The Enigma of Edinburgh’s Miniature Coffins

National Museums Scotland
National Museums Scotland

It was a group of boys out hunting for rabbits who found the coffins one summer’s day in 1836. They were roaming a rocky peak known as Arthur’s Seat that overlooks Edinburgh, Scotland, when their attention was caught by a small cave, its entrance carefully covered with pieces of slate. After pulling back the slabs of stone, the boys found 17 coffins, each about 3.7 inches long, arranged in three tiers—two rows of eight, and a solitary coffin at the start of a third row. Inside each was a small wooden doll, its face carved with wide-open eyes, dressed in plain cotton clothes that covered the thin body from bare head to flat feet.

The question of who carved the figures and coffins—and why—has been a mystery ever since. Were the objects tools of witchcraft, part of a pagan ritual, or a memorial to one of the era’s most notorious killing sprees?

A STRANGE DISCOVERY

The Scotsman was the first to report on the discovery, on July 16, 1836, noting that the "Lilliputian coffins" were all "decently 'laid out' with mimic representation of all the funeral trappings which usually form the last habiliments of the dead." Stranger still, it seemed "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."

From the beginning, theories swirled around the discovery of the so-called "fairy coffins," with some declaring them ritualistic offerings, and others describing them as creepy child’s playthings. The Scotsman wrote, "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 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.” Indeed, the moody Arthur’s Seat has long drawn tales of witches casting spells on its volcanic hill; Edinburgh’s dark history includes an estimated 300 people sentenced for witchcraft, with more burned there in the 16th century than anywhere else in Scotland.

Nor are witches the only aspects of folklore to be mentioned in connection with the coffins. Later in 1836, the Edinburgh Evening Post posited that the coffins might be related to an "ancient custom which prevailed in Saxony, of burying in effigy departed friends who had died in a distant land." The Caledonian Mercury chimed in, saying that they had "also heard of another superstition which exists among some sailors in this country, that they enjoined their wives on parting to give them 'Christian burial' in an effigy if they happened [to be lost at sea]."

Yet as George Dalgleish, keeper of Scottish history and archaeology at National Museums Scotland, says in a 2015 video, there’s little evidence of such ceremonial burial practices in Scotland. And if a doll were created for witchcraft purposes, he notes, it’s likely it would have been mutilated or destroyed rather than carefully bundled in stitched cotton clothing and hidden within a cave.

In the 1990s, a new theory emerged—linked to one of the darkest chapters in Edinburgh’s history.

“ATROCIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES”

Scottish doctor Robert Knox
Scottish doctor Robert Knox
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the early 19th century, Edinburgh was home to a thriving underground trade in dead bodies. The buyers were medical students and their teachers, who required the corpses for training and study but who were legally limited to a small number of executed convicts for their supply.

William Burke and William Hare saw an opportunity. Their gruesome business plan was sparked when, in 1827, one of the lodgers at Hare’s boarding house died suddenly while still owing £4 in rent, and they sold his remains to anatomist Dr. Robert Knox for 7 pounds 10 shillings (about $820 today). Rather than waiting for more spontaneous deaths, the pair turned to murder, targeting travelers and downtrodden characters whose disappearance was not likely to be noticed. After making a small fortune from the sale of their victims to Dr. Knox, they were caught when a lodger discovered a body in a pile of straw. Hare turned king's evidence on Burke, agreeing to testify against his fellow murderer for immunity. Burke was hanged, dissected as punishment, and his skin bound into a book.

But what do these infamous murders have to do with the enigmatic coffins? As author Mike Dash notes for Smithsonian.com, the link was first proposed by two visiting fellows at the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh—Professor Samuel Menefee and Dr. Allen Simpson, a curator at National Museums Scotland. The pair examined the construction of the coffins and concluded that they had all been deposited in the 1830s. They also noted that the 17 coffins found in the cave match the number of Burke and Hare victims (including the first, who died a natural death).

