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Edinburgh’s Miniature Coffins – The Mysterious Lilliputian Coffins, Discovered in Scotland

BY Gavin Alexander February 3, 2019
Edinburgh's Miniature Coffins

Edinburgh’s Miniature Coffins. (Kim Traynor / Wikimedia Commons)

The past was a mysteriously eerie place in so many ways, especially to look back on now from those fortunate enough to do so from the comfort of their own homes. Every day, items are found pertaining to these shadowy times and while the purpose of most can be explained they provide an intriguing reminder of times gone by and how our ancestors used to live. There are also those discoveries however with no indication of where it came from and why. They confuse even the most educated of archaeologists and historians. And therein lies the mystery.

This is a story from Edinburgh, Scotland, at the time known as Auld Reekie in Scots because of the smoke from coal fire and factory chimneys as well as the stench from a nearby Loch, were bodies among other things were dumped. On Arthur’s Seat –the biggest peak on a formation of hills around the Scottish capital – a set of miniature figures were discovered. Disturbingly, they were all included inside coffins. It is a mystery which has been ongoing for almost two centuries, deeply perplexing those to study it. Their purpose and origin are still completely unknown although as with every good mystery many theories have arose.

Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh

Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, Scotland. (David Monniaux / Wikimedia Commons)

Discovery of Edinburgh’s Miniature Coffins

In 1836 a group of boys were hunting rabbits on a famous hill to the east of Edinburgh. It is famous for hill-walking, climbing and in those days hunting. Yet the youngsters found a particularly more important prize, even if they did not know so themselves. They were on Arthur’s Seat, an elevated spot suspected to be named after the legendary King Arthur but the more likely etymology is from a strategic point for archers as opposed to Arthur. Inside a small cave-like opening and behind three slabs of slate were seventeen wooden models of figures inside coffins. They are expertly carved, effigies of humans, only four inches long at maximum, all dressed with different fabrics and painted black boots. It is found that the models were deposited at different times as some had already showed signs of ageing and decay. The top coffins were very new at the time of unearthing for example.

Several newspapers reported the story including the Scotsman naming this part of the article A Strange Discovery, published on July 16, 1836.

“…Lilliputian coffins… Evident that the depositions must have been made singly, and at considerable intervals—facts indicated by the rotten and decayed state of the first tier of coffins and their wooden mummies [… while] the coffin last placed, and its shrouded tenant, are as clean and fresh as if only a few days had elapsed since their entombment.”

This is important because it means there was not just one random drop or stash. Someone systematically looked out the spot at various intervals, even spanning years after the initial deposit in 1800, with the last in the 1830’s. These findings were presented by former president of the Royal Scottish Society of Arts – Allen Simpson among others.

What happened to them?

It is told that many were lost by the boys on the day of the finding. They were throwing them at each other in means of play-fighting oblivious to their age, fragility and importance. A jeweller called Robert Frazier fortunately managed to get his hands on the surviving figures, adding them to his private collection. After his retirement in 1845 he auctioned off what became known as the celebrated Lilliputian coffins found on Arthur’s Seat, 1836, and they reached four pounds (about 500 pounds now. In 1901 they passed to their final resting stop of the National Museum of Scotland – eight of which still remain today.

Possible theories

Theories have of course arisen with many of which attributing the figures to witchcraft as well as superstition. This is to do with the prevalent history of witches in those times and especially within Scotland. In terms of witches, Arthur’s Seat has historically been a site of witchcraft and other illicit practices. One such name for the ancient volcano is the Windy Gowl where more witches were burned and hanged there in the 16th Century than anywhere in Scotland.  In terms of superstition, it is thought even that sailors created them as a charm to keep safe at sea. (Edinburgh sits on the banks of the North Sea) Another theory came from the Evening Post. They noted that an ancient customer from Saxony, Germany explained that it is an ancient tradition to bury a miniature coffin as a remembrance to a friend or family member who had died in a distant land. 

Others surmise that the figures are to do with a duo of serial killers who murdered in Edinburgh – William Burke and William Hare. The main reason is that they killed seventeen victims, and only ten years before the cache was located. A popular trade in the 19th Century was that of cadavers. This was for medical students who usually only had a limited supply of recently executed convicts. Hare rented a boarding house and came up with the idea when one of his guests died whilst still owing some money. They used his body as collateral, turning to a life of crime and selling the corpse to a doctor called Robert Knox. After amassing a small fortune they were discovered and convicted. Hare actually testified against Burke who was hanged dissected and his skin made into a book cover. It is said that Burke would have had the intricate ability as he was a shoemaker.

This was later strengthened as a solution when in 2014 an anonymous box was delivered to the National History Museum. It was a replica of the models with a note stating ‘XVIII?’ which had quotes from a Robert Louis Stevenson story called The Body Snatchers (1884), a shot piece based on the Burke and Hare murders. It was addressed as a ‘gift’ to the museum ‘for caring for our nation’s treasures.’ However, this has also been doubted as a theory because the figures are all dressed in men’s clothes whereas the victims were mostly woman. Also, the eyes are open on the models.

The figures are not known the world over but they have become a small, mysterious symbol of Scotland’s capital which very much suits the style of the models. Famous crime writer Ian Rankin even wrote about them, giving them a mention in his Inspector Rebus novel The Falls. While we do not know their true origin perhaps as technology improves more will be revealed.

Enjoyed this article? Also, check out “Tana Toraja in Indonesia: The Celebratory Funeral Ceremonies and the Tree of Baby Graves“.

Fact Analysis:
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