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Death in Scotland

Chapters From the Twelfth Century to the Twenty-First


Peter C. Jupp and Hilary J. Grainger

For the past twenty years, Scottish death culture has emerged as a focus of scholars drawn from a wide variety of disciplines. Death comes to us all but too often we treat it as a private or personal matter. The former taboo about death is slowly lifting and contemporary research is playing an increasing part. Accordingly, the fifteen essays gathered in this book probe the multi-facetted role of death in Scottish history and culture. They explore personal fears of death, anxieties about Predestination, prayers for the dead and the appeal of Spiritualism. They analyse the public face of death in law, economics and medicine: changes in capital punishment, funeral poverty, the teaching of anatomy and prevention of stillbirths. Within the worlds of religion and ritual, they consider the making of saints, burial practice following the Scottish Reformation and the tradition of keening within the Gáidhealtachd. With an Introduction by Professor Jane Dawson, these essays by specialists in the field not only highlight the richness of the primary sources for studying death in Scotland but reveal how death studies identify key features of Scottish life and society across ten centuries.

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13 A Portrayal of Life Beyond Death: Helen Duncan’s Spirit Guide and His Portrait (Michelle Foot)


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13 A Portrayal of Life Beyond Death: Helen Duncan’s Spirit Guide and His Portrait


Modern Spiritualism flourished in Scotland after the First World War. In an era of mass bereavement many people turned to spirit-mediums for comfort as loved ones died on the War Front. Spiritualists promised to reunite the living with the spirits of their departed friends and relatives. Among the most infamous post-war mediums was Helen Duncan (1897–1956), a Dundee-born Scotswoman, who led a controversial career. She was accused of fraudulence on multiple occasions and she was the last person in Britain to be imprisoned under the Witchcraft Act (1735) 9 Geo. II c. 5. This chapter will reveal how Duncan’s mediumship inspired the little-known Aberdonian sculptor Frederick William George (1889–1971) to portray her spirit guide, ‘Albert Stewart’, in an attempt to elevate the dubious spectral character to a position of reverence and to support the central tenet of Spiritualism: there is life beyond death. The depiction of the spirit (c.1936) was in direct contrast to psychical investigators’ photographs and ectoplasmic casts taken from Duncan’s séances, which were used to scrutinise the alleged phenomena on an objective level and for scientific enquiry. This chapter proposes that George’s sculpture sought to achieve a cultural appreciation of Spiritualism by portraying the spirit guide in a form associated with fine art, thereby elevating the medium’s work to a respectful position in the face of controversy that...

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