Betty Corrigall

By Bernie Bell

“It’s the same, the whole world over, it’s the poor, what gets the blame.” – from ’She was poor, but she was honest’ by Billy Bennett

Betty Corrigall grave by Colin ParkFor those thinking of visiting Hoy……….spare a thought for Betty Corrigall.  Betty’s story is  not an unfamiliar one, in content, but has a particular poignancy  about it, maybe because Betty’s grave is so far away from folk, and in such a bleak and lonesome place.

Betty Corrigal was a young woman who lived in the Parish of North Walls, on Hoy, in the 1770’s.  She fell for the charms of a young man, fell pregnant, and, upon hearing of this, the young man abandoned her and went to sea, never to be seen or heard of again.

Betty then found herself in what, at the time, was seen as a shame-full situation. Pregnant, not married, and with no man to support her.  Plenty of young women have found themselves in this situation – still do – and have found themselves in this situation in small, insular, disapproving communities.  Some have the kind of personality which means that they are prepared to ‘face it out’, staying where they are, raising their child, and defying The Critics. Some, leave, and make a new life for themselves. Betty must have been a more sensitive soul, as she couldn’t take the shame, and poor girl, attempted to drown herself. She was rescued, but, a few days later, managed to hang herself instead.

I can’t help thinking of how alone she must have felt. Did no-one think, after the first suicide attempt, to keep an eye on her? Maybe talk with her?  Maybe they did, but, well, anyone who has experienced deep despair will know, that a person can be surrounded by people meaning to help, and be talked to and talked to, but, if the feeling is there and it won’t move – well – sometimes ‘stepping off the wheel’ can seem like the only way out.  It doesn’t have to be, but it can seem that way.  Maybe kindly folk did talk with her, thought she was managing, and left her alone, long enough for her to carry out her wish, which was to be gone from this life.

After her passing, The Critics continued in their tiny-minded, uncharitable view of Betty, and the Powers That Be, of the time, dictated that she must be buried in unconsecrated ground, on the parish boundary.  In effect, stating that she was nothing  to do with them, and that she belonged no-where.

Betty Corrigall by Chris Downer

So, she was buried in unconsecrated ground, and, as the folk of that time also passed from this life and the big scandal of the day, was forgotten, Betty was forgotten too.  So it goes – we think it all matters so much, but, give it even 50 years, and no-one really remembers, or cares a great deal, about the ‘scandal ‘ which seemed so important at the time.

She was forgotten, until the 1930’s, when some men digging peat found her modest coffin.  Upon opening the coffin, Betty’s body was found , having been preserved by the peat, as many had been preserved before her, some for thousands of years.  Betty was treated with more compassion this time, and, after being re-buried in the same spot, was forgotten again.

The next part of Betty’s tale happened during the Second World War, when soldiers stationed on Hoy were digging to make a road, and found her again.  I’m afraid that this time, she was treated with less respect as a person, and more as a curiosity, as more and more of the soldiers heard about and wanted to see ‘The Lady of Hoy.’ They named her that, but didn’t think to treat her accordingly. The officers intervened, and Betty’s grave was moved, not far, and a concrete slab placed on top of it, to prevent further disturbance.  Her grave still remained un-marked until 1949, when an American Minister, Mr. Kenwood Bryant, placed a cross at the head of, and a small fence around, Betty’s grave.  He also asked a local man to make sure that a headstone was placed there too.  It took nearly 30 years for this to happen! but, finally, in 1976, Betty got a headstone, and a burial service.

Her grave is said to be one of the loneliest imaginable, away off in the middle of the moor.  Though these days, not so lonely, as many visitors hear of Betty’s story, and go there.  Some out of curiosity, but, also, I hope, many more go there with a desire to think about Betty, and her un-born baby, and wish her well, and by doing so, to add a further ‘consecration’ to her burial place, and redress the balance of so much ill-treatment and neglect.

A few years ago, when Mike and I and Ben-The-Dog visited Hoy, we also visited the grave of Betty Corrigall, way out there, in the heather. What struck me was that Betty is no longer there. The baby moved on immediately. Why wouldn’t he – he was a baby, he was ready. Betty paused, then lived a life as someone else, who also ‘died’, and she is now…someone else again. Or, some element of someone else. Who?  I don’t know, but I get the idea that she has moved on, at least twice since her passing, as the scrap of life known as Betty Corrigall.

Betty is still spoken of, people know her story, and, mostly, feel sorry for her. She’s had a piece of music written for/about her by a group of musicians called ‘The Magnetic North’ which they performed in St. Magnus cathedral a few years ago.

Whereas – who even remembers the names of the mean-minded individuals who dictated that she should be buried in un-consecrated ground, at the boundary of the parish, because she had taken her own life? It’s probably possible to research this and find out – but – who’d want to? Whereas, Betty’s story is a story which is told, and she’s remembered as who she was, with kindness.

This must say something about the difference between people who want to be, and think they are, ‘important’ in this life, and the people who simply live – live their lives as human beings, being human.

Betty Corrigall by Ivan Drever

Related storyBernie Bell: Orkney Walks (with Stories)- Hoy & the Dwarfie Stane

Betty Corrigall grave by Colin Park

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8 replies »

  1. Beautifully written & sensitive tribute to a young
    27 year-old woman…. two lives cut far too short
    in an unforgiving community much more hostile than
    any Atlantic storm
    RIP Betty & child!

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