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Edinburgh Castle viewed from the Grassmarket.

Edinburgh. The elegant New Town, the Athens of the North, home to writers, philosophers and surgeons – the cradle of the Scottish Enlightenment.  But entwined with this respectable façade there is also the Old Town, with its narrow wynds and closes, rife with tales of squalor, plague and sudden death.  And looming in the distance, the ancient extinct volcano called Arthur’s seat.

A Strange Discovery

Salisbury Crags and Arthurs Seat.

Late June, 1836, a group of lads out rabbiting made their way up the North East flank of Arthur’s Seat. Poking about in the undergrowth they came upon a small cave or recess, blocked by three slate slabs.  Intrigued, they removed the slates and found within, 17 miniature coffins laid out in three rows – two rows of eight and a top row, apparently just begun, comprising one coffin.  Boys being boys, as opposed to trained archaeologists, they then began to pelt each other with the mysterious little coffins.  Despite this rough treatment, enough of the coffins made it down from their resting place and into safer hands.

The Arthur’s Seat Coffins

The find was described by The Scotsman newspaper, at the time:

” [Each coffin] contained a miniature figure of the human form cut out in wood, the faces in particular being pretty well executed. They were dressed from head to foot in cotton clothes, and decently laid out with a mimic representation of all the funereal trappings which usually form the last habiliments of the dead. The coffins are about three or four inches in length, regularly shaped, and cut out from a single piece of wood, with the exception of the lids, which are nailed down with wire sprigs or common brass pins. The lid and sides of each are profusely studded with ornaments, formed with small pieces of tin, and inserted in the wood with great care and regularity.”

The discovery of the Arthur’s Seat coffins gripped the public imagination as both local and national newspapers began to speculate as to who put them there? How long had they been there? What was their purpose?

Media speculation and public fascination

16th Century woodcut of witches. Public Domain[?]

At some point shortly after discovery the boys had relinquished their treasure and the coffins eventually went on display in a private museum, run by Robert Frazier an Edinburgh Jeweller.  Although sealed when originally found, they were soon opened and it was  discovered that each neatly made coffin, contained a carved wooden figure, individually dressed – care had clearly gone into the construction of the strange artefacts.  It was noted that some of the coffins in the lower rows appeared more decayed, some of the grave-clothes were completely missing, and this seemed to infer that they had been laid down over a considerable period of time.  Theories were quickly developed as to the possible meaning of the ‘fairy ‘coffins.

The First newspaper report was in The Scotsman, 16 July 1836, which while managing to maintain an air of rationalistic superiority at the very idea of such superstitious nonsense as witchcraft or demons, at the same time seemed to revel in giving the paying public exactly the sensationalism that they wanted:

“Our own opinion would be – had we not some years ago abjured witchcraft and demonology – that there are still some of the weird sisters hovering about the Mushat’s Cairn or the Windy Gowl, who retain their ancient power to work spells of death by entombing the likenesses of those they wish to destroy.”

Sensing a good story, other newspapers followed suit offering their own, slightly more restrained, theories:

The Edinburgh Evening Post suggested the coffins could be an example of a tradition, found in Saxony, of symbolically burying those who died overseas.  While the Caledonian Mercury suggested the origin was a tradition for family members to provide a ‘Christian Burial’ to sailors lost at sea.  [1]  This theory was supported, in the 1970’s, by Walter Havernick of the Museum of Hamburg who also proposed that the Arthur’s Seat Coffins represented a stockpile of such charms, stored there by a merchant for later retrieval.[2]  However, this would seem to me to be rather an extreme measure to take in storing merchandise that did not appear to have any real monetary value, in addition to which, the place of concealment was not even weatherproof resulting in damage to some of the coffins.

Some coffins show signs of deterioration – a sign of age or just weathering?

The National Museum of Scotland boasts many examples of charms against witchcraft that have been found in Scotland, charms were in use as late as the nineteenth century.  Nevertheless the theories that the coffins were connected either with witchcraft or honorific burials for those who died abroad or were lost at sea, are hard to evidence in Scotland’s known folk traditions. [3]

Charms on display at the National Museum of Scotland.

Until recently though, two things did seem to be agreed upon: the coffins appeared to have been placed there over a period of time (differences in deterioration of individual coffins seemed to support this theory) and their most likely purpose was some sort of honorific burial.  These conclusions were supported by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (later the National Museum of Scotland), who were gifted the remaining eight coffins in 1901.

The West Port Murders and the Day of Last Judgement

One of the most compelling recent theories is that proposed by Professor Samuel Menefee and Dr Allen Simpson.  They studied the coffins in the 1990’s and although their published findings are hard to locate online, their work is quoted from extensively by Mike Dash in his detailed article on the Coffins, available on the Charles Fort Institute website (CFI).[4]

Details of the Arthur’s Seat coffins – tiny corpses both dressed and undressed.

Menefee and Simpson were able to identify that one or at most two individuals made the coffins (based on stylistic differences in coffin shape) and the tools used suggested the maker was a shoemaker, rather than a carpenter, as a sharp knife and not chisel was used to hollow out the coffins.  The tin decorations were of the type used in shoemaking or leather-making further strengthening this theory. Their findings also indicate that the figures themselves were probably originally toy soldiers dating from the late eighteenth century.  Perhaps the most important revelation from their study relates to the thread used in the clothing.  Three ply cotton thread was used to sew the grave-clothes for one of the figures, this thread was not in use in Scotland before 1830.  Other figures using one or two ply thread may have been earlier, but as Mike Dash suggests the date range could be as short at 1800-1830 – so it would seem that the infamous Scottish weather was to blame for the deterioration of some of the coffins, rather than the passage of time.

In fact Menefee and Simpson’s theory supposes a date after 1830 and they draw attention to the number of coffins in place as being a significant indicator that the placement of the coffins was event-driven, rather than part of a long-standing folk tradition. Dash provides the following quote from their work:

“It is arguable, that the problem with the various theories is their concentration on motivation, rather than on the even or events that caused the interments.  The former will always be open to argument, but if the burials were event-driven [..] the speculation would at least be built on demonstrable fact.  Stated another way, what we seek is an Edinburgh-related event or events, involving seventeen deaths, which occurred close to 1830 and certainly before 1836.  One obvious answer springs to mind – the West Port Murders by William Burke and William Hare in 1827 and 1828.” [5]

Burke and Hare. Image Source National Museum of Scotland.

Burke and Hare made a living out of death, selling bodies to the anatomist Dr Robert Knox a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.  They began their careers as opportunists following the death of Hare’s lodger, Old Donald.  Old Donald died owing a substantial amount of rent, so Hare and his friend Burke decided to sell his body to the local anatomists to recoup the loss.  So profitable was this enterprise that their initial opportunism soon blossomed into a full-scale murder spree, tallying sixteen victims before they were caught.  While Hare escaped the hangman’s noose by turning kings evidence, Burke was hanged for his crimes on 28 January 1829 and his body sent for public dissection.

Mort safe in Grey Friars Kirkyard.

What made both the work of the anatomist surgeons and the murders carried out by Burke and Hare so dreadful to people at the time, was they were in effect denying the deceased the chance of salvation at the Last Judgment.  Christians at the time held a strong belief that the dead would literally rise up on the final day of judgement.  So, if a loved one’s body was dissected and destroyed it was on the one hand a horror in the physical sense, but on the other hand, a deeper metaphysical horror at the spiritual consequences of the destruction of the body.  People went to great lengths to protect their departed relatives from this fate, as the mort-safes in Grey Friars Kirkyard attest.

Menefee and Simpson’s study suggests that the event that triggered the interment of the seventeen coffins on Arthur’s Seat was the West Port murders of Burke and Hare.  They propose that the coffins were a symbolic burial for those whose bodies were destroyed because of the actions of Burke and Hare.  A way that the dead could still stand for their last judgment. So although their scientific analysis of the material used to make the coffins explodes one theory (of their antiquity) they do support the long-held view that they represent honorific burial.[6]

Conclusion

So, were the coffins evidence of satanic rituals, witchcraft, protection for sailors on the high seas, or mock burials for those who died abroad?  Or a reminder of the grisly crimes of Burke and Hare?

It would seem that one of the earliest theories, that the coffins represented honorific burials, might not have been too far off the mark, even if the motivation for them was event driven rather than an ancient tradition.

If the crimes of Burke and Hare are the inspiration behind the Arthur’s Seat Coffins, some questions still remain: who made the coffins – a relative of one of the victims or someone who knew Burke and Hare and wished to make amends?  If they are related to the West Port Murders, then, as Min Bannister of the Edinburgh Fortean Society points out, why are they all male figures when the victims included twelve women?  Could this simply be because the offering was a token gesture and not meant to represent the actual individuals?  Is it also possible that the single coffin at the top represents the first ‘victim’ old Donald, whose death by natural causes gave Burke and Hare the idea for their terrible crimes?  Chances are we will never know for sure, but perhaps that is part of their enduring fascination…

The Arthur’s Seat Coffins are on display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Sources and notes

Images – unless otherwise credited all images by Lenora.

http://www.nms.ac.uk/explore/stories/scottish-history-and-archaeology/mystery-of-the-miniature-coffins/ [1] [2] [3]

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/edinburghs-mysterious-miniature-coffins-22371426/

http://blogs.forteana.org/node/97  The Miniature coffins found on Arthur’s Seat by Mike Dash [4] [5] [6]

 

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