War grave clues in mystery of skeletons buried at church

ARCHAEOLOGISTS have been left baffled by how the remains of six bodies came to be buried in the grounds of a historic Leith building more than 400 years ago.

Eighteen months after the remains were unearthed in what is now the grounds of St Mary's Star of the Sea Church, in Constitution Street, the researchers have admitted to being puzzled by the mystery of how they came to be there.

At the time they were buried there, the spot was in the grounds of a local laird's mansion, and Leith was at the centre of a bloody conflict.

There are, however, no signs of the bodies being those of the victims of a battle or having been executed.

The archaeologists have also been puzzled by the fact the bodies were laid out north to south - instead of the traditional Christian east to west - and why they were not buried in the cemetery at South Leith Parish Church, which was nearby.

It was first thought that they may have belonged to plague victims as other remains found in Leith have proven to be. But now the archaeologists believe the most plausible explanation is that they were soldiers who died in the 1559 to 1560 Siege of Leith.

They think the site where their skeletons were discovered may have been a small war grave directly behind what was then Leith's town defences.

It means the men would have fought in one of the bloodiest conflicts in Leith's history, when Scottish, French and English soldiers clashed, and were alive during the time of Mary Queen of Scots.

City archaeologist John Lawson said: "Some of the questions we've been asking are who were they and why were they buried like this, a stone's throw from South Leith Parish Church? One of the main possibilities is that it could be a war grave. When soldiers die they are often put in temporary graves.

"Leith was besieged quite a few times and one of the dates that really comes into focus is the Earl of Hertford's Siege of Leith.

"The dates coincide perfectly with the carbon dating we got on the graves. It is a real possibility, especially as they are all adult males. They could be soldiers, although we've been unable to establish how they died. There's no evidence that they were hung, so it's unlikely they were executed criminals. It's a mystery and probably one that will never really be fully understood. It is a very interesting proposition."

Jim Tweedie, chairman of the Leith Local History Society, said: "The guess is that they are soldiers that have been killed during the siege, and the shallow grave possibly suggests that was where they fell and they were just left there and forgotten about.

"It would be interesting to see if there are more skeletons like this nearby. Leith was the most important sea port in Scotland and we are always trying to find out more about its past.

"We've been screaming for years for Leith to get its own museum and something like this would be perfect to be stored in it, rather than in the back rooms of the Museum of Edinburgh."

The bodies were first found in April last year, during a dig ahead of construction work on the St Mary's Star of the Sea Church.

At the time archaeologists were trying to find evidence of the remains of Balmerino House, a mansion owned by Lord Balmerino and built in 1631.

They were shocked to find the human remains close to what would have been the front door of the stately home. The excavation has now been completed and a report is set to be published within the next year, although the final verdict will be inconclusive.

The remains are being preserved and are likely to be displayed in one of the city council's museum in the near future.

Back to the top of the page