As to why someone would create such a strange tribute to the murders, the answer may be tied to the belief in the need for a complete body on Resurrection Day. This is part of the reason dissection was often used as a punishment for criminals. Menefee and Simpson theorized that perhaps the coffins were crafted to return corporeality, or at least some symbolic dignity, to the dissected victims. As they write, "it would not be unreasonable for some person or person, in the absence of the 17 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."

Close-up of the coffins discovered in Edinburgh in 1836
National Museums Scotland

Of course, correlation does not imply causation, and there are many holes to be poked in the Burke and Hare theory. For one thing, all the wooden bodies were dressed in men’s clothing, but the pair’s victims were mostly women. Furthermore, the eyes of the figures are open, not closed like a corpse. Some have even speculated that Burke himself made the coffins, as their woodworking and tin decorations suggest the hand of a shoemaker—Burke’s profession when he was not suffocating Hare’s guests.

Eight of the coffins have been on display almost continuously at Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland since 1901. (As to what became of the nine other coffins, the Scotsman wrote in their initial report that "a number were destroyed by the boys pelting them at each other as unmeaning and contemptible trifles.")

David S. Forsyth, principal curator of Renaissance and early modern history at National Museums Scotland, says the coffins still draw comments from museum goers. "It’s the mystery behind them that makes them so compellingly intriguing, no one can solely own their story," he tells Mental Floss. "They can be linked to the more intangible aspects of our culture and history, or to real episodes such as Burke and Hare."

In December 2014, there was a curious twist in the case. A box was delivered to the museum with no return address. Inside was a detailed replica of the coffins found in 1836, down to the metal details on the lid and the roughly carved face of its figure. A note included with the object cryptically began "XVIII?," suggesting this was an 18th addition to the group, and quoted Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story "The Body Snatcher" (1884), itself inspired by Burke and Hare.

The handwritten text declared the miniature coffin a "gift" to the National Museum of Scotland, "for caring for our nation's treasures." Especially the eight that cannot be explained.

The Christmas Book Flood: Iceland’s Literature-Loving Holiday Tradition

iStock.com/Viktor_Gladkov
iStock.com/Viktor_Gladkov

In Iceland, the most popular Christmas gifts aren't the latest iProducts or kitchen gadgets. They're books. Each year, Iceland celebrates what’s known as “Jólabókaflóðið:” the annual Yule Book Flood.

The holiday season is the Black Friday of the Icelandic publishing world—but it’s not just about one day. According to Reader’s Digest, at the beginning of November, each household in Iceland gets a copy of the Bokatidindi, the Iceland Publishers Association’s catalog of all the books that will be published that year, giving residents a chance to pick out holiday books for their friends and family. September to November marks Icelandic publishers’ biggest season, and many sell the majority of their yearly stock leading up to Christmas. Even grocery stores become major booksellers during the Book Flood season.

The Jólabókaflóðið (pronounced YO-la-bok-a-flothe) tradition dates back to post-World War II economic policies. Iceland separated from Denmark in 1918, and didn’t become a fully autonomous republic until 1944. During the Great Depression, the country created a rigid, intricate system of import restrictions, and its protectionist policies continued after the war. High inflation and strict rations on imported goods made it difficult for Icelanders to get their hands on many products. The one imported product that was relatively easy to get? Paper. As a result, books became the nation’s default gift purchase, and they still are, more than half a century later.

The "flood" in Christmas Book Flood has more to do with the deluge of books hitting bookstores than it does a flood of books flowing onto individual bookshelves. To take advantage of the tradition, most hardback books published in Iceland come out in the months leading up to Christmas, when Icelanders will be purchasing them for friends and family. (Cheaper paperbacks often come out a few months later, since people are more apt to buy those for themselves rather than their loved ones, according to The Reykjavik Grapevine’s Hildur Knútsdóttir.)

While family traditions vary from household to household, most Icelanders unwrap a book on December 24, according to Reader’s Digest. Some people get a book for every member of their family, while others do a swap exchange where everyone brings one title and everyone gets to pick one from the pile. After the exchange, many people cozy up with their new volume and get reading, preferably in bed, with chocolate.

