There is a place that dominates the landscape of Edinburgh, Scotland like no other. Steeped in myth and history, this giant rocky formation juts out over the city with purpose. It has bore witness to countless ages and civilizations, and will remain long after we have gone.
Arthur’s Seat, in the middle of Holyrood Park is a place of magic.
Long believed to be the site r of Camelot, it is named for the famous castle’s supposed ruler, King Arthur.
This dormant volcano, is said the be shaped like a sleeping dragon, who in Celtic lore, used to fly around in circles tormenting the villagers and eating their livestock. One day, it ate so much, that it lay down to rest, and never woke again. It’s bones turned to stone, and it’s flesh to grass and gorse.
While other holy sites see pilgrimages only a few times a year, Arthur’s Seat allows hundreds of people to tread on it’s dewy back every single day.
There is a powerful feeling when you are following the ancient paths so many have walked before…….it’s no wonder this place is steeped in superstition and folktales.
It’s one of these tales which I will be talking to you about today, it is known as the Arthur’s Seat Seventeen.
This is the Memento Mori Oracle Podcast, where I, Claire Goodchild discuss the history, lore and symbolism of the images depicted in the cards of the Memento Mori Oracle Deck.
One sunny afternoon in the summer of 1836, a group of young boys headed to Arthur’s Seat in order to hunt rabbits and play among the rocks and shrubs.
When the boys reached the northeastern part of the seat, one of them noticed something peculiar. Three thin pieces of slate had been propped up against the wall of the rock, concealing something.
The boys imaginations must’ve been running wild at this point. What had they stumbled upon? A long hidden treasure? Someones secret booze stash? The possibilities were endless.
When they pulled the sheets of rock away and dug out the opening, they were disappointed in what they found.
17 little wooden boxes.
Two rows were stacked with eight boxes each, and a third row was begun that contained just one box.
Annoyed that they didn’t just strike it rich, the boys did the next best thing, they made a game of throwing them at each other.
After nine of the boxes were destroyed, the boys grew tired and headed home, leaving the contents of the opening in the rock to protect themselves.
The following day at school, the boys were retelling the previous days events to their friends, when they were overheard by the headmaster Mr. Ferguson.
Mr. Ferguson thankfully pressed the boys for more information. He happened to be a member of the Archeological Society, and knew this was no ordinary discovery.
Presumably, the boys escorted the man to the location after being scolded for destroying something that wasn’t theirs.
When Mr. Ferguson saw what remained in the little cave. He was shocked.
These weren’t just any wooden boxes. They were coffins.
Each one was hand-crafted and measured between 3-4 inches long. All rectangular, but some had their edges rounded to give a more finished appearance.
Remember, because we are in the UK here, coffin is the catch-all term for burial boxes.
Inside were small wooden figures, each dressed in a different outfit.
Shortly after the discovery, the coffins and their occupants became residents at the private museum of a jeweller named Robert Frazier.
Upon his retirement, they were sold and unaccounted for until 1901 when they were donated to the National Museum of Scotland by a woman named Christina Couper
Over the years many theories about who placed them in the cliff side have been proposed. Some promising, and others rooted in more fantasy than reality. Nevertheless, they are all worth talking about.
The first theory is that they were used as poppets to inflict harm on a group of people.
This was coyly proposed by the Scotsman Newspaper on July 16th, just a few short weeks after the discovery.
You see, the writer worded it in such a way, that he planted the seed of suspicion that dark magics were involved in the readers mind without actually saying it.
“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 the Mushat’s Cairn or the Windy Gowl, who retain their ancient power to work spells of death by entombing the likenesses of those they wish to destroy.”
Scotland has a long and horrific history of witch executions, and the writer definitely knew how to use those stories to his advantage.
By implying that less sophisticated people might be using a poppet to curse some poor bystander, speculation was able to take hold.
They must’ve sold many papers that day.
I will be covering poppets in depth in episode 55, but I will give you a quick run down in case you aren’t familiar.
