By Alistair Heather
Nae ower lang syne there wis a scientific revolution in Europe. Doun south ye haed Newton gettin skelpit on the heid aff an aipple, an extrapolatin out fae that aa the laws o motion on earth. Up here in bonnie Scotland we haed a wheen inventors in mony fields makkin muckle steps forrit, biggin up a comprehensive kennin o baith naitur an the universe.
But ae field o science coudnae mak ony advancement at aa: the science o medicine. Young doctors coudnae get ony cadavers tae hack open an keek intae. It wis thocht tae be unco un-christian tae gie yer body tae science efter ye’d dee’d. Fowk thocht that God wad be ragin wi thaim. Maist fowk in Scotland at the time still creditit aa thae havers anent God an Auld Nick an aa that. Ae pairt o this auld-farrant belief sýstem wis that the body wis a haly ’hing, biggit by God, an tae tamper wi it wad be a desecration o His wark. Whiles, mebbe ance a year, the council wad gie the local university the corp o some puir craitur that’d been hangit in the mercat square for ae crime or anither, an wha’s faimily didnae claim thaim. But ae corp ilka twal month wisnae gaun’ae gang faur at the medical colleges. Naw, students coudnae get a shottie o a real deid cheil for aa the siller they haed.
An gin ye dinnae ken whit’s inside a body, whit wey are ye meant tae cure him? The hale study o medicine wis doun-hauden by this lack o bodies. Whiles students wad gang out tae the streets o Aiberdeen or Embra an kill a dug. This dug wad than be chappit intae wee bitties sae’s aabody coud get a shot at dissectin a liver or keekin at the wey stomach acids champit awa at fuids in the guts. It wisnae sic a glamorous profession, an wis aye ettlin tae brak out o the Derk Age.
Weel, aa the sciences war merchin on, wi kenspeckle discoveries bein made in ilka field. But the doctors war still stuck awa wi their medieval learnins, aa based on superstítion insteid o haurd evidence. Until ae day some o the baulder students haed an unco idea. Gin naebody wad gie thaim a corp, they’d hae tae gang out an get ane for theirsels. An this they did.
Students fae aa the ancient universties — St Andras, Aiberdeen, Glesga, Embra, Dundee — sterted gangin about diggin up bodies fae the local kirkyairds. They’d howk thaim out, dicht thaim aff, than cut thaim up for tae ken better hou the body wirked.
These body-snatchers war operatin in ilka airt. St Machar’s kirkyaird juist by Aiberdeen University haed tae big new waas tae keep thaim out, an Aiberdeen students wad gang aa the wey out tae Huntly an Elgin tae pauchle bodies fae their graves. The same is true o Embra’s kirkyairds, an ither airts besides.
The students war braw, bauld laddies, an nae feart o a nicht’s darg. They wad dig doun a nairae hole tae the tap o the kist, smash in the wid an bung a noose about the heid an pou the puir craitur up by its thrapple. Nae dignity in thon, like. They’d strip aa the claes an jewellery aff the body an dump it back in the grave. They wad cut aff ony fingers that haed rings on thaim, an pit thaim back intae the dirt. They did aa this for they coud be duin at court for pauchlin jewels, claes an that, but no for haein taen a body fae a grave: we didne hae a law anent thon till later!
Whan locals fund out that student doctors war diggin up their kinfowk, they war obviously an understandably bealin. Wha amang us can thole the thocht o some wee students nickin aff wi wir grannie’s body, leavin their tombs tuim? Faimilies stertit biggin muckle kists wrocht o iron ower the fresh graves. Watch tours sprang up an war staffed by local men wi guns. Faimilies o the recently deid stertin hingin about kirkyairds wi muskets an dirks, ready tae kill ony student that cam near the place. Sae students, wha war maistly rich chiels in thae days, sterted peyin criminals or desperados tae dae the dirty wark in their place.
The kirkyairds o Scotland’s cíties becam battle zones. The local fowk ettlin tae keep watch ower the bodies o their deid, the mercenaries lowpin ower the waas wi sacks an shovels tae gang awa wi the bodies. Gin a body-snatcher wis catcht he wad be for a clatterin; mair nor likely he’d hae his heid staved in for him. Gey dangerous as this gemm wis, the siller wis guid eneuch that there wis aye fowk willin tae dae it. It gat tae sic extremes that in Dundee ae chiel, wha wirkit as a gunsmith, that tyned twa dochters tae illness buirit thaim wi explosives, so’s ony body snatchers wad be blawn tae kíngdom come gin they dug at his lassies’ grave.
Twa lads in Embra realised they didnae hae tae bather wi aa the trauchle o gangin tae the kirkyaird an fechtin wi faimilies an greivin fríends. William Burke an William Hare cam tae the realisation that they coud juist kill fowk, an get the body selt tae the local surgeons juist as easy.
Ower the course o a year in the early 1800s, they cut aff saxteen fowk. They’d dae in hameless, fowk wha war a bittie saft in the heid, an hures. They’d hae the bodies selt as suin as they war deid, a surgeon cried Knox supplyin the siller.
Knox wad acquire the bodies for his students in Embra tae dissect in the Anatomy Rooms nae faur fae the Meadows. The hail scheme wis exposed whan the twa killers murdert a weel-kent hure. A puckle o the students that cam tae dissect her haed kent her ‘professionally’, an began tae spier at Knox whaur he wis findin these bodies. An investigation wis launcht, an the guilty twa war suin catcht an pit tae trail.
Burke wis fund guilty an pit tae deith. His skin wis flayed fae his corpse. Gin ye’re in Embra ye can see a sporran made fae the leathered flesh o this hideous killer in the toun museum on the Royal Mile. The twa chiels’ crimes, an the involvement o Knox, is commemoratit in this auld rhyme:
Up the close an doun the stair,
But an ben wi Burke an Hare.
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
Knox the boy that buys the beef.
Alistair Heather is the Scots Editor at Bella Caledonia. He studies History an French at Aiberdeen University, an wirks wi the Elphinstone Institute promotin the cultur o the North-East. Gie him yer chat @historic_ally on Twitter.