It’s one of the most astonishing mysteries ever discovered in Scotland, and almost 200 years on, we are still no closer to solving it.
In June 1836, five young schoolboys were out hunting for rabbits on the slopes of Edinburgh’s Arthur’s Seat and found something macabre instead.
Hidden away in a small opening on a rock on the northeast side, hidden beneath the layers of stone, were 17 tiny coffins, arranged in three rows.
Each measuring around 95mm (just under 4 inches) long, they were carved from pine and contained a wooden figurine.
The boys had been pulling away the stones when they spotted the coffins laid out in three tiers, right in the folds of Arthur’s Seat and on an incline. Not only did each of these ‘Lilliputian coffins’ (as they were described at the time) have a lid, but each of the figures had painted black boots and custom-made clothes that were stitched and glued to make them look like little people.
But why were they placed there and who made them?
Debate raged at the time hinting at dark magic described the hole as a “Satanic spell-manufactory!”, while a more local paper believed they might be part of an ancient burial ritual custom.
Only eight of the fascinating little relics have survived through today, with them currently on display at the National Museum of Scotland – where they remain one of the most popular exhibits.
George Dalgleish, keeper of Scottish history and archaeology at the museum, told the Daily Record in 2012 that initially, they ended up in the collection of someone who had a private museum built that they came to the National Museum of Scotland in 1901.
They believe that several of the coffins were destroyed by the children who first found them.
One theory hints that they may have been used in some kind of witchcraft ritual.
However, this has been disputed as eyewitnesses were not typically used in these types of ceremonies.
Another idea offered is that they were created by someone for families to represent the sailors they have lost at sea.
Burke and Hare
One theory of offered up by George is that the 17 coffins are connected to famous serial killers Burke and Hare, who murdered 17 people in the capital.
He told us: “This was a time when people believed that a corpse being buried was necessary for resurrection and that a dissected body would not be able to rise at the Last Judgment.”
People were filled with horror and revulsion by the idea of grave robbing and for Burke and Hare to kill people for purposes of grave robbing and for Burke and Hare to kill people for the purpose of selling their bodies for dissection, was just about the worst horror imaginable.
“The trial of Burke and Hare generated a huge amount of public interest, and so it is one theory that someone, somewhere thought their victims deserved a burial and in the absence of any bodies gave them a symbolic burial using these figurines.”
A Scottish-American writer named Jeff Nisbet believes they were leveraged from the Radical War of 1820, created as a memorial to a political movement related to the war and those killed supporting it.
What we do know
According to the National Museum, a study of the coffins in the 1990s revealed that the figurines all appear to be made by the same hand, although it’s possible the coffins were crafted by two different people.
The materials and tools used to make them hint at their age as they have been made by a shoemaker or cobbler.