Poppets are dolls that typically represent a living person or being. They are mainly used for protection, prosperity and love magic, but can also be used for harm.
Poppets have been used all over the world in the folk magic, including in Scotland, though they were usually crafted of wax or clay.
The most well-known, and most misunderstood poppet in popular culture is the Voodoo Doll. Racism has played a part in this of course, as narratives around most West African magics are framed as evil and unnatural.
While the figures in the coffin are most definitely effigies, it is unlikely that they were used for baneful magic. These were well cared for, and their burial location is known to be a sacred site.
The UK was fascinated with Gothic fiction during this time period, and Penny Dreadfuls, which were fantastical weekly stories that even the most cash strapped person could buy, were a 19th century phenomenon.
The Scotsman would’ve been foolish not to capitalize on the publics desperation for mystery and murder.
In fact, five years after the initial reporting of the coffins by the paper, they released a follow-up story that went something like this.
An unnamed woman, who resided in Edinburgh, came forward about several encounters her father had , who is just called Mr. B, with a daft man.
Daft was a term used at the time for people who were deaf or had trouble communicating.
Today it is used as a catch-all term for being “stupid”, which is really ableist and rude, so I would encourage you not to use it outside of historical context.
In one visit, the man had shown Mr. B a picture he had drawn of three small coffins, with the dates 1837, 1838 and 1840 written underneath.
The Scotsman article went on to say that in 1837, 1838 and 1840 relatives of Mr. B all passed away, and at the final funeral, the mysterious man appeared and glowered at Mr. B.
They proposed, subtly of course, that the man had been distraught by the discovery of his treasures in Arthur’s Seat, and took his magical revenge on Mr. B?
While this adds a nice touch of mystery to the story, it is likely a complete fabrication of either the woman or the journalist.
This is of course, the perfect jumping off point for the next theory that grew in popularity.
Some proposed that they could be surrogate burials for people who died abroad and were never heard from again. An abundance of Scots were travelling to Canada during the 18th and 19th century. It was a treacherous ocean journey, and boats were rife with illness and death.
The practice of a ceremonial burial does happen around the world today. People bury an empty casket, and get a headstone crafted for a loved one who has been declared dead, but there is no body to inter.
Unfortunately there is no evidence of this practice taking place in Scotland at the time.
No other mock burials of this type have been found in the area.
This was a peculiar incident, and the coffins clearly represent a specific group of people.
Remember this in a just a few minutes when we get to our our last, and most credible theory.
Before we head there, we go to 1976 when Walter Hävernick, the Director of the Museum of Hamburg History, released his theory to the archeological world.
Based on a German superstition of sailors carrying mandrake roots or poppets in tiny coffins as talisman, he proposed that these coffins were lucky charms, stored in Arthur’s Seat by a travelling salesman, to be sold to sailors.
While charms and talismans were used all across the country, well into the late 1800s, again, there is no evidence that this specific practice took place in anywhere in Scotland.
It also raises questions as to why this supposed salesman would store his wares in the side of Arthur’s Seat to begin with. It just doesn’t add up.
In 1990 Professor Samuel Menefee and the then curator of the National Museum of Scotland Dr Allen Simpson went above and beyond researching the eight coffins.
Their main discoveries were as follows:
- The coffins were crafted from a single piece of wood, hollowed out, likely by one person, but it’s possible a second person helped out.
- The tools used, and the tin embellishments on the outside, were those of a shoemaker.
- The effigies themselves, were all created by the same person. They are most likely a set of toy soldiers and repurposed for the burial.
- The thread their handcrafted outfits were made of, is dated to the early 1830s, so they were only buried in the rocks at some point in those 6 years.
- Some of the figures had missing limbs, likely so they would fit securely in the coffins.
These discoveries would lay the ground work for the most credible theory, that these little figures, were mock burials for the victims of notorious serial killers Burke & Hare.
William Burke, and William Hare were two Irish men who immigrated to Scotland in search of work.
