Betty Corrigall lived on the island of Hoy in Orkney in the 18th century. When she was in her late twenties, she was abandoned by her lover after becoming pregnant. She committed suicide. Given the circumstances of her death, a kirkyard burial was not permitted. She was buried in an unmarked grave out on the moor. In the early 1930s, her coffin was discovered by peat diggers. In 1949, a visiting American minister performed a burial service for her. A white marker was placed on her grave in 1976. It reads: “Here Lies Betty Corrigall.”
George Mackay Brown wrote a short story about her, an imaginative rendering of the final months of her life. The story begins with an introductory paragraph:
“In the moorland of the island of Hoy in Orkney, right on the boundary that separates the two parishes of Voes (Walls) and North Hoy, a gravestone and fence have recently been erected by some islanders. Underneath lay, peat-preserved for well over a century, the body of a young woman who had obviously committed suicide. Only her name survives: Betty Corrigall.”
George Mackay Brown, “Betty Corrigall”, in Northern Lights: A Poet’s Sources (edited by Archie Bevan and Brian Murray) (John Murray 1999), page 225.
Brown also wrote a poem about her.
The girl buried in the moor
in the blue scarf of wind
begin to dance
in the yellow coat of sun
ripeness is here
in the gray sheet of water
steep your griefs
lie robed from looms of earth
George Mackay Brown, Ibid, page 231.
It is said that Betty Corrigall’s body, having been interred in peat, was well-preserved when it was discovered. “And while that generation of islanders withered slowly into death, one after another, and after death rotted more urgently until they achieved the cleanness of skeletons, the deep peat moss kept the body of Betty Corrigall uncorrupted; though stained and darkened with the essences that had preserved it.” George Mackay Brown, “Betty Corrigall,” Ibid, page 230. Persephone in Orkney: queen of the underworld and goddess of spring.