The Green Man
Dr Islay Donaldson’s remarkable little book East Lothian Gravestones takes us away from the run of the mill inscription side of local history and gravestones and into the artistic and cultural background to the markers and monuments themselves. One of the subjects she highlighted was the phenomenon of the Green Man in East Lothian’s kirkyards and kirks.
The Green man is a pan-European theme with roots deep in the Pre-Christian past. Scarce (but by no means unknown) in Scotland, his origins have been traced to the Romans and Greeks of ancient times. With the spread of Christianity the Green Man moved north into Europe, adopted as a symbol of nature, of resurrection, and for the unconquerable life of the spirit (Donaldson). He is everywhere in the great Churches and Cathedrals of Europe and England and, although he was persecuted by the Reformers in Scotland, the masons that made the churches and headstones (perhaps subversively) kept him alive into the 17th and 18th centuries. And it turns out that this tradition was particularly strong in East Lothian!
Representations of the Green Man are known from several kirkyards:
and on St Marys Kirk itself!
There will be more – and we would be delighted to hear of any! They lurk unnoticed on the edges of headstones or amidst carved swathes of foliage, peeping out from scroll-work. Sometimes they are detailed, sometimes just sketched in. They are often hard to find at first. But once one is spotted, they seem soon to be everywhere. They have both happy and sad faces – and some are downright comical – reinforcing the message that life is vigorous and perplexing. As Islay Donaldson notes:
to stonemasons he was an endearing symbol, a folk-memory they were not willing to forget. It is good that he is to be found so insistently and disturbingly … adding another richness to what is so rich already.
The revival of interest in folklore has equally revived interest in the Green Man. He continues to crop up as a popular name for public houses and in festivals and the arts: the web is a prolific source of both original and contemporary images – but what better way to find out about East Lothian’s very own little green men than to explore our kirkyards yourself. You can find them through our map search – there are both used and disused kirkyards and many are recorded in the Historic Environment Record. Happy hunting!