They happened to meet in 1828, when Burke, rented a room at the inn run by Hare. The two became fast friends. It was this awful twist of fate, that would lead to the murders of 16 people in a span of 10 months.
They began their foray into murder when a pensioner at Hare’s guesthouse died of natural causes, before receiving his money for the week. This left Hare out the room and board he was owed.
Somehow, the men decided on a plan to sell the man’s body to the local Surgeons College for dissection.
Fresh corpses were rare, but essential for students to advance their surgical expertise, so the men were paid handsomely for the one they delivered.
Body snatching and grave robbing was rampant during this period. With bodies being sold to medical colleges all over the UK.
Perhaps impressed by the ease of the sale, and the amount of money they got for the body, the two men agreed this would be their next career.
However, they didn’t want to do the dirty work of digging up bodies. It was actually quite dangerous, with private security routinely roaming the graveyards, so naturally they landed on murder instead.
4 men and 12 women would fall victim to Burke and Hare, with Hare eventually turning queens evidence on Burke when they were caught.
Burke was hanged for their crimes, and in an ironic twist of fate, his body was dissected in a classroom, presumably by the same men he used to supply with corpses.
Burke’s skeleton can still be viewed at the University of Edinburgh’s Anatomical Museum.
Hare on the other hand, fled the area, never to be heard from again.
17 people sold for dissection, 17 people who weren’t given a christian burial, 17 coffins laid to rest in a sacred site.
The time period fits, the number fits and the circumstances fit.
The main argument against this theory, is that the figures were all male, when we know 12 of Burke & Hare’s victims were female. Why not create specific poppets for each victim?
I however, have my own theory of why that may not matter. I would also like to quickly mention, I am not an expert, just a history enthusiast, so take what I say with a grain of salt.
So, for starters, these soldiers were repurposed. This is likely because the shoe maker didn’t have the expertise or tools to craft them, or perhaps couldn't afford to buy anything specific.
Secondly, In patriarchal societies, male is the default. According to the tale of Adam and Eve, a woman is born of a man.
What I mean by this is, it would be ok to have female victims represented by male figures, but not the other way around.
I suppose, whomever made the clothes, could’ve made women’s attire, but they didn’t. That is where my theory begins to falls flat. But again, remember that only 8 coffins have survived to this day. We don’t know what the other 9 little poppets looked like. Though deductive reasoning suggests they follow the same pattern.
The last reason why I think the Burke & Hare theory fits, takes us back to both the Grave episode and the Gallows episode.
Being denied a christian burial was a big deal. Criminals took their punishments into the after life by being dissected instead of buried.
Having your body in its grave was essential for awakening during the rapture. While it could be argued that the some criminals didn’t deserve the eternal reward, these 17 people had that option taken away from them.
The most famous graveyard in Scotland, Greyfriars Kirkyard, is littered with symbolism that speaks to the importance of this.
While Arthur’s Seat isn’t a graveyard, there are many different folktales where it is consider to be a gate to the underworld or a fairy realm.
Is it so hard to believe that perhaps a relative of one of the victims, or considerate bystander, took pity on the lost wandering souls, and wanted to secure them a proper spot in the afterlife?
Which ever theory you think might be plausible, a bit more mystery was added to this tale in the winter of 2014.
When the curator of the museum was sent a mysterious package.
Inside was a replica coffin, complete with it’s own little wooden figure and a note.
To the National Museum of Scotland - a gift - for caring for our nation’s treasures, especially the VIII.
Underneath that was a small passage from the 1884 book The Body Snatcher.
“And as fettes took the lamp, his companion untied the fastenings of the sack and drew down the cover from the head. The light fell very clear upon the dark, well-moulded features and smooth-shaven cheeks of a too familiar countenance, often beheld in dreams of both of these young men. A wild yell rang up into the night; each leaped from his own side into the roadway; the lamp fell, broke and was extinguished; and the horse, terrified by this unusual commotion, bounded and went off toward Edinburgh at a gallop, bearing along with it, sole occupant of the gig, the body of the dead and long-dissected Gray.”