A Sorrowful Tale and a Lesson for Today’s Church

Imagine, if you can being a 27 year old woman, who finally after a hard life finds love.  Then to your surprise you discover you are pregnant.  Then to your shock the man leaves you alone and pregnant.

Nowadays such a tale might indeed still hold the sorrow of a broken heart, but it would hardly become a sorrowful tale.  However, the level of sorrow grows with each generation you go back in time.  Imagine being a single woman, pregnant in the 1770’s.  Imagine, if you possibly can, not only the year but also living in a community which was ruled by the expectations of others, especially that of the Kirk (church).

This is a sorrowful tale indeed.

In the late 18th century 27 was old not to be married and finally Betty Corrigall had found love on the Island of Hoy.  She lived in Greengairs cottage – her cottage, now abandoned – can still be seen sitting by the side of the road, looking just like any other Orkney cottage of the time.  As is still the case, she would know all the other islanders and they would have known her.  We do not know the name of the man she fell in love with, but we do know she became pregnant and he ran off to sea, leaving her to face the condemnation of those she would have known all her life, alone.  In those days and in such a community she would have hardly heard a kind word and her pregnancy would have ostracised her from the rest of the community.  Betty’s story doesn’t end there though.

This sorrowful tale just keeps piling on the sorrow.

No longer able to live with the shame she tried to take her own life by walking into the sea hoping to drown.  Of course to take one’s own life also was something frowned upon by the church and she was rescued, despite the fact that those who rescued her would have also been disapproving of her condition.

The sorrow does not end there however, I wish there was a happy ending, but I am afraid there is more sorrow to come.

Days later she hanged herself.  In those days, her suicide meant that she and her unborn child could not be given a Christian burial. Denied a place in the kirkyard, the Lairds of Melsetter and Hoy also refused to have her body on their ground so Betty Corrigall had to be interred in unconsecrated ground.  Her final resting place was an unmarked, isolated grave on the boundary of the parishes of Hoy and North Walls, a short distance from the Water o’ Hoy, and there she lay, forgotten.

In 1933, two men out cutting peats for fuel uncovered the corner of her wooden coffin. Thinking the box might hold treasure, they consulted Isaac Moar, Hoy’s postmaster. It was decided to open it.  Taking up their spades, the box was recovered and found to contain the body of a young woman, her long dark hair curling about her shoulders. The peat that had preserved her corpse had only tinged Betty’s skin a shade of brown, the noose that had ended her life lay beside her, but, according to tradition, it turned to dust when exposed to the air.  After being examined by police from Kirkwall, the procurator fiscal ordered that the coffin be reburied in exactly the same spot. So Betty Corrigall was returned to the earth, where, were it not for the outbreak of World War Two, she would have remained undisturbed.

But this sorrow continues.

During wartime, Hoy was swarming with thousands of troops, Lyness serving as a major naval base serving the anchorage of Scapa Flow.  Early in 1941, a working party of soldiers were once again digging on the peat-bank when they came across the unmarked grave. Christening her “The Lady of Hoy”, Betty’s grave was quickly covered over.  This, however, was the beginning of the end.

Morbid curiosity among the soldiers stationed on the island was such that there were repeated excursions to the gravesite to exhume and view the remains.  The resulting exposure to the air meant that Betty’s remains deteriorated rapidly. This practice was eventually brought to the attention of the officers, who took steps to stop it. The grave was moved 50 yards and a concrete slab placed over the coffin.

But the grave remained unmarked.

On a visit to Hoy in 1949, an American minister by the name of Kenwood Bryant, erected a wooden cross on the grave and surrounded it with a little fence. He then asked Hoy’s Customs and Excise officer, Mr Harry Berry, to fashion a suitable gravestone.  Mr Berry agreed, but it took nearly 30 years before his promise was fulfilled. Then, one evening in 1976, he erected a small fibre-glass headstone at the grave. At the same time, a quiet burial service was performed at Betty’s lonely grave.

It is a deeply moving place, set well back from the road and far from anything, on an island which in turn is far from anywhere, but it is also now a place of deep peace.

Society and the Church can be cruel places.  I laid my hand on her headstone and said a prayer for her, asked for her forgiveness for the way she had been treated and the depths of despair others who called Jesus Lord had driven her to.  Then I found myself praying for others.  Others who are still treated in similar ways by the church.

Thankfully today such a sorrowful tale could not be told, or could it?

To our shame the church continues to cause the anguish that Betty knew, words proclaiming God’s condemnation on a person because of their sexuality rather than their state as an unmarried pregnant woman.  Proclamations that people are living outside and outwith the reach of God’s, love, compassion, mercy and blessings, continue.  Fingers are pointed and words spoken which, despite what sometimes might be declared, fail to proclaim God’s love instead they declare human judgement, intolerance and prejudice.

And we wonder just why people think the church is irrelevant.  The sorrowful tale of Betty Corrigall has much to teach the church, if only it has ears to listen.

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One thought on “A Sorrowful Tale and a Lesson for Today’s Church

  1. Pingback: Hoy! | Flying the Camel

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