On abandoning sacred places

Kohekohe Presbyterian Church, Awhitu Peninsula, Auckland. Deconsecrated in 1976. Photo: Su Leslie, 2013

Kohekohe Presbyterian Church, Awhitu Peninsula, Auckland, New Zealand. Deconsecrated in 1976. Photo: Su Leslie, 2013

There are many littled churches like Kohekohe dotted around New Zealand. Our devout nineteenth century settler ancestors built churches as a matter of course wherever townships sprang up.

Population shifts and a decline in church attendance has led to the abandonment of many of these small, rural places of worship.

The old church at Kirkmichael, Perthshire, Scotland. Photo: Su Leslie 2013

The old Free Kirk, or Duff Memorial Church at Kirkmichael, Perthshire, Scotland. Photo: Su Leslie 2013

Like the Kohekohe church, the now-abandoned Free Kirk in Kirkmichael was built in the 19th century. It came into existence because of a schism in the Church of Scotland whereby the evangelical wing of the church broke free from the established Church. In Kirkmichael, the Free Kirk stands south of the River Ardle, along a narrow farm track, while the established Church is on the north side, on a site that has been used for worship for around 1000 years. The Free Kirk ceased to be a place of worship in the 1950s.

It may seem odd to think of graves as abandoned, yet when I walk in old cemeteries, I feel the same sense of abandonment I experienced with these churches.

A church is left empty when those for whom it is a special place no longer visit, but of course, graves continue to hold the remains of the deceased. Their abandonment comes not as emptiness, but as neglect. When those for whom a grave is a special place no longer visit, moss and weeds grow, stones crumble and vandals do their worst.

Headstone of Arthur John Percival. Helensville Cemetery, Auckland, New Zealand. Photo: Su Leslie, 2014

Headstone of Arthur John Percival. Helensville Cemetery, Auckland, New Zealand. Photo: Su Leslie, 2014

I saw this headstone while walking in Helensville Cemetery. I have no connection with the young man buried there; I photographed it purely out of curiosity. Arthur Percival’s headstone was erected by his Masonic brethren.  I assumed this to be because he either had no family, or they could not afford it. A quick bit of research tells me that Arthur was born in Nelson, New Zealand, had married Elizabeth Poynter in 1885 and left his widow with three young children. I know his parents were still alive at the time of his death, and I also know from a newspaper report of a trial at which Arthur Percival was called as a witness that he had been the Postmaster in Helensville.

The people who mourned the death of a young father in a small rural community are themselves long dead and his grave is abandoned.

Fallen headstone. Thomas and Mary Elizabeth Batts, Symonds Street Cemetery, Auckland, New Zealand. Photo: Su Leslie 2013

Fallen headstone. Thomas and Mary Elizabeth Batts, Symonds Street Cemetery, Auckland, New Zealand. Photo: Su Leslie 2013

Like Arthur Percival, both Thomas and Mary Elizabeth Batts died over a century ago, and their headstone is not only abandoned, but toppled and apparently incomplete. According to a 1950s memorial inscription record, the headstone also contained an inscription for the couple’s son Thomas, who died – age 23 – in 1881.

I found records for the birth of four other children to Thomas and Mary Elizabeth Batts, as well as newspaper announcements for the marriages of their daughters. It is likely then, that there are descendents of the Batts – perhaps still living in Auckland. But like many of us, they may not even know the names of these ancestors – let alone where they are buried. We do not deliberately abandon our dead – but without stories and artifacts to keep their memories alive, there is often little incentive to do otherwise.

This post was written in response to the Daily Post Weekly Photo Challenge. Here are some other blogger’s responses to the theme “abandoned” that I have enjoyed:


Weekly Photo Challenge: Abandoned












Weekly Photo Challenge: Abandoned

Weekly Photo Challenge: Abandoned



Weekly Photo Challenge: Abandoned





Weekly Photo Challenge: Abandoned


Travel theme: reading the stones

Three weeks of glorious autumn in the UK and my photo album is bursting with shots that would fulfill Ailsa’s Travel Theme brief this week.

Most of my time was spent in Scotland and the Northeast of England; much of it doing family history research.

That meant lots of wandering around cemeteries and churchyards in search of ancestors’ headstones. I found a few – including a couple in tiny, isolated places – and felt a sense of connectedness to my past that I really didn’t expect.

I also noticed that Scottish headstones (or perhaps just the Lowland Presbyterian headstones from the eras I was interested in) are quite different to those I’m used to seeing in New Zealand cemeteries. Perhaps because there are more “flavours” of Christianity in NZ, and our earliest headstones date from Victorian times, they are often much more elaborate and include angels, cherubs, and crosses. Those I saw in Fife, Perthshire and Edinburgh were Church of Scotland (or Free Church) and even those from the 19th century were often very plain, and usually carved of sandstone. Many have no epitaph, and in fact, very little information about those interred beneath. The most elaborate, and the largest, were in Canongate Kirkyard in Edinburgh, but from reading them, I think that is because they belonged to wealthier, more prominent citizens than those buried in the smaller, often rural churchyards.

