Arthur’s Seat is an extinct volcano just outside Edinburgh. The Seat and other peaks are located in Holyrood Park, a place for tourists and hikers now, but in 1836, sheep grazed here and locals hunted rabbits. Five boys were out after rabbits in the summer of 1836 when they opened up a recess in the rocks and discovered a stack of small wooden coffins, each less than four inches long by an inch wide. The boys threw the small boxes at each other, trashing some of them, but the next day one of their teachers made his way up the mountain and recovered those coffins that he could find. He took them home and pried off the lids to discover tiny wooden bodies. Over the next one and three-quarters centuries, people have speculated on just what these coffins are all about and why they were left where they were.
Anthropologists came up with theories about voodoo dolls and the like, and folktale collectors began calling them “Fairy Coffins”, a name that has stuck. There is a notion that these might be in memory of dead children:
a mother carv[ed] them for stillborn or miscarried children: portraits of the sons she never got to raise, made from the toys they never got to play with.
Now, it is not unknown for a woman to have seventeen children, but to have them all die at birth or in childhood seems such cruel happenstance that my mind simply rejects it.
Simpson and Menefee, authors of the key article on the coffins, put forward the notion that the coffins were related somehow to Burke and Hare, who had been convicted in 1829. Burke and Hare killed sixteen people and robbed one grave, so the number of corpses is right. But twelve of the victims were female and — so far as can be determined — all the figures in the coffins are meant to be male. Also, it is possible that the coffins were an on-going project, not meant to end with seventeen objects.
Accepting that their theory is problematic, Simpson and Menefee have suggested that investigators should look for tragedies of the era connected with the Edinburgh area that have seventeen victims — a shipwreck for instance. To date, no one has come up with a better idea and the Burke and Hare murders are given as the reason for the coffins by the Scottish National Museum.
Arthur’s Seat has certainly had more than its share of violent death: the slaughter of rebellious apprentices at Murder Acre in 1677, a murder-suicide at Hangman’s Crag in 1769, deaths accompanying various Scots attempts to rid themselves of English rule, a mutiny of local soldiers which had one direct death in 1778 and many indirect after the lads were shipped off to India. Corpses are found from time to time, some are possibly those of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s men, some are far more recent.
Once the site of a monastery, the area was considered by locals to be a place of sanctuary and various outcast individuals lived there on the fringe of society. A furnished cave from the 18th Century has been uncovered and explained as a smuggler’s hideout or an outlaw refuge, but any number of possibilities come to mind, a priest-hole, for instance, or a safehouse for Jacobite spies.
The first decades of the 19th Century, as Scotland modernized, were troubling to many locals. Horse-drawn railways constructed to bring coal into Edinburgh proliferated in the 1830s, and others were constructed to the harbors at Granton and Leith. Edinburgh residents were pleased to use the railroads for excursion purposes but were skeptical about the benefits of improving transport to the harbor towns. Leith opened its first harbor in 1806 and its second in 1817 — though it lacked effective city governance for a decade and became notorious as a hangout for thieves and ruffians. Some locals believed that the harbor towns were draining life from the region as they became embarkation points for New World emigrants.
Edinburgh was surpassed by Glasgow as Scotland’s largest city in the 1820s and there was a sense of decline in the city. The “Scottish Enlightenment” had ended before 1800 with the death of such luminaries as David Hume and Adam Smith and such soon-to-be-famous Scots as Sir Walter Scott had yet to make their mark. There was some anxiety about the great changes that were taking place.
The Holyrood area was held by the Earl of Haddington whose ancestors had received it from James VI. But after the Earl was accused of non-payment of poor taxes and was found to be quarrying stone from the mountain and selling it in London, in 1831 the Crown removed the noble grant and turned Holyrood into a park, officially named King’s- or Queen’s-Park from that time forward. Locals continued grazing their flocks and hunting rabbits around Arthur’s Seat until recent times.
Modernization combined with a sense of lost importance — quite a bit of turmoil in a short period.
But, of course, the coffins might not be connected with any particular event, nor even the malaise that infected some of the populace; they might simply be the product of a person or persons who thought this a cool project.
Of the original seventeen coffins only eight are still preserved. These are on display at Scotland’s National Museum.
Here’s what is known and unknown about them:
1– It is unknown exactly where the coffins were found. Various widely separathed places near Arthur’s Seat have been named. Whinny Hill, an eroded volcanic cone to the east, seems a likely candidate, though a place south-east of Arthur’s Seat is favored by some.
2– The coffins were in a niche (probably not man-made) in a hillside. Pieces of slate, perhaps three of them, were used to cover the opening. Reports that these were headstone-shaped are (I think) embellishments.
3–The coffins were arranged in two stacks of eight, and one coffin, possibly the beginning of a new stack, next to them. This description is apparently from one or more of the boys who discovered them but we have no first-hand reports, nor even the names, of these lads.
4– The coffins are in different stages of decay. Whether this means that they were placed in the niche at different times or simply suffered different amounts of moisture and weathering is unknown.
5–There was no real examination of the niche nor the slate covers. It is possible that no one but the boys actually saw either of these.
6–The eight coffins that have lasted through the years are carved from Scots pine. A knife, possibly with a hooked blade, was used to cut away a recess in a 95mm/3.74inch by 23mm/.9inch block of wood. In one case the knife blade has actually cut through the coffin bottom. Since a woodworker would have (presumably) used a chisel or gouge rather than a knife, it is conjectured that the maker(s) was/were a leatherworker or practiced some other trade requiring a very sharp knife. The 19th Century Edinburgh directories on-line show a number of boot and shoemakers and there is a large saddlery warehouse as well. (The directory for 1835 is not on-line but is available at museums and libraries in the area.)
7– The coffin lids are decorated with pieces of tin. Since tin was used to make shoe-buckles, this points toward a shoemaker.
8– Some of the coffins have rounded corners while others are square. It is conjectured that two carvers were at work.
9– Two of the coffins were originally painted or stained red.
10– One coffin is lined with paper made after 1780.
11– The wooden figures inside the coffins were not carved for that purpose. Some have had arms removed so that they will fit. Some show traces of black painted boots. Facial features include wide-open eyes. It is thought that the figures were orginally toy soldiers, possibly made in the 1790s.
12–Simpson and Menefee: “single-piece suits, made from fragments of cloth, have been moulded round the figures and sewn in place. With some figures there is evidence of adhesive under the cloth.” Some of the cloth is patterned or printed.
13–Some of the cloth on the figures has rotted away but what remains is in such good shape that it is thought that it could not have been buried long.
14– Cotton thread, used to sew the burial suits, replaced linen thread after 1800. Thread used to sew one of the suits is three-ply which came into use about 1830.
15– No DNA could be recovered on the dolls, cloth, or coffins. Scientific tests that might show age by analyzing paint or cloth have not been done.
So, the best conjectures are that: the coffins were carved by one or more individuals, possibly engaged in a trade that required a very sharp knife; who repurposed a group of toy soldiers for this project; and that at least one of the coffins was made within five or six years of their being discovered, though they may not all have been deposited in the niche at the same time.
That’s it. The mystery of the fairy coffins is likely to remain unsolved, barring the discovery of a pertinent old letter or manuscript in an attic trunk in Edinburgh. Meanwhile, your theory is as good as anyone else’s.
The best article on-line is this one by Mike Dash, originally published at Fortean Times.
Article in the July 16, 1836 Scotsman (“The Logic-chair”) describing the discovery of the coffins is available on-line, but it costs..
The 1994 study by Simpson and Menefee is in the Book of the Old Edinburgh Club, available for £4 plus postage.