The Arthur's Seat Coffins
In this weeks episode, we tell the story of the Arthurs Seat Coffins, 17 tiny 4" coffins, each holding a wooden doll complete with handmade clothing, uncovered from the Arthurs Seat area of Edinburgh in 1836. To this day, no one has any explanations for what they were for, or who put them there.
Wikipedia – Wiki on the Arthur’s Seat area of Edinburgh.
The Book of the Old Edinburgh Club, new edition, Volume 3: 1994 – The Old Edinburgh Club, where you can purchase Manafee and Simpsons paper on the coffins.
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The Arthur’s Seat Coffins
In 1836, three boys were out in the green hills of the Arthurs Seat area of Edinburgh when they noticed a strange collection of rocks propped up against the hillside. Curiosity getting the better of them, they pried the sheets of slate away, uncovering a small hollowed out recess in the rock. Sitting on three rows, they found seventeen small wooden coffins, each about 4 inches tall and inside each one, a small wooden figure. 118 years later, the coffins sit in the National Museum of Scotland, their presence in the cave, purpose and creator a mystery.
This is Dark histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
Lying on the Eastern side of Edinburgh, Scotland, the rocky hillside of Arthur’s Seat is covered in flora, sitting 251m above sea level. Once an active volcano, it has sat dormant for years, casting its shadow across Holyrood Park for centuries, playing host to an Iron Age hill fort and in 400 AD, was the home to a Celtic tribe named the Votadini. It sits just one mile from Edinburgh Castle and is rumoured to be a possible site for the Legendary Camelot of King Arthur fame. In other mythology, King David the First was said to have been out hunting in the 12th Century, when upon spotting a stag, his horse bolted, throwing him to the ground. The stag made to gore him where he sat, however, as the animal bowed its head in preparation to strike, King David saw the vision of a cross in its antlers. The animal raised its head and calmly walked away, sparing him his life. Believing it to have been divine intervention which saved his life, he founded Holyrood Abbey on the same spot, at the foot of the hill.
Predating even the celts that settled on its peak, Arthur’s Seat was once said to have been a literal sleeping dragon that flew the skies of Edinburgh. After a trying day of terrorising the locals and eating the livestock, it curled up to sleep and never woke again. One can easily see how this may have been a tale survived from when the formation was an active volcano.
As is apparent, the site of Arthur’s Seat is at once ancient and steeped in mythology and folklore. One more modern tale can still be added however, that of the Arthur’s seat Coffins.
In mid July of 1836, three boys out catching rabbits in the fields around the base of Arthur’s Seat area found three large slabs of slate, notched in the top to keep them standing together, against the rocky hillside. Prising the slate from the walls with their trowels, they found that the slate, as they had suspected, was not a natural formation, rather had been placed against the wall to conceal a small entrance leading to a small cave-like crevice, carved into the rock face. The crevice itself was around one foot tall and 18 inches wide and inside, on three tiers of rock sat seventeen small coffins, each carved from wood and decorated with small pieces of tin. Charles Fort, the infamous researcher of anomalous phenomena, described the scene of the find as such:
“The extraordinary datum, which has especially made mystery here: That the coffins had been deposited singly, in the little cave, and at intervals of many years. In the first tier, the coffins were quite decayed, and the wrappings had moldered away. In the second tier, the effects of age had not advanced so far and the top coffin was quite recent looking.”
Naturally, after finding such a strange and delicate collection of items, stored away in a secret hole in the side of a rock hill, the boys did what any boys would do. As reported by “The Scotsman” who published an article on the coffins on 16th July, 1936:
“A number of the coffins were destroyed by the boys pelting them at each other as unmeaning, contemptible trifles.”
It’s not known how many of the coffins were actually destroyed by what I’m sure was a highly amusing game, however, today only eight have ever resurfaced. The next day, upon hearing the boys story, their schoolmaster a Mr Ferguson, himself a member of a local archeological society, went to the hillside to retrieve what remained of the boys unusual find. When he got them home, he prised the lids of the coffins open in his kitchen to find that each one held a carved wooden effigy of a human, complete with clothing, hand sewn from an assortment of cloth. Though most were plain, two of the figurines were commercially printed and one was chequered. Each tiny doll lay on a bed of rag fibre. The same report from the Scotsman, dated July 16th, described them:
“Each of the coffins contained a miniature figure of the human form cut out of 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 funeral trappings which usually form the last habiliments of the dead. The coffins are about 3-4 inches in length, regularly shaped and cut out from a singular piece of wood, with the exception of the lids, which are nailed down with wire sprigs or common brass pins. The lids 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 led to an initial small flurry of reports from several local news publications, each having their own take on what the cache of coffins symbolised, or for what purpose they had been stashed inside the hidden cutout in the side of Arthur’s Seat. The Scotsman, who were first out the gate with the story and from which the previous contemporary quotations were taken from dove headfirst into the supernatural element, after writing that the creation of the coffins was:
“A singular fantasy of the human mind, rather above insanity and yet, much beneath rationality.”
