"The Coffin Roads: Journeys to the West" by Ian Bradley is a fascinating book that looks at an aspect of the culture of the Scottish Highlands and islands that is perhaps too easy to overlook: rituals, beliefs and traditions surrounding death. In his excellent introduction the author gives a detailed introduction to the subject. He goes on to say that "After more than a century when the subject has been largely taboo, death is at last being widely discussed, confronted and even embraced. Even before the Covid pandemic... long held inhibitions around the subject [were] finally disappearing. In the context of this new interest and openness about death and the afterlife, it seems appropriate to revisit some of the beliefs and traditions held by our ancestors..."
Ian Bradley 's approach to his subject is to look at coffin roads, traditional routes across, especially, the western Highlands and Hebridean islands. These were used to carry the recently-departed from the place of their death to that of their burial. In his introduction he describes how numerous these were and explains how they were used and why they tended to run from east to west. He then sets out the aim of the book: "I focus on eight coffin roads and their destinations, with each prompting wider reflections on a particular aspect on the Highland and Hebridean approach to death."
So while the main body of the book takes a geographical focus, it is with the aim of drawing out much broader themes that help fill in the background for the reader. The first chapter looks at the Kilmartin Glen in mid-Argyll and looks at the importance of a landscape so replete with evidence of ancient traditions of remembrance and commemoration. The second chapter takes as its focus the Street of the Dead on Iona and uses this as a starting point for discussions about Celtic Christian beliefs about death and dying. Also featured in later chapters are the graveyards of the Isle of Jura; the coffin roads of Morvern leading the cemetery at Kiel church; the Green Isle on Loch Shiel; and the Eigg coffin road. The chapter about the old Kintail coffin road looks at premonitions and omens of death associated especially with second sight. The eighth chapter looks at mid twentieth century funeral practices on the Isle of Barra. The epilogue brings the author's account up to date by looking at echoes of the coffin roads still found in modern Highland and Hebridean funeral practices.
This is a well-written, thought-provoking and interesting book that we would recommend to anyone wishing to broaden their understanding of the culture of the western Highlands and the Hebrides.