It’s one of the most amazing mysteries ever uncovered in Scotland and nearly 200 years later we’re still nowhere near solving it.
In June 1836, five young schoolboys were hunting rabbits on the slopes of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh and found something gruesome instead.
Hidden in a small opening in a rock on the northeast side, hidden behind three stone slabs, were 17 tiny coffins, arranged in three rows.
Each measuring around 95mm (just under 4 inches) long, they were carved from pine and held a wooden figure.
The boys were removing the stones when they spotted the coffins arranged in three tiers separated by pieces of slate, eight in the first and second and only one placed above.
Not only did each of these ‘Lilliputian coffins’ (as they were described at the time) have a lid, but each of the figures had painted black boots and tailored clothing that was sewn and glued around them to make them look like to little people.
But why were they placed there and who made them?
Debate raged back then about them and even now, nearly two centuries later, we are no closer to discovering the truth.
A national newspaper at the time alluded to black magic describing the hole as a “Satanic spell factory!”, while a more local newspaper speculated they may be part of an ancient burial custom.
Only eight of the fascinating little relics have survived to the present day, and they are currently on display at the National Museum of Scotland – where they remain one of the most popular exhibits.
George Dalgleish, custodian of Scottish history and archeology at the museum, told The Daily Record in 2012 that they initially ended up in the collection of someone who had a private museum but they are came to the National Museum of Scotland in 1901.
They believe that several of the coffins were destroyed by the children who found them first.
One theory suggests that they could have been used in some sort of witchcraft ritual.
However, this has been disputed as effigies were not generally used in these types of ceremonies.
Another proposed idea is that they were created by someone for the families to represent the sailors they lost at sea.
burke and hare
One theory proposed by George is that the 17 coffins are linked to notorious serial killers Burke and Hare, who murdered 17 people in the capital.
He told us: “It was a time when people believed that a buried corpse was necessary for resurrection and that a dissected body could not be resurrected at the Last Judgment.
“People were filled with horror and revulsion at the idea of robbing a grave and for Burke and Hare to kill people with the intention of then selling their bodies for dissection, it was about the worst horror imaginable .
“The trial of Burke and Hare has generated enormous public interest, and so it’s a theory that someone, somewhere, thought their victims deserved a burial and in the absence of a body, then gave a symbolic burial using these figures.
A Scottish-American writer called Jeff Nisbet believes they were leftovers from the Radical War of 1820, created as a memorial to a political movement related to the war and to those killed supporting it.
What we know
According to the National Museum, a study of the coffins in the 1990s found that the figures all appear to have been made by the same hand, although it’s possible the coffins were made by two different people.
The materials and tools used to make them suggest that they could have been made by a cobbler or cobbler.
The characters may not have been created for coffins, each may have originally been toy soldiers.
It appears that they were only buried for a maximum of six years, as the fabric used to make their clothes dated back to the early 1830s.
What do you think? Which theory holds up best? Where do you have yours?
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