The Mystery of the Arthur’s Seat Coffins
Written By: Angela DiLella
Edited By: Grave Reviews Staff
One morning in June 1836 began like any other for a group of boys who were out in Arthur’s Seat, a mountainous area in Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland. They had set out to hunt rabbits; instead, they found a small cave filled with seventeen tiny coffins.
Each coffin was about three to four inches long and each had an equally miniature wooden figure inside. The figures were also dressed in simple cloth outfits. The coffins were stacked in two rows of eight each, with the outlier on the top of the two completed rows. The coffins seemed to differ in age: the American researcher Charles Fort noted that the lone coffin on the top of the pile seemed newer and in better condition than the others. He believed that they had been made and stacked up over the course of many years.
So, what was the deal with the tiny coffins? The newspaper The Scotsman, which still exists today, suggested that they could have been the work of witches for use in spells. Scotland has a strong folkloric tradition of witches, and like many other countries, has a history spanning centuries of vicious witch trials.
The Edinburgh Evening Post would suggest that the items were the remains of an ancient custom, a symbolic burial of friends who had died outside of the country and had been buried in foreign soil. Another newspaper added that sailors’ wives sometimes had these symbolic burials if their husbands were lost at sea. Over a century later, it was suggested that the coffins and cadavers themselves were meant to be lucky charms for traditionally superstitious sailors.
Then, in the 1990s, a new theory cropped up: the seventeen entombed figures were meant to represent the victims of notorious serial killing duo William Burke and William Hare (*link to B+H article here?). In 1828, out of a lodging house in Edinburgh, the two began smothering victims and selling the bodies to a local anatomist in order to make some fast cash. Burke and Hare only killed sixteen people in all, but Burke was hanged for his crimes, possibly explaining why there were seventeen coffins with seventeen wooden cadavers. There has even been a suggestion that Burke himself made the coffins and cadavers in his own twisted kind of way to pay tribute and respect to his victims, though that makes it strange that there were seventeen effigies, when he only had sixteen. It would have also been hard for him to make a final figure to symbolize himself after had already died! The figures are also mostly dressed in masculine clothing, whereas the duo killed many more women than men.
This also makes the differing states of aging and decay of the seventeen coffins and cadavers seem a bit strange. Remember, the items were discovered in 1836 and Charles Fort claimed that there was one that looked brand new. Burke had been dead for eight years by then, and although nobody knows what ultimately became of Hare, he left Edinburgh in a hurry after he was released from prison. Doctor Robert Knox, the man who bought the bodies of Burke and Hare’s victims, also had to leave Edinburgh shortly after the trials. However, he refused to speak about the pair and their subsequent trial, so it is unknown whether he even carried any remorse at all for the behavior he may have inadvertently encouraged with his generous payouts.
Today, only eight of the coffins and cadavers still exist today. Some of the items were destroyed by the boys when they were discovered, and others were sold to private collectors and haven’t resurfaced since. The eight that still exist in the public eye suggest that the cadavers were apart of a set of already-existing figures, as in a set of toy soldiers. Then they were modified. Some had their arms removed to fit into their coffins, others did not. It is also thought that at least some of the soldiers predate the nineteenth century. Because of the differences in skill levels between the carved and clothed figures and the miniature coffins, it is thought that more than one person could have contributed to the macabre craft project.
However, there have been no definitive answers to the mysteries these items pose. They are still a popular topic of research to this day and are on display at the National Museum of Scotland, and new theories about the items still crop up every few years. Maybe one day we’ll have a definitive answer for these creepy mementos from Edinburgh’s past.
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