"In late June 1836, a group of boys headed out to the north-east slopes of Edinburgh’s Arthur’s Seat to hunt for rabbits. What they found there
has remained a baffling mystery ever since.
In a secluded spot on the north-east side of the hill, the boys discovered a small cave in the rock, hidden behind three pointed slabs of slate.
Concealed within were 17 miniature coffins.
Eight of these coffins survive to the present day, and are on display in the National Museum of Scotland. Few objects in our collection excite as much
intrigue. Who made the intricate carved figures? Who did they represent? Who placed them in their secret sepulchre… and why?"
There's an interesting exhibition on at the Edinburgh National Museum about these weird little coffins that were found. The full article is here:
But I'll paraphrase it to save folks the click.
The tiny coffins were arranged under slates in three tiers: two tiers of eight and one solitary coffin on the top. Each coffin, only 95mm in length,
contained a little wooden figure, expertly carved and dressed in custom-made clothes that had been stitched and glued around them.
What were they doing there? The newspapers of the time fell on the story, and each had a different theory.
‘Satanic spell-manufactory!’ cried The Scotsman, the first paper to report the tale, in an article published on 16 July 1836:
“ 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.
A month later, the Edinburgh Evening Post proposed a more measured solution, claiming the coffins represented:
“ An ancient custom which prevailed in Saxony, of burying in effigy departed friends who had died in a distant land.
The Caledonian Mercury added that:
“ We have also heard of another superstition which exists among some sailors in this country, that they enjoined their wives on parting to give
them “Christian burial” in an effigy if they happened [to be lost at sea].
Yet if this is the case, why so many similar coffins? Nobody had any answers.
After this initial flurry of media interest, the coffins passed into the hands of private collectors, reappearing in 1901, when eight were donated to
the Museum of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, and from there to National Museums Scotland. What happened to the remaining nine? The Scotsman
tells us that ‘a number’ were destroyed by the boys, although we don’t know how many – certainly no more have come to light since.
On surveying the evidence from The Scotsman, Edinburgh Evening Post and Caledonian Mercury, cuttings from which were donated with the coffins, the
Society concluded that ‘the intention [of the coffins] seems to be to symbolise honorific burial’.
But the mystery has not been allowed to rest there.
Five years later, in 1906, The Scotsman published another bizarre story about the coffins. A ‘lady residing in Edinburgh’ had told the paper that
her father (‘Mr B.’) had sometimes been visited at his business premises by a ‘daft man’. On one occasion, the man had drawn on a piece of
paper a picture of three small coffins, with the dates 1837, 1838 and 1840 written underneath.
‘In the autumn of 1837,’ The Scotsman explains, ‘a near relative of Mr B’s died; in the following year a cousin died and in 1840 his own
brother died. After the funeral, the daft deaf mute appeared again, walked into Mr B’s office and “glowering” at him vanished never to
‘Is it not just possible,’ the article goes on to ask, that this man was the maker of the Arthur’s Seat coffins, ‘driven mad by the loss of
his treasures’? Or was the whole story ‘nothing but coincidences’?
A weird twist to the tale indeed.
The rest of the article provides some more speculation and historical perspective, worth a read if you've managed this far and are still interested.
But nobody really knows.
Growing up as a little boy in Edinburgh I remember lots of stories about these figures, everybody claimed to know somebody whose grandfather had one
up on a shelf, and they were magical/cursed/etc. Because it does make you wonder where the rest of them are. I don't believe the boys destroyed them,
because they would have been potentially valuable. Kids don't just destroy treasure.