Skin & Stone: Tattoos & Tombstones with Dig It! 2015

This post originally appeared on Scotland’s Urban Past on 30th October and was written by Sami Binnie.

The weather was actually quite lovely when Katie R, Alice and I met up with Julianne and Jeff from Dig It! 2015 in the charming Café 1505 beside the grand Playfair building at Surgeons’ Hall Museums . Here, we discussed briefly what the plan was for the following evening over a few coffees and were introduced to David, the Marketing and Visitor Services Officer, and Elinor, our story teller.

 © Scotland's Urban Past

The plan for the evening was to weave a story of tattoos and tombstones as we took in some of the exhibitions in Surgeons’ Hall before making our way to Greyfriars Kirkyard.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, Surgeons’ Hall is the headquarters of the Royal College of Surgeons and houses Surgeons’ Hall Museums – home to one of the most fascinating and important collections of medical specimens and instruments in the country.

With the event completely sold-out, a group of twenty of us were led up to the second floor of the Wohl Pathology Museums, which houses the collections of Sir Charles Bell and John Barclay. The museum actually holds a total of eleven specimens of preserved tattoos though they only have five of them out on display just now and we were treated to a look at them once we got inside.

Tattooed Skin Late 19th Century  © Surgeons' Hall Museums
Tattooed Skin Late 19th Century © Surgeons’ Hall Museums

On the second floor, there is a small section of skin with two large ‘D’s tattooed on it – symbolising the bearer was a deserter – and a much larger chest piece emblazoned with a clipper ship, two swallows and two snakes. The snakes, in particular, were especially phenomenal because you could still see hints of the blue or green ink if you looked closely enough.

Tattooed Skin Late 19th Century  © Surgeons' Hall Museums
Tattooed Skin Late 19th Century © Surgeons’ Hall Museums

It was in this hall, with the velvet-lined cases and tables displaying silver plated and bowls, that Elinor Predota introduced us to the character of Jack – an Edinburgh born lad who craved adventure and set off from his home and his family to join the Royal Navy in the early nineteenth Century.

We followed Jack’s exploits as he began to collect tattoos – two swallows for every 5,000 nautical miles he sailed, done on his ship with whatever instruments could be found. As Jack’s story continues, he travels the world and eventually finds himself caught in a typhoon in a Japanese port and is thrown overboard when a cannonball crashes into the ship near to him.

Lucky enough to be rescued by a Japanese farmer and his daughter, an amnesiac Jack is nursed back to health and builds a quiet life for himself with the pair until a journey to the nearest city brings him face to face with one of the officers from the ship he can no longer remember serving on. Tackled to the ground and dragged back to port in the bowels of a ship, he slowly regains his memories and knows a tattooist will be waiting to tattoo a large ‘D’ on the back of his hand for his apparent desertion.

We left Jack’s story there and followed David up a narrow set of stairs to the next floor of the museum where we had a chance to see the final three preserved tattoos – another deserter’s ‘D’, a French Soldier and a crudely drawn Union Jack that really hammered home just how far we’ve come in terms of tattoo quality and skill!

Tattooed Skin Late 19th Century  © Surgeons' Hall Museums
Tattooed Skin Late 19th Century © Surgeons’ Hall Museums

From the museum, we took a brisk, five minute walk along Chambers Street and down to the infamous and atmospheric Greyfriars Kirkyard were regrouped outside the gates before following Elinor inside to continue Jack’s story by the ornate tomb of Elizabeth Paton.

 © Scotland's Urban Past
© Scotland’s Urban Past

Gathered around the tombs and standing next to the headstone of one of my favourite figures in Edinburgh’s long and, occasionally, gruesome history (John Porteous, a story I have always thoroughly enjoyed telling) we heard how Jack, now returned home to Edinburgh, took to digging graves in Greyfriars to help support his widowed mother.

It is no secret that grave digging was a nasty business, especially in the later end of the nineteenth century when overcrowding was rife in Edinburgh and disease spread like wildfire. One of the biggest killers at the time was cholera. Of course, the wealthy in town could afford beautiful tombs and sturdy wooden coffins but the poor weren’t so luck and were usually buried in nothing but a sheet.

The real problem with a disease like cholera is, well, it oozes a bit and it wasn’t uncommon for gravediggers to get bodily fluids on their hands and clothes when they were burying the dead. This wasn’t too much of a concern so long as they washed their hands thoroughly and kept themselves as clean as they could but, unfortunately for our hero Jack, he forgot to wash his hands one day after work and contracted the disease himself and died, only for his mother to place a curse on the captain of the ship he once served on and on the tattooist who applied his deserters mark in revenge for the sorry position her son ended up in.

Though the fate of the captain was left to our imaginations, Elinor told us of the bitter ending that faced the tattooist – the tattooing of Deserters was outlawed in 1871 and he was fired, sinking into a gin-soaked depression before finally finding some hope by using the last of his money to buy ink. He went straight to the ports where he plied his trade to the sailors coming into port looking to spend their newly earned wages.

His happiness was short lived, however, as by mixing the inks with his spit, he went on to infect most of his clients with the syphilis he contracted from a prostitute. He died an insane syphilitic pauper and served as proof that you just never know who you choose to cross in your life.

To round off a wonderful evening, we swung by the pub for a quick drink to chat about how the evening went and to get a little warmth back into our bones.

© Scotland's Urban Past

It was an excellent night and a huge thank you needs to go out to Dig it! 2015 for letting us take part in this event and to Surgeons’ Hall Museums for making the first half of it possible!

For me, this was the first event I have been able to take part in with the Youth Forum and it has left me incredibly excited for what lies ahead!


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