Design Through Time

Howff Gravestone Translator

Meeting in the Howff; Libraries, Leisure and Culture Dundee

Nestled deep within Dundee City Centre, the Howff is the final resting place of many Dundonians between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. There is little room to breathe (pardon the pun) in the Howff, as there are over 80,000 documented burials and around 1750 stone monuments clustered in this confined space.

You may find it peculiar that not every person residing in the Howff has a gravestone. Immortalising the memory of a loved one with a monument was a sign of social status and wealth. The fancier the decoration, the more disposable income you had!

Detailed Howff Tombstone, Eirinn Leigh Reay

So, we can tell if a family was well-to-do by their dead’s detailed gravestone. What else can we learn from Dundee’s gravestone engravings? 

‘Howff’ is the Old Scots word for meeting place. The Nine Incorporated Trades of Dundee had regular meetings that commenced within the burial grounds from 1576. You can identify who worked for what trade within the burgh by the trade’s emblems engraved on the deceased’s monument.

Nine Trades Coat of Arms; Libraries, Leisure & Culture Dundee

The emblems typically depicted tools of the trade, but the Weaver, Tailor and Bonnetmaker’s trade emblems are more cryptic. The Guildry (Merchants), Fraternity of Masters and Seamen (Mariners), The Maltmen Incorporation (Brewers), and the Three United Trades (Slaters, Masons and Wrights) also follow suit with their own symbols that represented their occupation. In 1846, the legal abolition of the trading privileges meant that trade emblems lost their currency and petered out as decorative elements to Dundee’s stone monuments. 

Trade emblems usually appear at the top of a stone, while mortality emblems sit at the bottom. Symbols, such as skulls and hourglasses, are mortality emblems customary to the deceased’s stones. Latin phrases such as Memento Mori (Remember you will die) and Fugit Hora (Time flies) are paired with the symbols. They are there to wish well upon the dead in the afterlife and remind the living that we do not live forever. 

The stone monuments featured in the Howff and other burial sites throughout Dundee have been designed to communicate the livelihood, achievements, personalities, and memories of lost loved ones through symbolism. Take a trip to your local graveyard and analyse the gravestones with your newfound emblem knowledge. Your next family day out is already planned!

Words and research by Eirinn Leigh Reay