The Mysterious Miniature Coffins of Edinburgh Jul 15, 2018 12:40:05 GMT -5
Post by Graveyardbride on Jul 15, 2018 12:40:05 GMT -5
The Mysterious Miniature Coffins of Edinburgh
They are some of the most macabre artefacts ever discovered in Edinburgh and their mysterious origins have baffled and enthralled historians for more than 150 years. In 1836, a group of boys hunting rabbits on Arthur’s Seat stumbled upon a cache of miniature coffins, each only 3.75 inches in length and complete with a wooden “corpse” doll. In total, 17 of the ghoulish items were discovered, but despite the find’s being probed by the great and the good of the capital’s learned society, they remained a mystery.
Over the years it has been suggested the dolls were the work of witches, or represent the bodies of sailors lost at sea. It has also been suggested they are a memorial to the victims of the notorious and murderous bodysnatchers William Burke and William Hare, who carried out their gruesome deeds in the capital city during a 10-month spree in 1820.
The tiny coffins inspired crime author Ian Rankin to write his novel, The Falls, and a number of them remain on display at the National Museum of Scotland.
But now an author and amateur historian believes he has cracked the mystery, saying the dolls – eight of which remain – may be linked to an act of political insurrection which rocked Scotland, but is now largely forgotten. Scottish-American writer Jeff Nisbet, who was born in Edinburgh and immigrated to the United States at age 11, has spent months studying the case and suggests it is a memorial to the event known as the Radical War of 1820. During that year, weavers and other workers across the Central Belt were moved to commit acts of civil disobedience because of worsening economic conditions and launched protests and strikes calling for better conditions and rights. The disturbances, which threatened to spiral into open revolt, came to an abrupt halt when the authorities intervened and three of the ringleaders were executed while 20 others were banished to Australia.
Unemployed weavers were later put to work building a path around Arthur’s seat – known to this day as “Radical Road” (above) – and Nisbet believes the coffins were a coded memento left by those who wanted to see the movement “rise again.” According to Nisbet, “By the time the coffins were discovered, the rebellion had been largely forgotten, save perhaps by those whose loved ones had been lost to either the hangman’s noose or a ship bound for Australia. And so it’s my theory that the artefacts’ raison d’être was to honor the Radicals and that they were later ‘resurrected’ in an attempt to keep the flame of rebellion lit in a land too quick to forget – an attempt that ultimately failed. Shortly following the uprising,” the author added, “Sir Walter Scott proposed that unemployed weavers be kept busy building a footpath around the Crags, since known as ‘The Radical Road.’ Scott's proposal was not born of his benevolent heart, however, since the hands of a weaver would have been punished by the work. From the Radical Road, visitors can still look out upon all of Edinburgh and the one ocean that connects us all, no matter how far-flung we live,” he continued. “What finer spot to hide a tribute to the transportees than along a road planned by a Scottish nobleman, but built by Radicals?”
Nisbet claims that the dolls, which all appear to be male and have their eyes open, represent men not yet dead. Another clue, he says, can be found in their clothes – made from a type of cloth with which the weavers would have been familiar. The writer also indicates that many of Burke and Hare’s victims were women, making it unlikely the dolls are connected to them.
However, David Forsyth, Principal Curator of the National Museum of Scotland’s Scottish History section, said while the new theory added a fresh twist to the myth surrounding the coffins’ creation, he remained unconvinced. “I wouldn’t scoff at it and it’s interesting to hear another idea about where the coffins come from. He makes his argument well and certainly understands the zeitgeist of the time. It’s very interesting that the coffins continue to be talked about and remain among our most popular exhibits, even after all the debate about their origins. Mr. Nisbet’s idea is outside the established ‘canon’ that surrounds the coffins, but I wouldn’t discount it completely,” he admitted. “However, I think that the connection to the victims of Burke and Hare remains the most likely explanation.”
Source: Jody Harrison, The Sunday Herald of Scotland, April 16, 2018.