top of page


The mortsafe was invented in about 1816. These were iron or iron-and-stone devices of great weight, in many different designs. Often they were complex heavy iron contraptions of rods and plates, padlocked together - examples have been found close to all Scottish medical schools. A plate was placed over the coffin and rods with heads were pushed through holes in it. These rods were kept in place by locking a second plate over the first to form extremely heavy protection. It would be removed by two people with keys. They were placed over the coffins for about six weeks, then removed for further use when the body inside was sufficiently decayed. There is a model of a mortsafe of this type in Marischal Museum, Aberdeen. Sometimes a church bought them and hired them out. Societies were also formed to purchase them and control their use, with annual membership fees, and charges made to non-members.

Vaults and watch-houses[edit]

Watchtower built in Dalkeith town cemetery, near Edinburgh, in 1827

Publicity surrounding the crimes of Burke and Hare heightened the fear felt by many people. It was about this time that vaults - repositories for dead bodies - were built by public subscription in Scotland, with their use governed by rules and regulations. Some of these were above ground while others - mainly in Aberdeenshire - were wholly or partly underground. In one village, Udny Green, in Aberdeenshire there is a unique morthouse, a circular building with a thick studded wooden door and an inner iron door. Inside there is turntable to accommodate seven coffins. A coffin would be moved round as further ones were added and by the time it reappeared the body would be of no use to the dissectionists.

Probably all communities near the Scottish schools of medicine in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen employed some means of protecting the dead. Some used both mortsafes and watching. There are watch-houses in the remoter Scottish areas, in the Borders, and two have been found in the English county of Northumberland.

Surviving mortsafes[edit]

Iron coffin mortsafe in Colinton, once a village outside Edinburgh

The mortsafes are mainly lying in churchyards and burial grounds; some are very broken and rusting away. One has been restored and hung in a church porch, with an explanatory note, by the East Lothian Antiquary Society. There are one or two in museums but those on display rarely have any indication of what they are or how they were used. Some documents appertaining to mortsafes and other protection devices are still in existence in libraries and record offices. There are two mortsafes in reasonable condition outside the old Aberfoyle church in Stirling, which was fully 30 miles from the nearest School of Anatomy in Glasgow. One can also be found, in a slightly rusted state, to the right of the door outside Skene Parish Church, Kirkton of Skene, Aberdeenshire.

bottom of page