Betty Corrigall's Grave
Betty Corrigall RIP

About 50 yards from the main Hoy Road, near the Water of Hoy, there is a solitary grave.  It is the loneliest, and yet, possibly the most visited one in Orkney. This is the burial site of Betty Corrigall, a young woman who died in the late 1700s. The story behind her isolated resting place is tied up in the religious practices and customs of the late 18th century.

Betty Corrigall lived at Greengairs Cottage, near Rysa.  Aged 27, she discovered she was pregnant when her boyfriend was at the whaling and was so ashamed she tried to commit suicide.

The first time she tried to drown herself by walking into the sea, but was spotted and stopped.  Betty hanged herself in the barn later. In those days, church law stated that those who took their own life could not be buried in consecrated ground such as a graveyard. Subsequently, neither the Laird of Hoy nor of Melsetter would let her be interred on their estates. This meant that she had to be buried on unconsecrated ground – the parish border between Hoy and North Walls – with the boundary line halving the coffin.  So it was that there came to be a coffin buried in a peat bank with only a stick to mark its existence.

That was, until May of 1936 or ’37 when some members of a family called Robb, from the croft of Quoys, were digging on the peat bank and came across the corner of a wooden box. Thinking that it could contain treasure, but not sure what to do with it, the Robbs contacted the late Issac Moar, Hoy’s postmaster, who phoned the police for advice. They said to open it. Taking the spade to the corner of the box, the diggers revealed a pair of feet.  Then they brought up the whole of the coffin and discovered that it contained the body of a young woman. Surprisingly, she was not a skeleton as the peat had preserved the body.  The woman’s dark hair was long and her skin, which was tinged brown with the peat, was drawn in and wrinkled. The piece of rope which had been the noose lay beside the body, but turned to dust when exposed to the air. The Robbs reburied the coffin, not knowing it would be dug up again a few years later.

At the beginning of 1941, a small group of soldiers were digging on the peat banks in order to put up telegraph poles when they came across what they called “the Lady of Hoy.” Mr Charles Ward of Coventry was one of the group and he explained to “The Orcadian” that the body’s dark hair was matted and fell past her shoulders. Astonished, the soldiers quickly covered over the grave again.

Sadly, it seems that since then throughout the war, every new troop of soldiers would go out to dig up the grave and view the body.  This exposure to the air made the remains deteriorate rapidly.

Fortunately, when Officers came to hear of this they put an end to it by moving the grave 50 yards and placing a heavy concrete slab on top of the coffin.

In the late ‘40s, Mr Harry Berry of Hoy was approached by and American minister, Kenwood Bryant, who asked if he would erect a headstone for the grave.  He visited the grave, and saddened to see only a stick marking the spot, he had put up a small wooden cross and a fence. Mr Berry told him that he was very busy, but would do so when he found time. When he retired 27 years later, Mr Berry remembered his promise and surveyed the grave.  Deciding that a stone marker would only sink in to the bog, he made a lightweight hollow fibreglass headstone and this was put in place.

So one evening as the sun was going down, the late Issac Moar, a Mr Isbister and Mr Berry gathered around the new “stone” to hold a short service for Betty Corrigall as it was thought unlikely that she would have had a proper service when buried.

Now every year many tourists stop their cars and cross the peat bank to look at the solitary grave, intrigued as to why it should be there, and one Londoner, Nat Gould wrote a small book “Hoy Song – the poems of Betty Corrigall” after visiting the scene.

But Betty may not be the only unfortunate to be buried in the peat banks of Hoy.  A brief historical document supports the local legend that there is also the grave of a minister - David Bremner - who hanged himself on North Walls and may have been buried on one of the small islands in the Water of Hoy. Ironically, his father may have been party to the earlier decision to bury Betty on the parish boundary separating Walls from Hoy.

Based on articles which appeared in The Orcadian and independent research

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