Bones under school playground could be pirate, say experts

An image of the 16th century Newhaven pirate.
An image of the 16th century Newhaven pirate.
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HUMAN remains found buried underneath a school playground are thought to have been those of a 16th century pirate or smuggler, experts have revealed.

Archaeologists made the remarkable discovery after almost two years of painstaking detective work on a skeleton found on the site of a centuries-old harbour.

Laura Thomson, John Lawson and Victoria Primary pupils with a picture of the mystery man. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Laura Thomson, John Lawson and Victoria Primary pupils with a picture of the mystery man. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Experts believe the body of the mystery male, found ahead of work beginning on an extension to Victoria Primary, in Edinburgh was dumped deliberately in an unmarked grave.

The fragile bones were discovered during a survey of the playground in the waterfront village of Newhaven in January 2014.

But carbon dating and forensic examination of the remains has confounded original expectations that they were from the skeleton of a Bronze Age man.

It was thought the finding, along with shards of pre-historic pottery, could have signalled the presence of a network of burial pits.

But now it is believed the body, said to be of a man in his fifties, had been hung on a gibbet looking out to the Firth of Forth in plain sight of other ships – before being dumped in an unmarked grave.

Such warnings were at one time commonplace at harbour areas to try to persuade sailors not to succumb to the temptations of piracy or smuggling.

Extensive research has now revealed that the body dates from Newhaven’s early days as a harbour. It was ordered to be built in 1504 by King James IV as a royal dockyard to allow the construction of the Great Michael, Europe’s largest warship, which was impossible at the nearby Port of Leith.

Pirates were hung on Edinburgh’s waterfront for several hundred years up until 1822 and the Isle of May was a notorious haunt for piracy.

There are also historical records of a gibbet being used on the edge of Newhaven to hang pirates and witches.

John Lawson, archaeologist at Edinburgh City Council, said: “We know that Victoria Primary was built in 1845 on the site of what would have been the shore in Newhaven in the 16th and 17th century. It was right on the edge of the settlement.

“We definitely weren’t expecting to find any evidence of burials on what would have been sand dunes, as there were two graveyards nearby in Leith and Newhaven. It was a complete surprise.

“It was almost like a murder investigation. The question was why was a 16th or 17th century burial carried out on what was effectively wasteground.

“The body has been just dumped in a hole on the shore – it was left in a small shallow pit only a couple of feet deep and buried over.

“I think it was either a murder or an execution. There are references to a gibbet being built at Newhaven in the mid-16th century.

“That form of public execution, on a shoreline, just outside a port, was very common, almost as a lesson to the local population of what could happen to them if they are caught. There are accounts of some bodies being left hanging up in gibbets for as long as 20 years.”

Laura Thomson, the school’s headteacher, said: “We were told that the archaeology team were going to be looking for remains of the original harbour or of the Great Michael.

“When I was told that there had been an unexpected development and that human remains had been found I actually thought there was going to be a murder investigation until the evidence suggested they were thousands of years old.

“This new discovery is a really good learning opportunity for the children. It’s very interesting that things have had to be re-examined based on the new evidence.

“We are the oldest still-working primary school in Edinburgh and the children are all very proud of the history and heritage in Newhaven. They have a sense of the history all around them. This is another chapter in that.”