Not your Typical “Touristy” Activity – Volunteering!

This past weekend I had the grand opportunity of partaking in an activity which I particularly enjoy while travelling in Scotland. It does not fall into the category of a typical type of activity that a tourist generally engages in, but that’s one of the reasons I like it so much; it’s different!

If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, you have probably noticed how much I enjoy combining my personal ancestry with the places I visit. I like finding places that my ancestors were connected to, finding headstones and final resting places of ancestors, and volunteering to help record and maintain records of all kinds of headstones for future generations.

A couple of years ago, while visiting Scotland, I started volunteering with the Moray Burial Ground Research Group (MBGRG) This group is an incredible bunch of volunteers who go into all of the old and new cemeteries in Morayshire in northern Scotland, to record, index and publish each and every tombstone within each one, including headstones that have become buried under the surface of grass and debris over the years. It is a monumental task and they’ve been working on it for almost 20 years!

How did I get involved in something like this?  My cousin Lindsay, whom I come to visit on a regular basis, is part of the group and serves as their webmaster, amongst other duties. Since he knew of my interest in ancestral headstones, he suggested I meet the rest of the group and see how its operations work and meet some of the groups’ members by meeting up with them at a graveyard they were currently working on a couple of years ago. I was intrigued and before I knew it, I was working right alongside them and enjoying every minute of it.

This past weekend was no exception. Lindsay and I travelled up to Cullen on Friday,

where we met up with Keith & Helen Mitchell, Lindsay’s cousin and his wife at their caravan park located in Cullen Bay just below the picturesque Logie Head on the coastline.IMG_1286

IMG_1296Keith serves as the Chairman of the group and Helen serves as the Field Work Coordinator.


To start our adventures with Keith and Helen, they took us to Old Cullen Kirk to have a look around.


IMG_1302MBGRG had started recording this churchyard in 2011 and they are just about ready to publish the book for it. It was a fascinating church and the churchyard was full of some very interesting and unusual headstones.IMG_1303IMG_1304

Keith took us around the kirkyard explaining many of its fascinating features, such as this cross on the wall for James, Earl of Seafield, who was killed in action 1915. The wooden cross is the actual cross from the battlefield. His body and the original cross was later removed from the battlefield and brought back home to the family plot.




Here are some of the interesting headstones –


After walking around the kirkyard, we headed inside. What an amazing little church.  It dates back to the middle ages and has quite an interesting history.









There was the organ hidden within a cabinet (above) and a very interesting tombstone of a Knight which had been brought inside out of the elements (left).

Before we leave the interior thought I’d take you upstairs so you can see what it looks like from the balcony or gallery.

IMG_1388It started to rain once we got back outside so we headed back to Keith & Helen’s caravan park just in time to see a beautiful ‘cloudbow’ off the tip of Logie Head.  Never seen a ‘cloudbow’ before! That’s pretty cool!

Then we finished the day off by heading out for dinner at a local restaurant to have a nice meal at the Cullen Bay Hotel. I ordered the soup, Cullen Skink, and Scampi.  Delicious!

The following day we packed up our supplies and picnic lunch and headed to the old Keith Kirkyard in the nearby town of Keith. We had worked here last year, but there were still four remaining buried stones we had located with our probing. Since we ran out of time last year to uncover them, we were planning to finish the job on Saturday.

Keith got us started by probing the ground where he believed one of the first buried stones was and marked it off with sticks. After determining the perimeters of where the stone lies hidden we started cutting small strips of turf and removing them to see what was below. A buried stone was definitely there so we cut a strip down the middle to see if there was any writing. There did not appear to be any.  When we got to the other end, it became apparent that what we were looking at was the underneath side of a table stone that was lying on its face. They made notes regarding its location and we covered it over again, replacing the turf in the exact same order that we had removed it.

Now to the next buried stone just a few feet away.  We cut the first strip of turf away and immediately there was evidence of writing. Then another strip; more writing – revealing probably the name Gordon and carving too!  We cut strip after strip until we had revealed the entire stone. Keith got his photographic shots; Helen transcribed and described it in her notes after we meticulously cleaned it up.


IMG_1445After the photography, a bit of flour is dusted across the areas of writing that have been eroded or worn away to see if any letters or numbers can pop into view.

IMG_1449We had worked up quite the appetite so we stopped and ate our picnic lunch.

Then we got started on the last buried stone and discovered under the turf a stone with a whole bunch of writing!  Took quite awhile to get it cleaned off and ready for photos and transcribing. Then some flour dusting to make out the hard to read portions.

I really like the technique of dusting it with flour to make the lettering pop out.

As usual, once we revealed, cleaned, dusted, transcribed and photographed it, back went the sod we had removed and tamped it back down so there wouldn’t be a big gaping hole in the grass 4 inches down or so for the groundskeepers to trip on.  Covering it over actually preserves the stone from further erosion from the elements as well. Now, someone, sometime, can get a picture and transcription of their ancestors’ tombstone even though it’s buried under the grass and not visual to the naked eye!  Isn’t that great? That was the last known buried stone in Keith Kirkyard and MBGRG can begin the final process of publishing their recordings.

Sunday morning we headed to another cemetery nearby called Broomhill. There were several other volunteers that day besides ourselves and our task was to record what was written on every single stone in the graveyard, either by writing it down and/or photographs.

IMG_1624A little bit after noon and a very busy working weekend, Lindsay and I said our ‘fare-thee-well’s” to our delightful hosts and fellow volunteers to start making our way back to Aberdeen. It was a grand weekend, full of all kinds of discoveries, both for ourselves as well as others worldwide looking for their ancestors. Volunteering as you travel is a wonderful way to give back to the country you love visiting. I highly recommend it. You get to know locals, make new friends, as well as making a difference and contributing to the world we all live in.


Author: Claudia Frew

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

One thought on “Not your Typical “Touristy” Activity – Volunteering!”

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