As Icelandic writer Alda Sigmundsdóttir explained in a blog post in 2008, people in Iceland “will typically describe the pinnacle of enjoyment as lying in bed eating konfekt [filled chocolates] and reading one of the books they received under the tree. Later, at the slew of Christmas parties that inevitably follow, the Christmas books will be a prominent topic of conversation, and post-Yule the newspapers are filled with evaluations of which books had the best and worst titles, best and worst covers, etc.” Sounds like a pretty good tradition to us.

It’s not surprising that Iceland places such high importance on giving and receiving books. The country reads and publishes more books per capita than any other nation in the world, and one in 10 Icelanders have published a book themselves. (There’s an Icelandic adage, “ad ganga med bok I maganum,” that means “everyone gives birth to a book.” Well, technically it means “everyone has a book in their stomach,” but same idea.)

But the glut of books that flood the Icelandic market during the latter months of the year may not be as completely joyful as it sounds, some critics warn—at least not when it comes to the stability of the publishing market. Iceland is a nation of just 338,000 people, and there are more books than there are people to buy them. Some publishers, faced with a lack of space to store the unsold books, have had to resort to destroying unpurchased stock at the end of the holiday season. But marketing books outside of Yuletime is a relatively budding practice, one that Icelandic presses are still adapting to. It’s hard to beat the prospect of curling up after Christmas dinner with a freshly opened book and a bunch of chocolates, after all.

11 Facts About Robert the Bruce, King of Scots

Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn
Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn
Edmund LeightonCassell and Company, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The subject of a recent Netflix original movie called Outlaw King, Robert the Bruce is one of Scotland’s great national heroes. Get to know King Bob a little better.

1. Robert the Bruce was a polyglot who loved telling stories.

He likely spoke Scots, Gaelic, Latin, and Norman French, and was an avid reader who loved studying the lives of previous monarchs. According to a parliamentary brief from around 1364, Robert the Bruce "used continually to read, or have read in his presence, the histories of ancient kings and princes, and how they conducted themselves in their times, both in wartime and in peacetime.” In his free time, he would recite tales about Charlemagne and Hannibal from memory.

2. Despite his reputation as Scotland’s savior, he spent years siding with England.

The Bruce family spent the 1290s complaining that they had been robbed of the Scottish Crown. That’s because, after the deaths of King Alexander III and his granddaughter Margaret, it was unclear who Scotland's next monarch should be. Debates raged until John Balliol was declared King in 1292. The Bruces, who had closer blood ties to the previous royal family (but not closer paternal ties) considered Balliol an usurper. So when tensions later flared between Balliol and Edward I of England, the resentful Bruces took England’s side.

3. He murdered his biggest political rival.

John Comyn is killed by Robert Bruce and Roger de Kirkpatrick before the high altar of the Greyfriars Church in Dumfries, 10 February 1306
Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux, Cassell, Petter & Galpin, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

One of the leading figures standing in the way of Robert the Bruce’s path to Scotland’s throne was Balliol's nephew, John III Comyn, Lord of Badenoch. In 1306, Robert arranged a meeting with Comyn in the Chapel of Greyfriars in Dumfries, Scotland. There, Robert accused Comyn of treachery and stabbed him. (And when word spread that Comyn had somehow survived, two of Robert’s cronies returned to the church and finished the deed, spilling Comyn’s blood on the steps of the altar.) Shortly after, Robert declared himself King of Scotland and started to plot an uprising against England.

4. He lived in a cave and was inspired by a very persistent spider.

The uprising did not go exactly according to plan. After Robert the Bruce killed Comyn in a church, Pope Clement V excommunicated him. To add salt to his wounds, Robert's ensuing attempts to battle England became a total failure. In the winter of 1306, he was forced to flee Scotland and was exiled to a cave on Rathlin Island in Northern Ireland.

Legend has it that as Robert took shelter in the cave, he saw a spider trying—and failing—to spin a web. The creature kept attempting to swing toward a nearby rock and refused to give up. Bruce was so inspired by the spider’s tenacity that he vowed to return to Scotland and fight. Within three years, he was holding his first session of parliament.