With this, it’s clear the writer felt the creation of the coffins lacked some normal level of logic and so they instead went on to immediately explore witchcraft as an explanation:
“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 Mushats Cairn or the Windy Gaol, who retain their ancient power to work the spells of death by entombing the likeness of those they wish to destroy.”
They then went on to suggest the boys deserved some praise for their part in discovering the coffins and
“destroying this satanic spell-manufactory, the last we should hope that the infernal hags will ever be permitted to erect in Scotland”
Undoubtedly, this article would have been the source of much of the speculation and excitement that surrounded the find. Sensationalist reporting has always and forever will hold the power to ignite a story. A month later, the ‘Edinburgh Evening Post’ followed up with their own take on the mystery of the coffins, by suggesting they may have been part of
“An ancient custom which prevailed in Saxony, of burying in effigy departed friends who had died in a distant land.”
This rather more romantic take was further expanded by ‘The Caledonian Mercury’ who themselves suggested 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 happen to be lost at sea,”
Speculation ran rife for a short time and the coffins enjoyed a brief period of fame around Edinburgh. They created enough interested, that they were eventually bought by a private collector named Robert Frazier, a jeweler, a who bought them as curios to display in his private museum. In 1845, after his retirement, he sold them at auction for the sum of £4.00, equivalent to around £450, or $600 in today’s currency. After their sale at auction, stories and news surrounding the coffins fell quiet. Out of sight, out of mind, one might say as they disappeared into a private collection, not to see the light of day again until 1901, when they were donated by a lady named Christina Couper to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and later passed on to the National Museum of Scotland, where they still rest on display today.
Despite studies being taken out upon the coffins and effigies in more recent times, their mystery prevails and theories remain as speculative as they were in 1836.
In 1990, Prof. Samuel Menefee and Dr Allen Simpson, based at the University of Virginia, but visiting fellows at the School of Scottish Studies in the University of Edinburgh analysed the coffins for a paper they would publish in the new series, Volume 3 of ‘The Book of the Old Edinburgh Club’ entitled “The West Port Murder’s and the Miniature Coffins from Arthur’s Seat”.
In the paper, Menefee and Simpson concluded that the figurines had possible been painted in red or pink, which had now faded. They also speculated that given the height variance of less than 5mm, they had all been made by one person, however the coffins themselves, could possibly have been made by two different people, as there were subtle differences in the manner of which they were carved, with some being squarely cut whilst other had rounded edges. Interestingly, they found that the tools used to make them were all common tools for a shoemaker and that the tin ornaments that were on the outside of the coffins was the same type of tin used in shoe buckles for the period. This lead them to the conclusion that the maker was more than likely either a shoemaker or perhaps a leatherworker and ruled out any sort of woodworker by trade, despite the effigies intricate attention to detail.
They also found that they would have once had rotating arms, though they had been removed, possibly to ensure they would fit snugly into the coffins. Due to the fact that the eyes of each had been carved as open and the feet flat, allowing them to stand freely, this lead them to conclude that the dolls were not initially made to represent corpses at all. Due to black colouring on each of the dolls feet, possibly representing ankle boots, they were perhaps instead, made as a set of toy soldiers, later curiously re-dressed in handmade attire and placed into the coffins.
It was the cloth materials which were to hold the most definite evidence for at least dating the creation of the effergies. In the first, the rag fibre used to line the coffins gave them a date of no older than 1780, however further clues would narrow this down further.
The clothes themselves were glued and sewn together with cotton thread, with some of the clothes having been sewn with a particular 3-ply, cotton thread. Cotton thread replaced lined thread in Scotland around the turn of the 19th century and locally, it was made from around 1812. The three-ply thread that was used in the creation of some of the items clothes was not available until around 1830 and all of this evidence, along with the relative condition of the cloth itself, indicated that they were interred into the hillside between 1830 and the date with which they were found in 1836. Menefee and Simpson themselves suggested they had all been placed at once and that the differing levels of rot and decay was not so much a factor of time, but that due to there stacking on three levels inside the crevice, the coffins on the lower tiers would have rotted more quickly due to environmental reasons, as damp tends to stick lower to the floor.