I found myself photographing them, singly and in clusters. Not because they belonged to my past, but because I found a stark beauty in the jumbles of crooked, fallen and weathered stones in Auchtermuchty, Kinglassie, Dysart, Kirkmichael, Abbotshall and Canongate on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.

Headstone, Auchtermuchty churchyard. Su Leslie 2013

Headstone, Auchtermuchty churchyard. © Su Leslie 2013

The churchyard, Auchtermuchty. © Su Leslie 2013

The churchyard, Auchtermuchty. © Su Leslie 2013

Kinglassie cemetery. © Su Leslie 2013

Kinglassie cemetery. © Su Leslie 2013

Canongate Kirkyard, Edinburgh. © Su Leslie 2013

Canongate Kirkyard, Edinburgh. © Su Leslie 2013

Headstone, Canongate Kirkyard. © Su Leslie 2013

Headstone, Canongate Kirkyard. © Su Leslie 2013

Phoneography Challenge: fade to black (and white)

Four weeks ago I was in Scotland; in the Perthshire village of Kirkmichael to be precise.

I was there because I knew that a distant branch of my family had lived in the village for most of the nineteenth century (and most likely well back beyond that), and I wanted to see if I could find any trace of them.

It took a couple of attempts to find the local cemetery – signposts for the church took me to one long abandoned and apparently without a churchyard.

Abandoned church, Kirkmichael, Perthshire, Scotland.

Abandoned church, Kirkmichael, Perthshire, Scotland.

Abandoned church, Kirkmichael, Perthshire, Scotland.

Abandoned church, Kirkmichael, Perthshire, Scotland.

Eventually, back in the village I found what I was looking for. It’s not a large cemetery; but an old one full of the plain headstones apparently favoured by Scots Presbyterians. I spend quite a lot of time in cemeteries these days, and have noticed definite “fashions” (or at least trends) in headstones. Not only are the Scots’ headstones usually quite simple shapes and largely unadorned with carving; they also seemed to me to contain very straightforward epitaphs. Whilst in Scotland, I didn’t see any of the “fell asleep in the arms of Jesus”-type inscriptions that are quite common in New Zealand.

kirkmichael headstone not family

One of the few ornate headstones in Kirkmichael cemetery; a beautifully carved Celtic cross.

But back to Kirkmichael. It was a very wet, grey day and I wasn’t wearing particularly robust shoes, so I was briefly tempted not to explore the cemetery with it’s slightly abandoned, overgrown feel. Thankfully, the feeling was very short-lived, for at the very bottom of the graveyard, close to the boundary wall and alongside the River Ardle, I found the headstone of my 3x great grandparents James Wallace and Anne Cunnison. Born in 1801 and 1807 respectively, James and Anne represent the oldest of my ancestors I have found an actual physical connection to, and it was a very special moment for me to stand in that little churchyard and know that I was touching something so connected to me.

The churchyard of Kirkmichael, Perthshire. In the foreground, the headstone of my great, great, great grandparents James Wallace and Anne Cunnison. The Wallace family lived in Kirkmichael throughout the nineteenth century.

river kirkmichael

The river Ardle as it flows through Kirkmichael, Perthshire, Scotland.

As far as I know James and Anne lived their entire lives in Kirkmichael. This stands in complete contrast to their grand-daughter, Isabella Wallace who was born in St Madoes – also in Perthshire, but moved to Dundee as a child when her father died. She married my great grandfather Stewart Cruden in Dundee, then lived in several Fife villages before ending up in Dysart for a time before emigrating to the United States. Stewart and Isabella lived for 10 years in New Jersey before returning to Dysart in the early 1930s.

I had hoped that there would still be family members in the village, but it was a bleak day and even the pub was closed. I did try the cafe/general store/petrol station, but found it owned by a family from Coleshill, near Birmingham. They were fairly recent “incomers” and weren’t much help on the family history front. They did however serve a decent cup of coffee and quite nice lemon drizzle cake. And we had a pleasant chat about Coleshill; a village I know well from having worked there in the early nineties.

Ironic really to travel half way around the world in search of ancestors only to find a piece of my own past in the most unexpected place.

All photos taken on iPhone 4 and edited with Aviary Ultimate Photo Editor.

The theme of this week’s Phonography Challenge from Sally and Lens and Pens by Sally is black and white.

Here are some more posts you might enjoy:

A Phoneographic Philm Noir

Phoneography Challenge: Black and White