5. He went to battle with a legion of ponies.

For battle, Robert the Bruce preferred to employ a light cavalry of ponies (called hobbies) and small horses (called palfreys) in a tactic known as hobelar warfare. In one famous story, a young English knight named Sir Henry de Bohun sat atop a large warhorse and saw Robert the Bruce mounted upon a palfrey. Bohun decided to charge. Robert saw his oncoming attacker and stood in his stirrups—putting him at the perfect height to swing a battleaxe at the oncoming horseman’s head. After slaying his opponent, the king reportedly complained, “I have broken my good axe.”

6. He loved to eat eels.

Robert the Bruce
iStock.com/fotoVoyager

Robert the Bruce’s physician, Maino de Maineri, criticized the king’s penchant for devouring eels. “I am certain that this fish should not be eaten because I have seen it during the time I was with the king of the Scots, Robert Bruce, who risked many dangers by eating [moray eels], which are by nature like lampreys," de Maineri wrote. "It is true that these [morays] were caught in muddy and corrupt waters.” (Notably, overeating eels was considered the cause of King Henry I England’s death.)

7. His underdog victory at Bannockburn proved that quality could defeat quantity.

In 1314, Robert the Bruce defeated King Edward II’s army at Bannockburn, sending England (as the popular anthem Flower of Scotland goes) “homeward tae think again.” It was a surprising victory; the English had about 2000 armored horsemen and 15,000 foot soldiers, compared to the Scots's 500 horsemen and 7000 foot soldiers. But Robert the Bruce used geography to his advantage, forcing the English to attempt crossing two large and boggy streams. The victory was a huge turning point in the Scottish War of Independence and would help secure Scotland's freedom.

8. He’s firmly intertwined with the Knights Templar mythology.

Treasure hunters speculate that in the 14th century, the Knights Templar fled to Scotland with a trove of valuables because they received support and protection from King Robert the Bruce. Thanks to his help, they say, the Knights were able to hide gold and holy relics—from ancient Gospel scrolls to the Holy Grail—in secret spots across the country (including in Rosslyn Chapel, of The Da Vinci Code fame). But there is little evidence to support these colorful myths. Templar scholar and medieval historian Helen Nicholson said that any remaining Knights Templar were likely hanging out in the balmy climes of Cyprus.

9. He’s still donating money to a Scottish church.

Robert the Bruce and Elizabeth de Burgh
Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux, Cassell, Petter & Galpin, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

After the death of his second wife, Elizabeth de Burgh, Robert the Bruce decreed to give the Auld Kirk in Cullen, Scotland—now the Cullen and Deskford Parish—a total of five Scots pounds every year. That's because, in 1327, Elizabeth had died after falling off a horse, and the local congregation generously took care of her remains. Robert was so touched by the gesture that he promised to donate money “for all eternity.” To this day, his bequest is still being paid.

10. Parts of his body are buried in multiple places.

Robert the Bruce died on June 7, 1329, just a month before his 55th birthday. The cause of his death has been a source of much discussion, and disagreement, but most modern scholars believe that he succumbed to leprosy. His funeral was a rather elaborate affair that required nearly 7000 pounds of candle wax just for the funerary candles. Following the fashion for royalty, he was buried in multiple places. His chest was sawed open and his heart and internal organs removed: The guts were buried near his death-place at the Manor of Cardross, near Dumbarton; his corpse interred in Dunfermline Abbey; and his heart placed inside a metal urn to be worn around the neck of Sir James Douglas, who promised to take it to the Holy Lord.

11. His heart was the original “Brave Heart.”

Unfortunately, Sir Douglas never made it to the Holy Land: He got sidetracked and took a detour to fight the Moors in Spain, where he was killed. Before his attackers reached him, Douglas reportedly threw the urn containing the king’s heart and yelled, “Lead on brave heart, I’ll follow thee.” The heart was soon returned to Scotland, where its location was forgotten until a team of archaeologists discovered it in 1921. It’s now interred in Melrose Abbey.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER