Satanic spell, superstitious charm or echo of Edinburgh’s grisly underworld history? We examine the theories put forward to explain the strange tale of these tiny coffins, discovered on Arthur’s Seat almost 200 years ago.
In late June 1836, a group of boys headed out to the north-east slopes of Edinburgh’s Arthur’s Seat to hunt for rabbits. What they found there has remained a baffling mystery ever since.
In a secluded spot on the north-east side of the hill, the boys discovered a small cave in the rock, hidden behind three pointed slabs of slate. Concealed within were 17 miniature coffins.
Eight of these coffins survive to the present day, and are on display in the National Museum of Scotland. Few objects in our collection excite as much intrigue. Who made the intricate carved figures? Who did they represent? Who placed them in their secret sepulchre… and why?
Almost 200 years after their discovery, we attempt to unravel the mystery of the miniature coffins.
Arthur’s Seat. © Saskia Heijltjes.
The tiny coffins were arranged under slates in three tiers: two tiers of eight and one solitary coffin on the top. Each coffin, only 95mm in length, contained a little wooden figure, expertly carved and dressed in custom-made clothes that had been stitched and glued around them.
What were they doing there? The newspapers of the time fell on the story, and each had a different theory.
‘Satanic spell-manufactory!’ cried The Scotsman, the first paper to report the tale, in an article published on 16 July 1836:
“ 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 Mushat’s Cairn [sic] or the Windy Gowl, who retain their ancient power to work the spells of death by entombing the likenesses of those they wish to destroy.
A month later, the Edinburgh Evening Post proposed a more measured solution, claiming the coffins represented:
“ An ancient custom which prevailed in Saxony, of burying in effigy departed friends who had died in a distant land.
The Caledonian Mercury added that:
“ We have also heard of another superstition which exists among some sailors in this country, that they enjoined their wives on parting to give them “Christian burial” in an effigy if they happened [to be lost at sea].
Yet if this is the case, why so many similar coffins? Nobody had any answers.
After this initial flurry of media interest, the coffins passed into the hands of private collectors, reappearing in 1901, when eight were donated to the Museum of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, and from there to National Museums Scotland. What happened to the remaining nine? The Scotsman tells us that ‘a number’ were destroyed by the boys, although we don’t know how many – certainly no more have come to light since.
On surveying the evidence from The Scotsman, Edinburgh Evening Post and Caledonian Mercury, cuttings from which were donated with the coffins, the Society concluded that ‘the intention [of the coffins] seems to be to symbolise honorific burial’.
But the mystery has not been allowed to rest there.
Five years later, in 1906, The Scotsman published another bizarre story about the coffins. A ‘lady residing in Edinburgh’ had told the paper that her father (‘Mr B.’) had sometimes been visited at his business premises by a ‘daft man’. On one occasion, the man had drawn on a piece of paper a picture of three small coffins, with the dates 1837, 1838 and 1840 written underneath.
‘In the autumn of 1837,’ The Scotsman explains, ‘a near relative of Mr B’s died; in the following year a cousin died and in 1840 his own brother died. After the funeral, the daft deaf mute appeared again, walked into Mr B’s office and “glowering” at him vanished never to return.’
‘Is it not just possible,’ the article goes on to ask, that this man was the maker of the Arthur’s Seat coffins, ‘driven mad by the loss of his treasures’? Or was the whole story ‘nothing but coincidences’?
A weird twist to the tale indeed.
Fast-forward to 1976 and Walter Hävernick, the Director of the Museum of Hamburg History, had come up with a new theory. Referring to a German seafaring superstition of keeping mandrake roots or dolls in tiny coffins as talismen, he postulated that the coffins were a hoard of lucky charms, hidden in the hillside by a merchant, to be sold to sailors.
But while the use of charms persisted in Scotland well into the 19th century, no evidence of this particular seafaring tradition has been found.
The Scottish charms below can be seen alongside the Arthur’s Seat coffins in the National Museum of Scotland.
Rowan crosses like this one were used as charms throughout the Highlands.
