By Kim Laura Kühne
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.
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.
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.
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.