The Tiny Coffins of Edinburgh

Something was found in 1836 near Edinburgh that has remained a mystery for well over 250 years. Naturally, we tend to end mystery with speculation, and you can imagine where the different storylines have gone. But first the known facts.

A group of boys found these “coffins” on a hillside near Edinburgh, Scotland known as “Arthur’s Seat”. They found a large piece of slate partially buried, and when they removed it, there was a small opening in the earth. In it there were 17 tiny wooden coffins, in three tiers. Two tiers of eight coffins, and one tier of one coffin. It appeared as if the coffins were placed one at a time with some interval between. The oldest coffins seemed to have suffered damage, the last coffin seemed much less damaged. Of course this might be due to the dampness & weathering.

What becomes interesting is that each coffin contained a small wooden doll, male, eyes open, 3 or 4 inches tall, dressed in common weavers cloth. 17 figurines placed with care in a hillside “cave” above Edinburgh.

This is not a natural occurrence, it is not successive natural tree root formations. It is not ginseng grown in the shape of a human. It is a human construct, constructed for a purpose, carefully planned, and possibly maintained over several years. The similarities seem to suggest that one person one responsibility, but left no written reason for the “dolls”.

It is also fairly clear that the coffins were not expected to be found, so the reason for their construction appears to be personal. Over the years it has been suggested the dolls were the work of witches, or represent the bodies of sailors lost at sea.

It has also been suggested that they are a memorial to the victims of the notorious and murderous bodysnatchers William Burke and William Hare, who carried out their gruesome deeds in the capital during a 10-month spree in 1820. Several movies have been made detailing with the business of providing fresh cadavers for the use of future doctors. The problem is that Burke and Hare have the right dates, but most of the victims were women, and all the dolls were men.

An on-going shrine for sailors lost a sea seemed like the most likely reason, based upon the style of clothing and common material.

Eight of these coffins are on display in the national museum of Scotland, and remain a very popular exhibit.

Recently a new theory has been proposed, referencing a long forgotten rebellion that was severely repressed by the British government. In Edinburgh there were factories as part of the Industrial Revolution. Weavers of cloth had moved from small local looms, to great buildings with looms run by a collection of belts powered by water wheels. The conditions in these factories were horrific, with hundreds of children working the looms. The workers protested and struck.

The authority rounded up the leaders of the protest and hanged a number of them. The rest were placed on ships that sailed for Australia. For the out of work weavers, Sir Walter Scott recommended that they should be put to work making a road around “Arthur’s Seat”. Not a very fit thing for weaver’s to do. But perhaps the coffins were a memory of those hanged or sent to Australia.

In either case, the Rebellion was forgotten, Britain lost control of Scotland’s governance, and the little coffins are displayed in the National museum, still a mystery, but honored.

(Inspired by a story written by Charles Fort)

About johndiestler

Retired community college professor of graphic design, multimedia and photography, and chair of the fine arts and media department.
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1 Response to The Tiny Coffins of Edinburgh

  1. Anonymous says:

    Another brilliant story!!!

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