Mystery of Arthur's Seat Coffins

In 1836 five boys searching for rabbits found a set of seventeen mysterious tiny coffins with three or four inches long, containing small wooden figures in a cave on the crags of Arthur's Seat which is located in Holyrood park to the East of the Royal Mile, Edinburgh. They were dressed differently in both style and material. There were two tiers of eight coffins each, and a third one begun, with one coffin. The purpose has remained a mystery ever since the discovery.

According to one of Charles Fort's memorable passages, who described the mysterious discovery in London Times, July 20, 1836:

"The extraordinary datum, which has especially made mystery here: That the coffins had been deposited singly, in the little cave, and at intervals of many years. In the first tier, the coffins were quite decayed, and the wrappings had moldered away. In the second tier, the effects of age had not advanced too far. And the top coffin was quite recent looking."

The mysterious Arthur's Seat coffins

No-one knows what they were, why they were buried or who buried them but people have been trying to resolve the mystery ever since. At the time of their discovery, The Scotsman suggested they were used by witches casting death spells on specific individuals.

Another theories is that they were kept by sailors to protect against death. Also it has been suggested that they might be connected with the murders committed by Burke and Hare in 1828. Working in Edinburgh, they sold the bodies of people they had murdered for dissection in the city's anatomy classes. There were 16 known victims of the serial-killers plus the first person sold "to the doctors", namely a man who had died of natural causes. Alternatively, the coffins may represent the 16 bodies sold to the doctors, plus that of the final victim who remained unburied at the time of the duo's arrest, but was, as a destitute beggar, very likely dissected in any case. William Burke was caught and executed for his crimes in 1829. Ironically his body was legally given to an anatomy class for dissection.

The coffins also feature in the 2001 crime novel "The Falls" by Ian Rankin. Now, the miniature coffins are displayed in Edinburgh's Royal Museum.


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