-1758, 1759-1761), commissioner to regulate trade with the Creek Indians (1755), commissioner of Fortifications for Charleston (1755-1761), and justice of the peace for Berkeley County (1756).
Much less is known about Frances Hunter, wife of James Hunter, who died at the age of 48 on Dec. 9, 1768. But because her marker is from the same decade as John Rattray’s, I thought I would include it.
Next to Frances’ stone is a small one for her son, John, who died in 1775. His age is not included.
To close out today’s eclectic collection, I’m featuring the stunning grave marker of Capt. James Ross and it’s not just because I love the skill that went into it. From the mid-1800s, it has a more modern style to it that the 18th-century soul effigy markers had.
If you look on the base, you can see the name “W.T. White” on it. This was William T. White, the great-grandson of Thomas Walker. The tradition was indeed being carried on.
One reason I’m drawn to this marker is the fact that unlike a number of ship-adorned markers I’ve seen in cemeteries and graveyards, Capt. Ross not only lived a long life, he didn’t die in a shipwreck or perish in a storm. Believe me, I’ve seen my share of those. I don’t doubt that Capt. Ross faced a lot of dicey moments in his seafaring career. But he survived it all and ended his career on a high note.
James Ross was born sometime around the late 1770s or early 1780s in Lerwick in Britain’s Shetland Islands, which is about as far north as you can get and still be the U.K. I don’t know when he arrived in Charleston but his grave marker indicates that “for upwards of 30 years he commanded vessels out of this port.”
“An Honest, Upright, and Noble-Hearted Man”
Having proven his salt (pardon the pun) as a mariner, Capt. Ross became a member of the Board of Port Wardens around 1840 and eventually became chairman. He died on Oct. 8, 1856 of “congestion of the brain” according to death records. His marker notes that he was 70 years old but his death records has him as 75.
I found in a Charleston newspaper a trio of death announcements for him that outlines not only his membership in the Charleston Marine Society but also the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF).
There’s plenty more to see at First Scots Presbyterian Churchyard, so be sure to come back for Part II.