A chance discovery by a group of Edinburgh boys in 1836 has resulted in one of the strangest and most hotly debated mysteries in the city’s history. While I have visited the city, and indeed Arthur’s Seat many times, I must admit it wasn’t a story I was at all familiar with until I was sent it by US-based Scottish historian Jeff Nisbet. Jeff’s excellent research helped form the basis of this overview and I heartily encourage you to read his full piece, which can be found here.
Hunting rabbits in the vicinity of Arthur’s Seat, the extinct volcano that sits close to the centre of the Scottish capital, in late June 1836, a group of local boys found a cache of 17 miniature coffins. Carefully hidden in a small cave and covered by slabs of slate, each of the coffins contained a tiny, intricately carved wooden figurine. While a broad range of theories have been put forward over the years since in an attempt to explain the purpose of the strange stash, researchers remain divided both on who placed the figures there and why they did it.
The coffins had been carefully arranged in two neat rows of eight, with the 17th placed at the start of a new row. Around 10cm in length, each contained a small figure that Was clearly carved by someone with significant skill, dressed in various cloth outfits.
The Scotsman newspaper at the time reported that a number of the coffins were destroyed by the boys after being discovered, but some survived and eventually found their way into the hands of private collectors. Eight of them were donated to the Scottish Society of Antiquaries in 1902 and are the only ones that remain accounted for. Variances in the deterioration of the figures may suggest that they were not all placed at once, rather the collection was assembled and added to over time.
Media at the time appears to have focused primarily on a supernatural explanation, believing the figures to be the work of a witch, or possibly a coven. Witches were thought to be able to work killing spells by creating likenesses of their intended victims, similar to voodoo dolls, and entombing them underground. Arthur’s Seat has long been associated with witches as a place of ritual and spellcasting and the city of Edinburgh has executed over 300 accused witches throughout its history.
Another theory put forward is that the figures represent stand-ins for the graves of loved ones that never returned to Edinburgh. The Caledonian Mercury reported a superstition amongst Scottish sailors that they would request their wives to perform a Christian burial of an effigy if they were lost at sea. The Edinburgh Evening Post reported a similar custom from Saxony, burying a figure to represent loved ones lost in distant lands.
One popular theory is that the figures were connected to infamous Edinburgh murderers William Burke and William Hare. After a lodger at Hare’s house died of dropsy, the pair sold the corpse to anatomist Robert Knox for dissection. Having received a significant fee for the cadaver they took to murdering victims to provide a steady supply of fresh corpses to sell to Knox. By the time of their arrest they had killed 16 people. Some researchers have suggested the figures could have been linked to the murders, for example an effort by the pair to clear their consciences slightly by providing them with at least some form of proxy Christian burial. However, three quarters of Burke and Hare’s victims were women, while the figurines all appear to be intended to represent men.
Jeff Nisbet offers an alternative theory, one which I personally find quite persuasive. He identifies Scotland’s 1820 Radical War as being behind the origin of the figures. An insurrection attempt beginning with a general strike by over 60,000 Glasgow workers, the uprising resulted in a number of armed clashes between strikers and government troops. Once put down, leaders amongst the radicals were quickly identified and arrested; three were executed, while 19 more were sentenced to transportation to the penal colonies in Australia. It later became clear that the insurrection had been engineered by government agents to draw radicals out into the open, accounting for the speed with which the ringleaders were rounded up. The Radical War played a key role in reshaping Scotland’s national identity at the time, with loyalist sentiment high by the time of George IV’s 1922 visit to Edinburgh.
By the time the coffins were found in 1836 the events of the Radical War had been largely forgotten, but Nisbet theorises that the figurines were intended to honour members of the radical movement. By hiding them away to be discovered at a later time the rebels intended to provide a touch paper to reignite the radical movement, which ultimately proved unsuccessful. He examines several specific details of the figures themselves which support this theory. Each is modelled with their eyes open, suggesting perhaps that they represent men that are not yet dead, as was the case with the prisoners transported to Australia.
The workers most associated with the uprising were weavers, including all three executed men and nine of those transported. The custom-made clothing on each of the figures may be intended to reference the men’s trade. Finally, each figure appears to be male, which would fit with Nisbet’s theory, but proponents of the Burke and Hare school of thought would struggle to account for.
Given the number of craftsmen amongst the Radicals, supporters of the transported men would certainly possess the skills to create such items. Many of those sent to Australia were themselves craftsmen and it may be that the crafts used in the artefacts’ construction were nods towards the trades of the men as a kind of tribute to them; clothing for tailors and weavers, carved wood for carpenters and metalwork on the outside of the coffins similar to that used by cobblers to make buckles.
One particularly intriguing possibility is that the figures were dressed using material from the actual clothing of those men executed or transported for their role in the Radical War. One of the men who was put to death, John Baird, recorded in his diary that each man was given a fine shirt by the Colonel overseeing their detention, potentially meaning that the discarded old garments were then used to clothe the figurines.
The truth of the origins of the Arthur’s Seat Coffins will likely remain hotly debated for a long time to come, with a number of researchers, including staff at the National Museum of Scotland where the remaining figures now reside continuing to actively research them. For a deeper delve into the evidence presented by the figures and the wider political and ideological influences that may have influenced how the story is remembered you can read Jeff Nisbet’s full research paper here.
To read more of Jeff’s work, go to https://independent.academia.edu/JeffNisbet
Featured Image: The eight surviving artifacts. Image: National Museums Scotland