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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

A Regrettable Mistake

Former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook lies buried beneath a stone that repeats one last time his opposition to Tony Blair: "I may not have succeeded in halting the war, but I did succeed in securing the right of parliament to decide on war." James LeFanu thinks that this is the latest example of a "peculiarly Scottish tradition" of using epitaphs to make bold statements. He offers as proof the epitaph of Donald Robertson of the Shetland Isles, who died in 1848.

"His death was much regretted, which was caused by the stupidity of Laurence Tulloch," it reads, "who sold him nitre instead of Epsom salts, by which he was killed in the space of five hours."

The mistake, regrettably, is easily made, both compounds being white powders. But whereas Epsom salts (magnesium sulphate) is a most effective laxative and would no doubt have relieved Mr Robertson's constipation, nitre (or saltpetre), when ingested, displaces oxygen from the blood, rendering the sufferer blue, as if being suffocated, and progressively short of breath. [Link]
[Update: This passage actually comes from a parish register in Esherness, Shetland.]

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