It is amazing just how many strange discoveries have been stumbled upon by complete accident. Some of the most baffling mysteries have been found by pure chance, hidden away in the shadows before suddenly being thrust into the light to baffle and perplex. On an isolated hill in Scotland just such a discovery was made, when there were found a collection of mysterious, anomalous coffins that have never been explained.
In June of 1836 a group of young boys set out to go hunting for rabbits of the slopes of a place called Arthur’s Seat, in Edinburgh, Scotland. The location itself is an ancient volcanic hill already steeped in history and legend, giving it a mystical air, and it is here where the boys stumbled across a small cave on the north-east slope. The cave was not easy to see, more a gap in the rocks than anything else, concealed there behind some stone slabs for who knows how long, and boys being boys of course they just had to investigate. The curious boys peeked inside the dank murkiness of this long forgotten cave and there lined up within the gloom were 17 tiny coffins, each one of them only 3 or 4 inches long and containing within a meticulously carved wooden doll with wide, gaping eyes and dressed in clothing that had been expertly fashioned of cotton. The coffins were arranged in two tiers of eight coffins each, and a third one with only one coffin on it, with the dolls less decayed and rotted away the higher the tier was, that solitary coffin and doll at the top looking to be the newest. The Scotsman newspaper would describe the finding:
Each coffin contained a miniature figure of the human form cut out in wood, the faces in particular being pretty well executed. They were dressed from head to foot in cotton clothes, and decently laid out with a mimic representation of all the funereal trappings which usually form the last habiliments of the dead. The coffins are about three or four inches in length, regularly shaped, and cut out from a single piece of wood, with the exception of the lids, which are nailed down with wire sprigs or common brass pins. The lid and sides of each are profusely studded with ornaments, formed with small pieces of tin, and inserted in the wood with great care and regularity.
Of course, boys being boys, they had no idea of the value of their discovery, and according to the article in The Scotsman newspaper they destroyed half of them on the way home by “pelting them at each other as unmeaning and contemptible trifles.” People who saw the coffins and dolls at the time immediately thought that they were the result of witchcraft and black magic, and indeed The Scotsman would fan the fires of such speculation, writing:
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.
Another theory at the time was that the dolls might have represented dead sailors who had died at sea, effigies created to give them a proper burial, while others still thought that the boys were just playing a prank. Whatever the case may be, after the initial news coverage the coffins were just sort of forgotten and quietly found their way to a private collector, fading into the mists of time for decades before a set of eight was eventually donated to the National Museum of Scotland in 1901. It was only then that they were really noticed and discussed for the first time, and they baffled pretty much everyone who saw them. Questions abounded. Who had put them there in that remote cave and why? Why craft these tiny little coffins and their dolls? What was their significance? No one knew, indeed, we still don’t, but there have been ideas.
The main idea at first was that these had been effigies of people crafted in order to give them “honorific burials,” but other speculation would come up over the years. One idea was that the coffins were lucky charms made be a local craftsman in order to be sold to passing sailors for a safe voyage. However, there is no evidence to point to any one of these theories in particular, and so the dolls and their little ornate coffins remained a mystery, and they were seen as mostly mere anomalous curiosities.
It would not be until 1990 that anyone would really launch any sort of in-depth study of the coffins and their occupants, when a Professor Samuel Menefee, of the Center for National Security Law at the University of Virginia, and Dr Allen Simpson, of the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh, began taking a closer look at them. They made many observations about the enigmatic objects, such as that they had likely all been made by the same person, that the way they were made seemed to suggest they were created by a shoemaker, and that they seemed to have been built in the style of toys rather than funerary effigies. It was also noted that some of them had had their arms removed, and maybe even hats that had once sat upon their heads taken off, possibly to fit them into the coffins and suggesting that the dolls were not necessarily specifically made for their final resting places. The style and fabric of their clothing also suggested that they had been buried in the 1830s, probably not very long before they were found, although the paper that lines some of the coffins was dated back to the 1780s.
The theory that the researchers came up with is that the figures and their coffins represent the victims of two Irish immigrant serial killers William Burke and William Hare, who were infamous for a brutal murder spree in the 1820s that left 17 people dead. They targeted mostly transients, and killed in order to feed the trade in cadavers for Edinburgh’s medical school. It is the opinion of Simpson and Menefee that these wooden figures were made in order to give a proper burial to the 17 dead in the wake of what are typically referred to as the West Port murders. The researchers would write of this:
The problem with the various theories is their concentration on motivation, rather than on the event or events that caused the interments. The former will always be open to argument, but if the burials were event-driven—by, say the loss of a ship with seventeen fatalities during the period in question—the speculation would at least be built on demonstrable fact. Stated another way, what we seek is an Edinburgh-related event or events, involving seventeen deaths, which occurred close to 1830 and certainly before 1836. One obvious answer springs to mind—the West Port Murders by William Burke and William Hare in 1827 and 1828.
Considering beliefs such as the alleged mimic burial given to Scottish sailors lost at sea, it would not be unreasonable for some person or person, in the absence of the seventeen dissected bodies, to wish to propitiate these dead, the majority of whom were murdered in atrocious circumstances, by a form of burial to set their spirits at rest. While it is always possible that other disasters could have resulted in an identical casualty list, the West Port murders would appear to be a logical motivating force.
The problem with this idea is that all of the figures in the miniature coffins are male, where almost all of the victims of the West Port murders were female, yet it is an interesting line of speculation. What is the deal with these mysterious coffins and their dolls? In the end there has been no concrete, definitive answer, and these coffins and their creepy, eerie dolls remain on display in museums, fascinating people as much as they always have, and probably always will.