Whilst not significant proof that the figures had been placed all at once, as Menefee and Simpson claim, it seems incontrovertible that they were, at the most extreme, placed in the hillside between 1800 and 1836.
Whilst dating the effergies is certainly fascinating and offers some insight into the creation, it does not explain who made them, nor for what purpose. To answer these questions, one has to delve deeply into the realms of speculation and as time has passed, many have done exactly that.
Though there are several theories that aim to explain there purpose and their presence in the hillside cave, dug out from the rock of Arthur’s Seat, George Dalgleish, the curator of Scottish History and Archeology at the National Museum of Scotland says it best when he stated
“we are left with considerable doubt as to what they were for.”
However, as one might expect, the playing field of theories is not completely barren.
Pulling from the sensationalist stories reported at the time and the extensive mythology surrounding the area of Arthur’s Seat, is the theory that the dolls were created to be used as part of ritualistic magic or witchcraft. This theory suggests the dolls would have been used as sympathetic effigies, much like the dolls of stereotypical voodoo fame, whereby an effigy of a victim was used to stab, burn or likewise cause harm to a particular person linked with the doll through magic. As alluring as this theory is and Scotland does have history of sympathetic witchcraft practices, the National Museum of Scotland itself housing an example of a goat’s heart, littered with pins, the dolls were X-Rayed and no pin marks were found, further there is no other damage, such as burns or slashes on any of the dolls. On the contrary, the dolls appear to have been crafted and treated with great care and respect.
Sailors & Burials
Similarly, pulling from the contemporary news reports of the time the effergies were found, both “The Edinburgh Evening post” and “The Caledonian Mercury” suggested a form of respecting the dead and of being purposefully placed in the hillside as part of an “honorific burial” to play a role in the story of the Arthur’s Seat Coffins. This theory has continued and still today stands as one often suggested as a purpose.
The idea surrounding this theory is fairly simple and suggests that sailors would pass dolls to their wives before taking to sea, so that if their ships were to be sunk and their bodies lost at sea, the sailors could still be secured a Christian burial in a gestural sense, by burying the doll in place of the sailors body itself. This theory trips however, when the actual history of this happening in Scotland does not appear to exist outside of verbal tales and folklore.
One short and seemingly poorly thought out theory that continues from the previous sailor theme, is that the dolls were made as charms to be sold to sailors and were simply a merchants stock.
This theory was first put forward by Walter Havernick, the director of the Museum of Hamburg, in Germany. He suggested that the dolls resembled a German tradition, which saw sailors carrying mandrake roots or small dolls in coffins as good luck charms.
If this were true however, why on earth would the merchant chose to either store them over a long period of time in the hillside crevice where they would be at mercy of the elements. Even if we chose to believe that they were stored in one go and environmental factors had rotted the lower coffins faster than the ones kept off the ground, the question is no less pertinent. Why on earth chose a damp, hillside crevice as a makeshift stock cupboard rather than their own home? A final bullet for this theory, would be that there was simply no history of this practice in Scotland. Whilst sailors certainly bought charms, they were much simpler carved trinkets, such as small flat, circular carved stones and semi-precious gems.
Burke & Hare
One of the more often touted theories and the one theory backed by the National Museum of Scotland, was put forth, unsurprisingly considering the title of their 1994 paper, by Prof. Samuel Menefee and Dr Allen Simpson. Namely, the theory that the West Port Murders played a role on the creation of the dolls.
We have documented Burke and Hare, or the West Port Murders case, on Dark histories before in Season 1 Episode 8, so I would urge you to have a listen, rather than exhaustively cover it here, however, a brief overview of the case can be laid out as such:
The West Port Murders were a group of murders perpetrated by William Burke and William Hare, two Irish migrants living in Edinburgh in the 1820s. The pair became close friends and in November of 1827, Hare who was earning his living as a landlord stumbled across one of his tenants, dead in his room. In order to not lose out on money owed in back rent, the duo came up with an alarming plan. They took the body to the closest medical University where they met with one Dr Robert Knox, who bought the body for £7.10s to be used in his medical lectures, which he held in front of packed houses, educating young doctors in some of the most advanced medical knowledge of the time. Seeing an opportunity for quick profit, the pair embarked on a killing spree that lasted for around one year and claimed a total of 16 murder victims. Each one sold to Dr Robert Knox for between £5-£10. The pair eventually made lazy errors and were caught in October of 1928. Burke was hanged for his part in the murders, whilst Hare got away stock free, after agreeing to confess to the murders, implicating Burke in the process, in exchange for immunity for himself and his wife. Burkes body was, poetically, used as part of a dissection for a medical lecture, whilst Hare slipped away into quiet anonymity, never heard from again.
