The Early History
After the Roman abandonment of Scotland the line of the Antonine Wall took on a new role as the main route across the Forth-Clyde isthmus. It is not surprising then to find that in the 12th or 13th century a motte was erected at Seabegs in Bonnybridge on the upcast mound of the old frontier utilising its ditch as its southern defence. It dominated the cross-country road and a ford on the River Bonny to the north. The motte was the administrative centre for the barony of Seabegs and at around this time the laird had an isolated chapel erected near to the ford. In this location it was evidently designed to serve the local population as well as the head family. Such chapels were usually made of stone and it was dedicated to St Helen. It stood beside a burn leading into the river and consequently the small loch at the head of the Beam Burn became known as St Helen’s Loch. Another tributary, the Seabegs Burn, led off this stream to the motte. The hill between the church and the motte was likewise called Chapel Hill.
The streams served the baronial mill next to the chapel – now the site of Mill Garage.
Although Seabegs lay in the parish of Falkirk, St Helen’s Church served the needs of the rural community. A small rectangular graveyard was provided for the population of the area and would have been regulated by the priest. Details are lacking but it must be presumed that the priest was sponsored by the baron and it is probable that payment for the burials helped to support his post. The chapel may also have been allocated the Lands of Kirkrig to its south.
Illus 2: Conjectural Map showing the location of the Chapel Yard in the 17th century.
By the 15th century the superiority of the barony was in the hands of the Stratons of Laurieston and for a while Seabegs was consequently in the shire of Edinburgh (Reid 2003). They were evidently absentee landlords and the house at Seabegs Motte was no longer used. When charters were issued in the mid 16th century sasine was issued at “the Mot of Seybeggis called the Turchill” suggesting that there was no residence of significant status in the area. A charter of 1543 from Andrew Straton in favour of Alexander Livingston of Dunipace confirmed the lands of Seabegs with the mill, and the advocation (the right to appoint the priest) of the chapel of St Helen.
It is not known if the advocation was used and the activity of the chapel soon disappears from the records, though the site was still referred to as St Helen’s Chapel, perhaps because the stone ruins were still visible. According to local tradition Bonnyside Mill nearby was rebuilt around 1739 using stone from the demolished church (Waugh 1981). The graveyard, however, continued in use, though now it was largely unregulated. The lairs would already have been allocated and as a consequence there was a degree of self-regulation with each local family knowing which part of the graveyard was theirs and keeping any incursions at bay. As the families died out or moved out of the area the plots were sold on. Disputes would have arisen and it seems that an informal committee evolved. In 1915 Alex Lapsley of the Denny Parish Council mentioned people who possessed books which showed their right to burial there. By that time there were only five or six old residenters involved, but the books went missing and were replaced.
In common with other Scottish graveyards, there would have been no gravestones before the 17th century. The earliest noted during moves to close the burial ground were 1717 and 1764, but it was said that there were older ones which were too worn to be decipherable and in any case the search was hardly rigorous. Throughout the 18th and early nineteenth centuries the graveyard slowly filled with monuments. There were many names on the gravestones, such as the Grindlays, Hendersons, and so on, mostly farmers.
The construction of the Forth and Clyde Canal in the 1770s radically altered the setting of the graveyard. It also cut off the mill ponds from the mill and the road network was changed. Instead of passing by the graveyard the road to the south and west now lay adjacent to the stream beside the mill. This allowed the road and the stream to share the same pend under the canal.
Young Willie Wyse appears to have been blind from birth and soon found himself an orphan. Despite this he was of a cheerful disposition and learned to play the fiddle. He was much in demand at parties and earned a living playing on the passage boats on the Forth and Clyde Canal travelling between Falkirk and Glasgow. The boats were very busy and the canal bustled with activity. On the night of 20 September 1829 Willie was invited to play his violin at a kirn, a party marking the end of the harvest, near Dennyloanhead. The merriment continued into the early hours of the morning and Willie made his way home along the familiar towpath alone. On the way he missed his footing and on the Wednesday afternoon his cap and fiddle-bow were found near the canal. A search soon found his body in the water. His friends saw that he was properly buried in his family’s lair in the Chapel Yard. As this was a time when resurrectionists were active they arranged for his father’s coffin to be lifted and placed above that of Willie.
