Author claims to have solved Edinburgh coffin-doll mystery

They are perhaps one of the capital's most enduring mysteries, made famous by TV documentaries and fictional novels.
Three of the tiny coffins found on Arthur's Seat in 1836. Picture: TSPLThree of the tiny coffins found on Arthur's Seat in 1836. Picture: TSPL
Three of the tiny coffins found on Arthur's Seat in 1836. Picture: TSPL

Now, a US-based Scottish author has claimed he has solved the mystery behind Edinburgh’s famous coffin dolls.

A startling discovery

Almost two centuries ago, a group of young boys who were local to the area were said to be on Arthur’s Seat in search of rabbit warrens when they made a startling discovery - a small cave, inside of which were the most intriguing items any of them had ever laid their eyes upon.

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Hidden away within the recess on the north-eastern face of the hill were seventeen miniature coffins containing intricately-carved dolls.

Since that day in 1836, the strange items have baffled experts and historians who have been unable to ascertain the origins of the eight remaining figures which have survived to this day and remain, in varying states of decay, on display in the National Museum of Scotland.

Mystery solved?

Author and amateur historian Jeff Nisbet, who originally came from the city before emigrating to America when he was a boy, believes he has hit upon the reason for their creation.

Citing a little known event dubbed the Radical war of 1820, Nisbet believes the coffins were created as a memorial to a political movement related to the war and those killed supporting it.

According to the writer, many poorly paid workers and weavers from the area were arrested following a series of protests and strikes aimed at improving their working conditions and securing better pay.

Many of those arrested were exiled to Australia, while several of the ring leaders were executed.

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Following the event, many of those who agreed with the movement were put to work building a path that would become known as the ‘Radical Road’ around Arthur’s seat.

Nisbett has now told the Herald that it is his theory that the reason for the existence of the artefacts was to keep the “flames of rebellion lit”, and to honour those Radicals who had lost their lives and deserved to see their cause revived by later generations.

Other theories

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Of course many believe that this is just another theory to add to the list of existing ones, including the idea that they were part of some occult ritual or that they were perhaps kept by sailors to ward off death.

One theory links directly to Edinburgh’s macabre past with former National Museums of Scotland principal curator Allen Simpson and US academic Samuel Menefee suggesting that in fact it was someone close to Burke and Hare that created the figures and deposited them as surrogate burials for the grisly duo’s 17 victims.

TV producers working for the National Geographic Channel in 2005 even posited the idea that the man behind the dolls was in fact Burke himself in a bid to assuage his own guilt.

Our own report published in the Scotsman on 16 July 1836 read: “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 Mushat’s Cairn [sic] or the Windy Gowl, who retain their ancient power to work the spells of death by entombing the likenesses of those they wish to destroy.”