Mini-coffins found near Edinburgh in 1836 still inspire writers

One June afternoon in 1836 five local boys had spent the day playing around and hunting for rabbit warrens on Arthur’s Seat, a long-extinct volcano near Edinburgh, when they made a startling discovery at the entrance to a small cave on the rugged north-eastern face of the famous hill: a horde of intricately-carved miniature figures set in coffins.
The seventeen tiny coffins had lain undisturbed for an indeterminate amount of time beneath just a few thin slabs of slate. They were neatly laid out in three tiers: two lower rows of eight and a third supposedly just begun. The figures assembled on the two upper tiers appeared to be far less worn and deteriorated than those below, suggesting that the coffins had been deposited in stages over a number of years. Each of the seventeen caskets found in 1836 held an carved human effigy creepily dressed in its own unique garb, with painted black boots and distorted facial features verging on the macabre.

According to The Scotsman of July 16, 1836, several of the figures were either badly damaged or lost altogether. The remaining were eventually purchased by a private collector where they remained until being passed over to the museum in 1901. Only eight figures, in varying states of decay, survive.
In recent times experts, journalists and writers alike have sought to explain exactly when and why the coffins were made and who put them there. Some cite attempted witchcraft as a possibility, while others have suggested that they were perhaps kept by sailors to ward off death.

Another widely held belief is that each of the figures were designed to commemorate the victims of the infamous serial killers William Burke and William Hare. The duo sold seventeen corpses (sixteen they murdered plus one who died of natural causes) less than a decade prior to the boys’ discovery on Arthur’s Seat. A coincidence perhaps, because the varying degrees of decomposition of the figures seem to disqualify that option.

In 2001 the coffins caught the attention of Ian Rankin, who wrote them into his Inspector Rebus novel The Falls (A Rebus Novel). Then, in 2015, Nigel McCrery published The Thirteenth Coffin: DCI Mark Lapslie (4) in which he also used a series of tiny coffins.

Another historical crime novel that was inspired by the idea of making tiny ritualistic coffins was E.S. Thomson in her 'Beloved Poison'. It appeared in 2016 and it is by far the best novel I read in a long time featuring the grime, greed and gruesomeness of Victorian London.

The surviving eight coffins and their contents are on display at the National Museum of Scotland.

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