On Thursday morning, the 29th, two men placed a large box on board the “Leith,” one of the passing luggage boats, at Bonnybridge, with directions to take it to Port Dundas. The crew was told that at that destination porters would be waiting. As the boat proceeded the skipper noticed a smell emanating from the box and he grew suspicious of the nature of its contents. The lid was forced revealing the body of Willie Wyse whom he recognised. The lid was replaced and when the two porters came to collect it at Port Dundas they were confronted. One managed to escape but the other was apprehended and taken to the police station. A letter was sent to Willie’s relatives who went and brought the body back for re-interment (Stirling Journal 24 September 1829). The Canal Company, on learning of the circumstances, had kindly provided a coffin. This time vitriol (sulphuric acid) was poured on the body to ensure that it would be of no further interest to the resurrectionists (Falkirk Herald 23 April 1904, 7).
The newspaper noted that “Report names a medical student belonging to a respectable family, not far from Bonnybridge, as one of the men who put the box on board the boat, but for the truth of this, we cannot vouch” (Stirling Observer 1 October 1929). The body had been dug up from the isolated graveyard under the cover of the darkness and stored in the barn at Seabegs overnight. The affair caused the greatest excitement and indignation ran high against the unhappy doctor who was said to have done the deed, not in the interests of science but for money. It was the subject of a lengthy and defamatory poem by a local poet. Nor did the indignation of the inhabitants stop at that. Notes were posted on the gate of the meeting-house at Dennyloanhead denouncing those members of the congregation that they held responsible and asking for them to be expelled from the church. Imitation coffins, done in black, were also left at the gate with the lines from Tam o’ Shanter” underneath:
“Coffins stood round like open presses, And showed the dead in their last dresses!”
The name of the doctor involved was carefully excluded from all of the published reports – according to the locals due to his family having money and influence. But the infamy of such deeds lingers and it is evident that the man involved was Dr Charles Grindlay whose father was the farmer at Seabegs. Charles attended the medical classes at Glasgow University with the view of becoming a doctor and upon the death of his father farmed at Seabegs. The wood at Seabegs and the pend under the Forth and Clyde Canal are now known as the Doctor’s Wood and the Doctor’s pend. After years of vilification the doctor moved to a farm near Denny where he is said to have lived a solitary life and to have come to a sad end (Keir 1921, 19). This sad tale was retold for children in 2000 when Billy Buchanan produced a small illustrated book entitled “The Story of Willy Wyse.” Caution should be urged for anyone using this as a historical document as many of the holes in the narrative were filled in using imagination
The Final Days
In the 19th century the population of Bonnybridge increased with the establishment of a brickworks, a dyeworks and a distillery. Then, in 1854, the dyeworks was converted into the Columbian Foundry for Ure and Company and with the rapid expansion of ironfounding the population shot up. Tenements were constructed to either side of the old graveyard to house the additional workforce – and appropriately called “Chapel Buildings.” The road to the south of the yard was also altered. In 1900 a long curving embankment was made to take it up to a new bridge over the canal to augment the existing pend which had been found to be insufficient. This meant that the road now sat higher than the graveyard and surface water from it drained into the yard.
Illus 4: The Chapel Yard can just be made out in the gap between the two blocks of houses.
Burials continued throughout the 19th century and periodically ad hoc committees formed to pay for repairs to the stone boundary wall and the erection of a 3ft high iron fence on top of it. The rectangular enclosure provided an area of 290 square yards and was overcrowded. There was no official sexton and various local men were hired to act as gravediggers. This meant that their personal knowledge of the graveyard was scant and led to interments being incorrectly placed – there was no central authority handing out permissions or keeping order.
Attempts were made in the latter half of the century to wrestle control from the general mayhem. In 1866 the following announcement was made in the local newspaper:
“BONNYBRIDGE CHAPEL YARD. A MEETING of those holding LAIRS in this BURYING-GROUND will held in BONNYBRIDGE SCHOOLROOM, on TUESDAY EVENING the 18th inst, at Six o’clock, when all CLAIMS must be submitted for Rectification, and the amount of Assessment, for the Repairs recently made on the Wall of the Chapel Yard, still outstanding must be paid, or the Parties failing to do so will Forfeit all right or interest in said Burying-Ground. By Order of the Committee, Bonnybridge, Sept. 7, 1866.”(Falkirk Herald 8 September 1866, 1).
In October 1870 the Falkirk Parochial Board considered closing the Chapel Yard to further burials at the same time as it was obtaining orders to close the churchyards in Falkirk town centre. However, due to the lack of a central authority it was difficult to obtain the necessary consents and the burial ground at Bonnybridge was allowed to drop from the consideration. Denny Parochial Council was considered to be the more appropriate body to deal with it. Meetings of the lair holders were called in October 1877 and May 1899 (Falkirk Herald 27 October 1877,1 and 20 May 1899, 1). The latter was followed up by a meeting of the lair holders and the “committee of the Bonnybridge Chapel Yard Burying Ground” on the ground to consider the desirability of closing it against future interments. The meeting agreed to the proposal, and also the changing of the gate from the south to the north side.
