The 250 year old mystery of the Cambusnethan bog body which remains unsolved to this day
The mystery identity of the body in the bog at Cambusnethan in Wishaw has been disputed between locals, academics, and the press for over 100 years.
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On a Wednesday afternoon like any other, on 23 March 1932, a Gerard Rolink was digging peat at Greenhead Moss near Cambusnethan, Wishaw, where he made a shocking discovery that would lead to nearly 100 years of contention and debate.
Gerard’s spade had struck wood - an unusual discovery for any peat digger (one wouldn’t expect to be digging anything other than turf) - but it was what was underneath the wood that shook the Scottish archaeological community.
He exposed the body of a fully clothed man. In shock Gerard reported the incident to Newmains police station, who after examination, found that it was a historical death, and not recent.
Gerard had discovered a bog body - a human cadaver that has been naturally mummified in a peat bog.
Such bodies can be found in boglands across the world, notably in Scotland and Ireland, having been dated to between 8000 BCE and the Second World War.
All bog bodies are preserved in peat, to varying degrees, from perfectly preserved to mere skeletons. The Cambusnethan bog body lay somewhere in the middle, with some of its hair and flesh preserved. Of note was the body’s jacket, which was perfectly preserved.
What separates the Cambusnethan bog body from your other run-of-the-mill bog bodies is the legend and mystery behind it.
Rumour quickly spread across Wishaw. Just two days after the find on Friday 25 May 1932 The Motherwell Times ran the headline ‘Covenanter buried in the Bog’.
The same day The Herald ran an article that claimed the body was ‘presumed to be the remains of a trooper of the Covenanting days.’ Cambusnethan Parish being rich in its intimate associations with the ‘killing times’.’
This would place the body at a range in the late 17th century, with the time period of the 1680s often posited as the stranger in the bog’s date of death.
Now this Covenanter assumption isn’t too much of a leap to make. It was found in an unconsecrated piece of land near Cambusnethan priory, which was active following on from the protestant reformation in Scotland in the sixteenth century.
Covenanters were upholders of the national ‘covenant’, signed in 1638, which set forth the refusal to conform to the crown’s (then Charles I’s) favoured Presbyterianism.
The persecution of non-conforming Britons that followed was commonly known as the ‘Killing Times’.
As to be expected, this was met with a lot of resistance over the coming decades, and rebel groups hid out at the Cambusnethan priory while fighting at Bothwell.
The Royal Regiment of North British Dragoons were formed in 1678 to suppress the Covenanters. They became known as the ‘Scots Greys’, possibly due to the cloth jacket they wore which was sometimes known as Galashiels Grey.
Soon an eminent archaeologist known as Ludovic Mcllelan Mann attended the scene, keen to unravel the mystery of the body in the bog that had captivated the Scottish people and press.
After the initial speculative reports of the body as a covenanter, Mann released an alternate report in The Scotsman, titled ‘Newmains Find’, theorising that the body was probably not a Covenanter, but in more likelihood a member of the opposing force, a Royal ‘Scots Grey’ Dragoon.
Mann invited three separate experts to examine the remains and rest of the preserved clothing.
Professor John Graham examined the remains and found that the man was around 50 years old when he died.
William Martin of Albion Leather works in Glasgow remade shoes in the style of the preserved leather, of which there was a large gash in the front. Martin didn’t put forward a date, but noted the shoes were ‘long out of fashion’.
Robert G. Eskdale of Bradford was commissioned to examine the cloth and dyes involved. He opened his expert commentary by concluding the textiles were from 1680 to 1690.
He went further and suggested the coat, which was perfectly preserved, was a Galashiels Grey - which supported the Royalist soldier hypothesis.
Five years later Mann came to his final conclusion - he wasn’t sure.
He wrote in an article published in 1937:’It cannot be stated definitely whether this killing episode was connected with the fighting induced by the religious disturbances prevalent in the district in the later part of the 17th century’.
Modern discourse sits between two schools of thought on the body in the bog, which are illustrated on a memorial to the mystery man in Greenhead Moss Nature Reserve, the first being: the body is a Royalist soldier or Bounty Hunter employed to hunt down covenanters.
The second theory states that it was the body of a covenanter who had been carried by at least four friends to a shallow grave on Greenhead Moss after a fight between covenanters and their attackers.
One Wishaw historian and Research Associate at the University of Glasgow, Stephen Mullen, has opposing ideas to the traditional myths, writing a journal article in 2020 titled ‘Ludovic McLellan Mann and the Cambusnethan bog body’ debunking the myths surrounding the bog body.
In his article Stephen explains that in less than forty years after Mann’s inspection of the body, the dating of the ‘covenanter’ was challenged by costume experts.
In 1975, Helen Bennett, then in charge of costumes and textiles at the National Museum of Antiquities, noted that the body’s clothing had been dated to the late seventeenth century - which she found to be inaccurate.
For Bennett, a ‘date closer to 1800 would be more appropriate’ - in this case, the man could not be a Covenanter or a Royalist.
Glasgow Museums have broadly endorsed this dating and maintain the jacket was typical of the late eighteenth century.
In 2010, Helen Hughes, Textile Conservator at Glasgow Museums, detailed aspects of the jacket’s conservation and underlined the uniqueness: the usual garments that survive from this period are expensive items worn by elites.
Doctor Stephen Mullen told GlasgowWorld:“New scholarship debunked the long-held view the body was from the late-Covenanting era 1680s-1690s and it is now accepted that the man lived a century later.
“I doubt we shall ever find out who he was but scientific testing, notably radiocarbon dating and DNA analysis, would yield new insights.
“It would also confirm a rough date of death and provide definitive clarity on the covenanting narrative.”
Community groups in Wishaw have been trying for decades to get a piece of the bog body for internment in a cairn in Greenhead Moss Community Nature Park - so he can be given a proper burial in the bog - and not the shallow grave he lay in for hundreds of years.
The re-interment initiative was supported by then-MP Frank Roy and Jack McConnell, then-MSP and future First Minister of Scotland, who penned a joint-letter of support for the community councils request for repatriation.
Despite this, the cadaver is currently held by Glasgow Museums at Nitshill Resource Centre, a spokesperson for the museum service said: “The remains were transferred to Glasgow Museums in 1955 as part of a larger bequest of archaeological material from Ludovic Mann.
“Extensive research, including research by respected independent scholar Dr Stephen Mullen, concluded the body dates to the late 18th/early 19th century, much later than the period of the Covenanters.
“There have been formal and informal repatriation claims. The formal claim was turned down because it did not meet the necessary criteria established by the Glasgow City Council cross-party Working Group on Repatriation.
“The remains are professionally and carefully cared for at Glasgow Museum Resource Centre.”