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At the edge of the Nevis Forest in the Scottish Highlands, up on a hillock barely visible from my hike on the West Highland Way, I saw the rusting spikes of a very old iron fence.

A cemetery. Had to be.

I climbed up the hill and walked through the small gate into the untended cemetery of the Family Cameron. That much was clear—nearly every headstone I could see had “Cameron” at least once, sometimes half a dozen times. They were obligingly weathered but still legible, most of them, though others had surrendered to lichens or centuries of Highland weather.

I started piecing together the relationships among the stones and their charges:

Ann Cameron

Wife of Alex Cameron

Her husband has placed this stone over her mortal remains to mark his grief for the loss of a most affectionate and dutifull wife and tender mother, AD 1838

They were born and lived two hundred years ago, these two, but they fell in love and married and had kids, just like me. And he lost her. And I could feel his loss, even standing here in the 21st century, because he didn’t have one of those bullshit iambic Romantic denials of death carved into the stone, all radiant wings and blessed hope. None of that.

Instead, she was tender, what a lovely thing to say. And he lost her, and it hurt like hell.


Angus McPhail Cameron, died 1838
Mary Cameron, wife of Angus, died 1860
Donald Cameron, d.1828
Angus Cameron, d.1840
John Cameron, d.1847
Jane Cameron, d.1859

Let’s say Mary was born in 1810—a fair guess, given what other dates we have—which puts Angus’ entry to life around 1808, maybe. If those hold, they were married and their first son Donald was born and died all in 1828. Mary was eighteen and Angus was twenty. Angus died in 1838, probably not much more than 30 years old in any case, leaving 28-year-old Mary with four children. Assuming Angus Jr. was born around 1830, he died at age ten, John died in his mid-teens and Jane in her mid-20s—at which point Mary died the next year, alone, at fifty.

This isn’t just an exercise in the macabre. We have taken a few dates, made reasonable assumptions, and gained a powerful insight into the difficult life of one Highland family that lived and died nine generations ago, just by standing in the Cameron cemetery doing math. Life was clearly hard. And I doubt that losing children was easier for them just because it was more common.

There were plenty of Camerons (and McColls, and Carmichaels, and Macmillans, and people of other good Scottish names who got themselves joined with and buried among the Camerons) who lived to a ripe old age before finding their ways here—though we’ll have to call 67 ripe to accommodate the oldest I found in this particular place. But tragedies were common—the rule, not the exception.

Eliza Evans, died in 1830 at the age of 22
This stone erected by her husband in 1841

Perhaps it took him 11 years to afford the stone, and he still loved and missed her enough to return and have it placed there.

Donald Macmillan
Headstone erected by his loving parents

But no marker burned its heartless math into me like the headstone of the McColls.

In loving memory of John McColl, born 1892, died 1909
In loving memory of Hugh McColl, born 1894, died 1919
In loving memory of Donald McColl, born 1895, died 1899
In loving memory of Dugald McColl, born 1897, died 1908
In loving memory of Annie McColl, born 1898, died 1908
In loving memory of Jessie McColl, born 1902, died 1909
In loving memory of Donald McColl, born 1907, died 1909
In loving memory of Agnes McColl, born 1911, died 1911
In loving memory of Donald McColl, died 1937
In loving memory of Jessie Carmichael, died 1934

Also Duncan, died February 1972

Start with the same assumptions: that Jesse was about 18 and Donald 20 at the time of their marriage, and that their first child, John, was born a year later. Jesse’s birth year would then backdate to 1873 and Donald’s to 1871. They married in 1891, then, and John was born the next year, in ’92. Within seven years of marriage, they had five children.

But the next year, four-year-old Donald Jr. died. Over the next nine years they had three more kids—Jessie, Duncan, and another Donald—a total of seven surviving children.

Then came the winter of 1908-09, which took five of their children—ages 2, 7, 10, 11, and 17— maybe of the same illness. Of their eight children, only Duncan and Hugh remained.

A little girl named Agnes was born to the grieving family in 1911 but died soon thereafter. And eight years later, in 1919—perhaps in the influenza epidemic of that year—Hugh was dead at 25.

Donald and Jessie died in their mid-60s in the 1930s. I hope they never had so much as a head cold in their later years. I hope they never heard an unkind word and died peacefully in their sleep on the same night, the lovely and ancient dream.

Duncan lived to be 67, dying at last in 1972. With no family remaining to hold him in “loving memory,” he earned the most cursory afterthought epitaph I’ve ever seen: Also Duncan.

There is a lot of lived tragedy there. But here’s the thing: One way or another, all of them with few exceptions, no matter how they died—the children, the soldiers and sailors, the dutifull wives, tender mothers and beloved sons—would have felt that bath of endorphins at the end, that blissful peace. Their brains would have made sure of it, just before the end of their existence obliterated all pain and worry.

That obliteration consoles me more than any imagined paradise, more than any forking, uncertain path to salvation. No matter what they endured in life, they are all untroubled now.

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Dale McGowan is chief content officer of OnlySky, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies, and founder of Foundation Beyond Belief (now GO Humanity). He holds a...