The odd attraction of the mummified bodies of Stroma

The sea spray over the isle of Stroma was so fierce that it's said to have mummified bodies in its mausoleum - with the preserved corpses becoming an unlikely visitor attraction in the 1700s.

Wednesday, 21st June 2017, 7:06 pm
Updated Tuesday, 12th September 2017, 11:32 am
The mausoleum on Stroma where mummified bodies could once reportedly be found. PIC: Wikicommons.
The mausoleum on Stroma where mummified bodies could once reportedly be found. PIC: Wikicommons.

The son of Kennedy of Carmuck, who built the family vault in 1672, is said to have been so taken by the state of his father’s body that he invited people into the mausoleum to witness the state of the remains and to play “wretched” tricks on the visitors.

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According to the Scots Magazine on July 1, 1786, the “famous national mummies” had drawn “many idle people” to Stroma, which sits in the Pentland Firth between Orkney and Caithnes, over time.

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A recent visitor to Stroma had been informed by residents that “curiosity” had drawn them there, the article said.

It added: “There is little doubt that these bodies have been preserved without any further preparation of the faltnefs (saltiness) of the air.

“Even the situation of the tomb favours this, which is surrounded by three tides of the sea.

“It was a common custom by the isles to preserve beef and mutton by hanging it in the caves by the sea...and there is little doubt that this has been the case with the bodies at Stroma.”

Storms were so fierce on Stroma that once waves crashed over the 100ft cliffs on the north side of the island leaving sea debris scattered across the land.

The spray from the sea was so plentiful that islanders captured the water in a reservoir to power a watermill on the island in the late 1700s.

The effect of the salt water on the bodies in the mausoleum, which a part of can still be seen today, was of great delight to Murdoch Kennedy, son of Kennedy of Carmuck.

In a letter to the editor of the John O’Groat Journal in September 1886, a correspondent draws on an earlier account of Murdoch’s hijinks at the mausoleum.

According to an account of the Episcopal Church in Orkney, Murdoch placed strangers at his father’s feet and “by setting a foot on one of his father’s, it made the body spring up speedily and salute them which surprised them greatly.

“Then after laying the body down again, he beat a march upon the belly, which sounded equally loud with a drum.”

The correspondent draws doubt on whether the account could be true, despite it being relayed by a church minister.

The letter added how Kennedy of Carmuck was believed to have fled to Stroma after killing a man in Aberdeenshire.

“If the body of the dead was not allowed to rest in peace, we must regard it as a judgement upon the man who had killed one of the family of Foveran.”

Visitors to the mausoleum reportedly broke the door of the vault as they attempted to see inside with bodies also damaged.

Sheep and cattle had subsequently trampled upon the dead.

Two trunks of gold were also said to have been buried in the mausoleum.

“Some were bold enough to dig for the buried treasure and were rewarded by finding a trunk with nothing in it but bones.

“Still, the belief is that gold is deposited somewhere in this vault.”

Once a vibrant community of “daring and skilful” islanders, Stroma has been uninhabited since 1962.

It’s population stood at a peak of 375 in 1901 but fell away to just over 100 by 1949.

By the early 1960s, just 12 people remained.

Remains of the settlement can still be seen with lines of abandoned cottages, a derelict church and a broken red telephone box to be found.