Waugh (1981) notes the following burials (taken from the pages of the Falkirk Herald):
- November 1860 – James Forrester, farmer, aged 64.
- February 1871 – James Newlands of Seabegs, aged 90; and his 9 year old granddaughter.
- January 1885 – Mrs Scott.
- May 1889 – Mrs Thompson of Windyedge, aged 73.
- September 1897 – Mrs Gardiner, aged 91.
- two children of Robert Marshall.
These were just a few of those taking place. Clearly nothing had happened and in September 1906 another interment took place (Falkirk Herald 15 September 1906, 3), with another in 1912 and two in 1913. The burial ground had become an eyesore to the village with residents from the neighbouring tenements dumping their domestic waste there. Human bones were to be found scattered over its surface and the children from the area used them to play with. Other remains had been put into the Bonny Burn by a gravedigger. It was rumoured that coffins and corpses and skeletons had also been left lying about. Once a child’s coffin lay open and the black putrefied flesh was exposed to view. Rumour had it that a coffin had merely been left on the surface and after a week the neighbours buried it for their own protection. Alexander Andrews attended a funeral at the Chapel Yard which he described as a disgrace on account of the “carry-on” that was at it. Not even 18ins of earth covered some of the coffins. He and a friend had covered some of them. Some of the children had been seen running about with a skull as a “false-face”.
At the end of 1914 the Parish Council of Falkirk re-entered the fray. A public meeting of all of the inhabitants of the village of Bonnybridge was held in the Co-operative Hall, Main Street, Bonnybridge, on 22 January 1915 for the purpose of hearing an expression of opinion regarding the proposed application to the Sheriff of the Counties of Stirling, Dumbarton, and Clackmannan, for the purposes of obtaining an Order to prohibit more burials in the Chapel Yard. They also considered a proposal by the Landward Committee of the Parish Council of Falkirk to repair the walls and to put the grounds of the burial place in order, and to maintain it in future years. As a consequence the rank grass was cut, the boundary wall repaired and white-washed, and the gravestones cleaned. The date on the latest stone was found to be 1893. On 4 May 1915 the Privy Council issued an Order officially closing the burial ground. Falkirk Parish Council agreed to maintain it.
The graveyard continued to be maintained for many decades, though standards varied. In 1967 the south boundary wall was again repaired. The Chapel Buildings were demolished in 1969. Rather than giving the burial ground a reprieve, as might have been expected, this event accelerated its eradication. Ground was now available for a Community Centre and Stirling County Council decided to remove the gravestones and grass over the area as part of the landscaping of the new centre. A notice of the proposed development was advertised in the Falkirk Herald on 30 October 1971 and, no objections being received, it went ahead. As some locals did not like the idea of the stones being disposed of elsewhere they were buried on the spot. Unfortunately no record was kept of the inscriptions.
In May 2006 a commemorative standing stone was unveiled on the site by Councillor William Buchanan. The memorial plaque, reads:
"This is the site of the ancient St. Helen's Chapel Yard Burial Ground dating back to the 12th Century. The last burial was (circa) 1900. The Chapel Yard was closed down and cleared in 1971. The little churchyard, desolate and lone, but dotted oft with monumental stone. Names sculptured there enquiring vision greets of those who once with pride traversed the streets of Bonnybridge"
Illus 6: The Commemorative Stone at the Chapel Yard outside Bonnybridge Community Centre looking north-east in 2021.
The following April a gravestone was found in a “buttress” attached to the retaining wall at the south-east end of the site. The gravestone was for mounting on a wall and not a free standing example. It reads “1809/ JOHN DOWNIE:JEAN D…” The lair number 130 is set on the front upper edge. The stone measures 42 x 65 x 14cm. In March 2017 a service trench was cut from north to south across the western end of the grassed area. Three large dressed stones were found, one being a coping stone, one the lower uninscribed section of a gravestone, and one was rectangular with mouldings on three edges and the feint word “JOHN” was visible. The rest remain to be discovered – perhaps.
Chapel Yard, Bonnybridge SMR 726 NS 8235 8020
Bonny Mill (Seabegs Mill) SMR 770 NS 8243 8017
|Buchanan, W.||2000||The Story of Willy Wyse.|
|Keir, D.||1921||Then and Now. Dennyloanhead, Bonnybridge, Haggs, and the surrounding district – Past and Present.|
|Reid, J.||2003||The Baronies of Seabegs and Castlecary,’ Calatria 19, 57-78.|
|Waugh, J.||1981||The Vale of Bonny.|