However, if there were 16 victims of Burke and Hare, why were there 17 coffins? The spare coffin is explained by taking into account the first body sold to Knox, who, whilst not a murder victim, was most certainly part of the Burke and hare story and would’ve been denied a Christian burial, just as the true victims themselves were.
This theory, whilst tying in neatly with contemporary events, leaves much to be explained. Who had taken them there? Was it a guilt ridden Hare, or perhaps his wife, who split from hare and skipped the country shortly after the trial, or was it possibly just a sympathetic onlooker who felt a duty to pay respect to the dead? Whilst they were a partnership and Hare had worked as a cobbler, both facts that were speculated as being likely in the creation of the coffins by Menefee and Simpson, one cannot overlook the contradictions in the theory with their own paper as they also concluded themselves that the dolls were all male, however 12 of Burke and Hares victims were female. Furthermore, they also stated that they thought the dolls would not have been made as corpses and were placed in the cave in one large drop off. Though you could argue around the second and third point, the question of gender is hard to escape. One could also question if a pair of sociopathic killers such as Burke and hare had it in them to spend the time to craft and create the effigies, as guilt never seemed to play much of a role on either of the killers minds during their spree.
Without doubt one of the more curious explanations as to the origin of the coffins is a story first published in an article in “The Scotsman” five years after the coffins reappearance in 1906, when the paper published another story, introducing the mysterious “Mr B”. The story told of a letter, apparently delivered to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland along with the coffins at the time of their donation and written by a lady living in Edinburgh with her father in 1836. The article gave no name to the lady and the fathers name simply as “Mr B”.
Around the time of the Coffins discovery, Mr B had apparently been visited, on several occasions, in his work premises by a “daft man”, daft being a expression of the time for a person who was deaf and unable to speak.. On one such occasion, just after the discovery of the coffins, the man walked straight into Mr B’s office apparently suffering from some agitation. Unable to speak or hear, the man simply “glowered at him, casting his feelings through this curious expression and then stormed out, never to return again. Before he left however, he handed Mr B a small scrap of paper upon which he had drawn a rough sketch of three coffins with the dates 1837, 1839 and 1840 written below each.
In the autumn of 1837, Mr B passed away and in the years, 1839 and 1840, two further relatives passed away.
A strange tale indeed, somewhat more inexplicable is the Scotsmans leap, when it wrote:
“Is it not just possible, 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?”
Despite the letter being attached to the parcel of coffins when they were delivered to the museum, there is little else to connect the two. A better explanation of who exactly Mr B was may shed light on the story, however, that would appear to be a detail lost to time.
Eventually we are left with several theories and none of which seem to satisfactorily explain the presence of the dolls in anywhere nearing a complete sense. Questions such as the span of time the dolls were being placed in the hillside, by whom and for what purpose remain unanswered. It also begs the question, that if the dolls had caused such a stit at the time and they certainly seemed to garner enough media attention, if the maker was still alive, why had they themselves not come forward, especially if they were not created for any nefarious reason? After 118 years of speculation and considerable study, the coffins are still shrouded in the mystery they were when they were first pulled from the hillside back in 1836.
As if the level of intrigue for the dolls was not already enough, in 2014, a further doll was sent to the National Museum of Scotland. It was a finely carved replica of the dolls they kept, complete with its own hand stitched clothing. Attached to the coffin was a note that, headed with the Roman Numerals for the number 18 followed by a question mark. Below this cryptic heading the note read:
“To the National Museum of Scotland, a gift.”
And then went on to quote the final passage of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Body Snatcher”, originally published in 1884.
“And as Fettes took the lamp, his companion untied 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 up into the night; each leaped from his own side into the roadway; the lamp fell, broke and was extinguished ; and as the horse, terrified by this unusual commotion, bounded and went off toward Edinburgh at a gallop, bearing along with it, sole occupant of the gig, the body of the dead and long-dissected Gray.”