Lost Edinburgh: The Arthur’s Seat coffins

TWO CENTURIES ago, seventeen concealed miniature coffins were discovered in a cave on Arthur’s Seat. To this day their exact origin and purpose remain shrouded in mystery.

Some of the coffins which were uncovered on Arthur's Seat. Picture: Contributed
Some of the coffins which were uncovered on Arthur's Seat. Picture: Contributed

One June afternoon in 1836 five young local lads accidentally stumbled upon the extraordinary. The boys had spent the day mucking around hunting for rabbit warrens on Arthur’s Seat when they made a startling discovery at the entrance to a small cave on the rugged north-eastern face of the famous hill: a horde of intricately-carved miniature figures set in coffins.

A spooky and mysterious discovery

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The coffins, numbering seventeen, had lain undisturbed for an indeterminate amount of time beneath just a few thin slabs of slate. They were neatly laid out in three tiers: two lower rows of eight and a third supposedly just begun.

According to The Scotsman of July 16, 1836, several of the figures were either badly damaged or lost altogether as the decrepit-looking cache provided convenient fodder for the boys to pelt one another with. Fortunately, a few did manage to endure the onslaught. They were eventually purchased by a private collector where they remained until being passed over to the museum in 1901. Only eight figures, in varying states of decay, survive.

Human effigies

Each of the seventeen caskets found in 1836 held an expertly-carved human effigy creepily dressed in its own unique garb, with painted black boots and distorted facial features verging on the macabre. The figures assembled on the two upper tiers appeared to be far less worn and deteriorated than those below, suggesting that the coffins had been deposited in stages over a number of years.

Theories behind their creation

In recent times experts have sought hard to explain exactly when and why the coffins were made and who put them there. The theories over the years have differed wildly. Some cite attempted witchcraft as a possibility, while others have suggested that they were perhaps kept by sailors to ward off death.

Another widely held belief is that each of the figures were designed to commemorate the victims of the infamous serial killers Burke and Hare. The murderous duo had ended the lives of precisely seventeen Edinburgh citizens less than a decade prior to the boys’ discovery on Arthur’s Seat. A coincidence perhaps, though it certainly ranks among the more intriguing proposals.

In 2001 the chilling tale of the Arthur’s Seat coffins caught the attention of Ian Rankin, who penned them into his Inspector Rebus novel The Falls.

The remaining eight coffins and their contents are on display to the public at the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street, where they have proved to be a popular attraction. It’s fair to say that the mystery surrounding their origin has added to their enduring appeal.

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