Flat oblong stone, notched on the sides and pierced with two holes, used as a charm for curing disease in Islay.
Amber beads used as a charm against blindness by the Macdonalds of Glencoe.
Perforated stone charm which was hung in a cow byre as protection against bewitchment, from Cumbernauld.
Charm from Galloway, which had been hung at the foot of the bed to ward off evil dreams.
Charm made from a seed of Ipomoea Tuberosa (Wooden Rose), mounted for suspension, and engraved with the motto of Macneil of Barra.
You can read their full research findings in the National Museum of Scotland Research Library.
So we know where the bodies came from and when they were buried… but what do they represent? Perhaps to understand the mystery more fully, we need to step back in time, to early 19th-century Edinburgh…
“ To look over the South Bridge and see the Cowgate below full of crying hawkers, is to view one rank of society from another in the twinkling of an eye.
- Robert Louis Stevenson, Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes (1879)
Celebrated as the seat of the Scottish Enlightenment, transformed by the creation of the Georgian New Town and, in 1822, graced by the first visit of a reigning monarch since 1650, Edinburgh had much to boast about in the early 19th century.
Yet this bright, sophisticated, intellectual hotbed of a city also had a dark side, highlighted by the sharp division between the elegant, well-to-do New Town and the increasingly dilapidated, slum-like conditions of the Old Town, and personified by the notorious Deacon Brodie (28 September 1741 – 1 October 1788).
By day a respectable tradesman, councillor and Deacon of the Incorporation of Wrights, by night William Brodie turned his skills as a locksmith and cabinetmaker to more nefarious uses: breaking and entering. A daring plan to burgle the Excise Office led to his downfall, and Brodie was hanged at the Old Tolbooth on Edinburgh’s High Street before a crowd of 40,000 onlookers. A lantern and 25 lock picks used in evidence against him in his trial are now part of the collection at National Museums Scotland. Intriguingly, some of the lock picks were found hidden on Salisbury Crags, just by Arthur’s Seat.
Deacon Brodie’s grisly story would later inspire Edinburgh-born author Robert Louis Stevenson to create the double life of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Yet it is not Brodie but two later infamous anti-heroes of Edinburgh’s criminal underworld that could provide the key to the mystery of the Arthur’s Seat coffins. Step up Mr William Burke and Mr William Hare.
“ Up the close and doun the stair, But and ben wi' Burke and Hare. Burke's the butcher, Hare's the thief, Knox the boy that buys the beef.
- 19th-century Edinburgh skipping rhyme
By the early 1800s, Edinburgh was renowned as a centre of medical excellence, its reputation as a place to study the healing arts second to none. Key to this education was an understanding of anatomy – yet a vital component of its study was becoming increasingly hard to come by for staff at the city’s medical schools: cadavers for dissection. With more and more students thronging the anatomy theatres and fewer criminals meeting their end on the gallows (the usual source of bodies for the dissecting table), the supply was no longer meeting the demand.
Unscrupulous criminals saw a gap in the market, and the practice of ‘bodysnatching’ – digging up dead bodies from churchyards and selling them to anatomists – soon became rife across the country. This practice horrified the Scottish public, many of whom feared that a dissected body would not rise to life at the Last Judgment.
Yet the corpses sold by the infamous ‘bodysnatchers’ Burke and Hare to the renowned Edinburgh anatomist and lecturer Dr Robert Knox came not from grave robbing but from murder.
Irish immigrants Burke and Hare began their murderous career almost by accident, when an elderly tenant of Hare’s boarding house in the West Port died, owing him money. To recoup the losses, Burke and Hare sold the old man’s body to Dr Robert Knox, for use in his anatomy school in Surgeon’s Square.
Easy money. But with no-one else in the boarding house prepared to drop dead of their own accord, the pair thought they’d hurry the process along a bit. And so began a vicious killing spree that lasted 10 months, during which Burke and Hare dispatched at least 16 victims and earned around £150 (roughly £12,000 now – no mean sum). At first they chose their victims carefully, picking off vagrants who were unlikely to be missed, but as time went by the pair got sloppy, killing local figures who were instantly recognisable when uncovered on the slab.
