If I have to pick one reason why I love Edinburgh so much, then it's definitely because of its horrible and mysterious history. I can't get enough of those stories and even enjoy hearing the same story again and again. So, today was a very special day, I heard about the mysterious miniature coffins for the very first time . And guess what, I'm going to tell you now about this really interesting story and its unclear background.
By Kim Laura Kühne
Beside the Scottish Parliament you can find the mountain Arthur's Seat, which is an extinct volcano. Arthur's Seat is not only a tourist attraction, it's also the place were people made an interesting historical find.
Back in 1836 a group of boys headed to Arthur's Seat and found 17 miniature coffins. The coffins were arranged in three tiers: two tiers of eight and one single coffin on top. Inside each coffin is a wee wooden figure. Only eight of these coffins have survived and are on display in the National Museum of Scotland. What happened to the other nine? We don't know. The Scotsman tells us that a number were destroyed by the boys, but we don't know how many. Now, almost 200 years later, we still don't know who made those little figures and why. But there are several theories about it, some more believable than others.
Back then, the coffins were donated together with some cuttings and the Society concluded that the intention of the coffins seemed to symbolise an honorific burial. But there is no proof of that.
Five year later, in 1906, The Scotsman published another bizarre story. A lady from Edinburgh told the newspaper that her father, Mr. B had been visited by a "daft man"*. One day, the man drew three small coffins on a piece of paper , with the dates 1837, 1838 and 1840. What happened next is really weird. In 1837, a near relative of Mr. B died, in the following year a cousin and in 1840 his brother. After the funeral, the daft man appeared again "glowering"* at Mr.B, disappeared, and was never ever seen again. Was this guy maybe the maker of the Arthur's Seat coffins or is the whole story a really spooky coincidence?
Jumping forward in time and to a change of location: In 1976, Walter Hävernick, the Director of the Museum of Hamburg History came up with a new theory about the miniature coffins. In Germany, it was common for sailors to carry mandrake roots or dolls in tiny coffins as a talisman. Sounds like a believable story, but unfortunately there is no evidence that Scottish sailors had this tradition as well.
Any favourite theory so far? Mine is the following one. We go back in time and meet Edinburgh's most famous murdering duo Burke and Hare. The two Irish immigrants started their questionable business almost by accident when an elderly guest died in their Inn. What to do with the body? They sold it to Dr. Robert Knox, for use in his anatomy school in Surgeon’s Square. Easy money! As Burke and Hare didn't want to wait till the next lucky accident of someone dying from natural causes , they decided to speed things up and help a little bit. They started to kill unknown tourists who where staying in the Inn. This worked out perfectly for about 10 months, but the pair got greedy and careless. When they killed locals such as a well known prostitute and a wee boy, the public got suspicious. In 1828 Burke and Hare were arrested. Hare turned King’s witness and was freed but needed to leave the country. Burke was charged with murder and hanged in Edinburgh’s Lawnmarket before a crowd of thousands. Guess what happened then? Burke's body was publicly dissected at the University of Edinburgh Medical School - what a fitting punishment.
But what has this horrible story got to do with the mini coffins? Burke and Hare murdered 17 people and there are 17 coffins, buried only a few years after. Could each of the coffins stand for one of the victims? It's important to point out, that 12 of Burke and Hare's victims were female, whereas the dolls in the coffins are all dressed as men. But it would still work as a symbolic gesture in respect of the victims, wouldn't it? My gut feeling says that the coffins might have belonged to a little boy who was a friend of one of them and to say goodbye to his friend he buried his toy soldiers.
And the mystery continues. Thousands of people have visited the coffins. One visitor, who was really fascinated by the coffins is Ian Rankin, he even mentions them in his book "The Fall". In the novel, a serial killer places coffins near the scenes of his crimes
In December 2014, the Museum received a mysterious package, and inside was a wonderful replica of one of the coffins, entitled "XVIII", which is the roman symbol for 18.
Attached was as well a label, saying "XVII? To the National Museum of Scotland, A gift" and quoting the chilling climax of Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story ‘The Body Snatcher’ (1884), which has elements of the Burke and Hare story. "And as Fettes took the lamp his companion united the fastenings of the sack and drew down the cover from the head. The light fell very clear upon the dark, well - moulded features and smooth - shaven cheeks of a too familiar countenance, often beheld in dreams of both of these young men. A wild yell rang up into the night: each leaped from his own side into the roadway: the lamp fell, broke, and was extinguished: and the horse, terrified by this unusual commotion, bounded and went off to ward Edinburgh at a gallo, bearing along with it, sole occupant of the gig, the body of the dead and long - dissected gray."
An 18th Arthur Seat's coffin? Where does it come from and who made it? Could it be the mysterious Book Sculptor? Another mystery around the Arthur's Seat coffins! If you want to know more about the mysterious Book Sculptor, get in touch which us, as we will be learning more about it during the Advanced Speaker course, starting next week.
What do you think, which theory is the likeliest? Or can you think of a totally different one? Tell us your thoughts.
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