An extract from Charlotte Runcie’s Salt on Your Tongue: Women and the Sea, published today by Canongate.
Somewhere on a beach on the Isle of Arran more than a century ago, as the day dies away, a burial is taking place. A group of men – three or four – stand around the freshly dug hole. It’s too small for the grave of an adult, too small perhaps even for a child. A little pile of freshly dug sand and earth lies nearby. The men have taken off their hats. They drop something into the hole, and share a moment, maybe just a few seconds, of silence. This done, one of them picks up the spade he had let fall to his side, and begins to fill the hole up with sand. And then the men turn their backs to the sea. They walk towards the grassy dunes, heading inland, and are gone.
Much further south of here, the landscape around the village of Brean in Somerset is well furnished with sandy beaches and caravan parks for visitors. The shore is sunny, welcoming, the area around it popular with tourists, and the village does a roaring trade in the local ciders and cheese. Still, no coastal tourist resort can escape a complicated history with the sea. As a local folk song – ‘The Brean Lament’, recorded by twentieth-century folklorist Ruth Tongue – relates, the locals traditionally had a particular way of dealing with the bodies of those souls who found themselves washed up on the shore, with nothing to identify them.
The waters they washed ’en ashore, ashore,
And they never will sail the seas no more.
We laid ’en along by the churchyard wall
And all in a row we buried them all.
But their boots we buried below the tide
On Severn Side.
The dead were buried not within the consecrated ground of the churchyard itself, even though they were sometimes given Christian funerals in the church. Instead they were laid to rest in the Sailors’ Graveyard down by the sea, carefully positioned just above the tideline. The superstition of the local community was that one day the sea might rise up and reclaim the bodies of the souls it had taken, in envy that they had been stolen from the water and buried in the earth. To appease the sea, and to prevent it from also taking back the bodies of non-sailors buried in the church graveyard when the tide rose in anger, the drowned dead had to be kept separate from those who had died on land. And a further precaution was taken, too: in the hope that the sea might be appeased enough to resist rising at all, and swallowing the coastal villages whole in search of its robbed corpses, the villagers buried the sailors’ boots below the tideline, within easy and regular reach of the water, so the sea would be able to keep a memento of the dead – without stealing back the bodies themselves. ‘The Brean Lament’ tells us for sure that this practice was done in Somerset, though we know that it was done elsewhere in the British Isles too, and there are boots underground between the high and low tidelines around the country’s edges from south to north.
In Scotland a murder in the hills, linked to the superstitions of the coast, remains not fully solved. Some of the crime’s secrets are still known only to the sea and the dead.
Salt on Your Tongue: Women and the Sea is out now and available to purchase here in the Caught by the River shop, priced £14.99.