My first attempt at finding buried gravestones with the Moray Burial Ground Research Group (MBGRG)

On Saturday, the 3rd of September, I left Dingwall in the morning heading east to the old churchyard at Keith.

old churchyard at Keith


Keith churchyard aerial view
Aerial view of the old churchyard at Keith


The Moray Burial Ground Research Group (MBGRG) is a voluntary group and was formed in 2003.  They have tasked themselves of surveying every burial ground in Morayshire, Scotland. This is a monumental task as there are some 140 burial sites, both public and private to be studied!  They are about halfway through the various sites and have indexed approximately 80,000 individuals. Amazing!

My cousin Lindsay is part of this group and he serves as the webmaster.  His cousin, Keith Mitchell, serves as Chairman, and his wife Helen, is the Field Work Coordinator.  I joined as an international member this year before I came to visit just so I could join them at a churchyard and help them out.

MBGRG is a full member of the Scottish Association of Family History Societies, and they work in consultation with Historic Scotland, Moray Council, and the Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historic Monuments of Scotland.

The published results of their research benefits genealogists, family, local and social historians, as well as archaeologists, and other disciplines. The Group has received financial support from various sources, including grants from the National Lottery “Awards for All” scheme and Moray Council.

A great deal of their work is carried on behind the scenes, including historical research in various archival centres, but most of their recording work takes place in churchyards and cemeteries. They plot every tombstone onto a site plan, accurately record the full inscription, and take photographic records, and scale drawings where necessary, as well as taking GPS readings of their exact location. 

Using specific MBGRG methodology, they also search for buried tombstones up to approximately 15 cms (6 inches) below the grass surface. Buried tombstones are usually old “flat” stones that the grass has grown completely over the course of time.  They locate these stones by probing into the ground until they hear a distinct “clunk” sound when the probe hits something hard.  After full recording, these stones are then covered up again for safety and preservation purposes.

On Saturday, I met up with them at the old churchyard. They were already busy recording when I arrived.


Although they were all busy when I arrived, they all welcomed me and soon put me to work as well as if I had been doing this for all along.



Here is Helen checking the index and double checking her recordings.  She is a stickler for accuracy.   You can also see some of the various tools of the trade they utilize: the prober, the stakes, the brushes, turf cutters and pruners… and of course the camera which Keith uses to get good photographic images of each stone, plaque or memorial they find.IMG_5333


This is a probe that they use to locate “buried” stones under the grass row by row.  They poke through the grass to a depth of about 4″ inches and until they hear a definite “clunk.” When they hit something buried, they place a wooden stake in the ground to mark the place and come back later for further investigation.

My initiation to the group began with a tour of the churchyard with Keith.  He explained the types of headstones they come across.  Below is a fine example of a “mural.”


On the reverse side of the mural was also a coat of arms, and a rather unusual one with “elephants.”  Evidently, it was kind of a play on words, because the family name was “Oliphant.”  Clever, ‘eh?


Above is a good example of a refurbished stone probably done by a family member. Although it has the appearance of being a new stone, it isn’t.  It used to look like many of its neighbours before being refurbished.IMG_5317

According to Keith, the stone above was rather unique.  The stonemason was from Nova Scotia and it is believed to be possibly a representation of the Native Americans they met when they first came to the North American continent.  It is unlike any he has seen anywhere.

Sometimes the stones are still on the surface, but need to be cleaned and recorded and have the grass cut back in order that it does not become buried, such as the one below.


After my initiation, we got straight to work.  Helen had located a small portion of a plaque under a yew bush using her probing tool. Keith did a bit of pruning at the base of the bush, and uncovered the heart-shaped plaque and was able to get a decent picture of it.



No more fooling around for me, Keith put me to work with the probing tool.


SONY DSCWhen I struck something, we began the investigation process:  cut a small square (approx 8″x 8″) with the turf cutter and then lift the turf to see what it reveals below. Now, this is fun and oh-so-interesting!  Like a treasure hunt!

What we appear to have unearthed is perhaps the foundation rocks of the old church that once was at this site many years ago but since ruined and demolished.



Above are some of the other volunteers, Gordon and Irene Black.  She’s the Treasurer for the MBGRG.  What a great group of people (and new friends!)



My best find of the day.  I was probing and found the base that the headstone beside it used to sit on.  Now the group can definitely say that that is where the person is buried because the iron posts that held it upright had rusted and rotted and therefore the headstone had fallen over.  Someone, sometime, had lifted up the fallen stone and laid against the neighbouring headstone so as not to be lost, but without finding the pedestal it sat on they can’t be certain the grave is nearby. By uncovering the pedestal it belonged to they can now mark it on the map as that person’s grave.

Here’s something else I found by probing. It just turned out to be a rock.  But see that wooden stake behind me sticking in the grass?  That one turned out to be more promising and one they will have to return to because just after I dug out the turf it started pouring down rain and I had to cover it up again for later investigation another day.SONY DSC

Sometimes stones, plaques or other markers can easily get lost in the nearby plantings.  In not too long of a time this one below may be completely lost!


It was great fun helping out the MBGRG in the Keith churchyard.  Lindsay and I will get to go back next Sunday to continue the search and recording. I simply loved working with a great group of folks.  Nothing like having a ‘working holiday’ and volunteering to help out a worthy cause!

Author: Claudia Frew

Adventuresome, independent, and fun-loving 68-year young American great-grandmother who loves to travel; often going solo!

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