It was only a matter of time before the law caught up with them, and in November 1828, the murderous duo were arrested. Hare turned King’s witness and, granted immunity from prosecution, he sold his old friend down the river. At 8.30am on Christmas morning, 1828, Burke was charged with murder. On 28 January 1829, he was hanged in Edinburgh’s Lawnmarket before a crowd of thousands. The following day, his body was publicly dissected at the University of Edinburgh Medical School – the punishment fitting the crime indeed.
‘Execution of the notorious William Burke the murderer, who supplied Dr Knox with subjects. A crowd of up to 25,000 people amassed to watch Burke die.
‘Broadcast’ of the Execution of Burke. © Surgeons’ Hall Museums at The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
Life mask of Hare, on display in the Anatomical Museum at the University of Edinburgh. No-one is quite sure what happened to Hare after the trial. Rumours circulated that he had escaped to London, where he was thrown into a lime pit and blinded, but it is more likely that he returned to Ireland. © The Anatomical Museum at the University of Edinburgh.
Death mask of William Burke. The mark of the noose can be seen on the neck. © Surgeons’ Hall Museums at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
On the orders of the Lord Justice-Clerk, after dissection Burke’s skeleton was preserved, ‘in order that posterity may keep in remembrance of [his] atrocious crimes’. The skeleton can be seen in the Anatomical Museum at the University of Edinburgh. © The Anatomical Museum at the University of Edinburgh.
After Burke’s death, a brisk trade in grisly souvenirs began. This book is allegedly made from his skin, following the public dissection of his body after he was hanged. © Surgeons’ Hall Museums at The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
But what has this grisly tale to do with our story?
Seventeen coffins, seventeen victims; buried just a few years after Burke and Hare’s sensational story had hit the headlines. Could the coffins’ secret interment represent a substitute burial for the poor, friendless souls dispatched by the murderous pair?
True, while twelve of Burke and Hare’s victims were female, the corpses in the coffins are all dressed as men, but perhaps the figures were simply meant as symbols.
And yet, if they were, who buried them? Someone close to the murders, or a sympathetic onlooker? We’ll never know.
“ You should take a look at the little dolls, Mr Rankin.
- Ian Rankin, Introduction to The Falls
Since the coffins found their way into the museum collections, they have been on display almost constantly, and continue to fascinate visitors today. One such visitor was the author Ian Rankin, who references the coffins in his Inspector Rebus thriller The Falls (2001).
In the introduction to the book, he explains how a member of staff alerted him to their presence:
"Plenty of people over the years have come up to me with their excited notions of plots for my next book. I’ve found precious few of them to be helpful, or viable, but I was intrigued by these ‘little dolls’… which is how I made the acquaintance of the Arthur’s Seat coffins… As soon as I saw them, I knew they would make a great story, especially as no one had come up with an incontrovertible interpretation of their meaning. In other words, there was a story to tell about them…"
In 2006, the novel was adapted for television, and the replica coffins made for the film can be seen in the Scotland: A Changing Nation Gallery in the National Museum of Scotland.
And so the story stands: a mystery that will probably never be unravelled, but which has captured the imagination of countless visitors to the National Museum of Scotland.
Dead and buried? Not quite.
In December 2014, the Museum received a mysterious package: a beautifully-made replica of one of the coffins, cryptically entitled ‘XVIII?’
Attached was a label, quoting the chilling climax of Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story ‘The Body Snatcher’ (1884), which weaves elements of the Burke and Hare story into a chilling supernatural tale.
Who created this eighteenth coffin? Could it be the mysterious ‘Book Sculptor’, whose creations made from the pages of old books have delighted the people of Edinburgh for several years now? Or perhaps her work inspired another artist to leave us this unsigned gift? It’s another layer of intrigue to add to the Arthur’s Seat coffins mystery.
And so the mystery remains unsolved... until the next theory.