Category Archives: SCOTLAND

Eighteenth-Century Wooden Railway Unearthed in Scotland

Eighteenth-Century Wooden Railway Unearthed in Scotland

The first railway track in Scotland is expected to undergo extensive archeological exploration next year.

In June this year, in an excavation, wooden rails were discovered from 297-year-old Tranent Cockenzie Waggonway.

Part of a cobbled horse track for the ponies which pulled the wagons up to coal pits at Tranent in East Lothian was also discovered.

Next year, a community project hopes excavation might unearth some of the timbers used to lay the railway.

The findings of this year were among the top five archäological finds of 2019 by the 1722 Waggonway Heritage Group

Compiled by Scotland’s archaeology hub, Dig It!, other discoveries on the list include a Pictish skeleton found on the Black Isle in the Highlands and what is believed to be a Viking drinking hall in Orkney.

This June’s dig is set to be followed up by a more extensive excavation in 2020

The waggonway involved wooden rails, wagons, and wheels. Constructed in 1722, it was upgraded to an iron railway in 1815.

The community-run waggonway project is guided by a professional archaeologist. Dates have still be confirmed for next year’s more extensive excavation.

A spokesman said: “The hope is that we can excavate a longer stretch of the track, and we are working with East Lothian Council Archaeology Service to plan this for spring 2020.

“Given the level of preservation on the small section we uncovered in June, we are confident that the central cobbled horse-track survives in good condition, and we remain hopeful that some rail timbers will be intact enough to remove, although this is dependent on soil conditions.”

He added: “Archaeological investigations into early wagonways are relatively rare, and the information that this site can give us is incredibly valuable, with the potential to establish links in the technology used for early railways around the country in the 18th Century.”

The other two top discoveries on the Dig It! the list was one of a set of lost gravestones from the Middle Ages at Glasgow’s Govan Old Parish Church and a previously unrecorded Pictish stone near Dingwall.

Archaeologists hope to discover more about 18th Century waggonways

Scottish Farmer Discovers 5,000-Year-Old Lost City

Scottish Farmer Discovers 5,000-Year-Old Lost City

Scotland is full of vivid, complex history, as is the case for other European compatriots. And no, it’s not all the violent headlines that Braveheart sees — though there is a great deal of war in the country’s rearview mirror.

Nonetheless, not so long ago, a farmer discovered something amazing about ancient Scotland buried in the sand dunes of one of the northernmost islands of the country The kicker? He found this amazing discovery behind something unbelievably ordinary…

Around 1850 a Scottish farmer passed through the sand dunes of the western shore of the island of Orkney. There he pushed a rock aside and discovered something that had been hidden for thousands of years.

At first, he saw what looked like a simple hole, but when he peered inside, he couldn’t believe his eyes: it was a passageway that appeared to be a part of an entire labyrinth of rooms and corridors. An entire ancient city was hidden behind an ordinary slab of stone that whole time!

The settlement, it turned out, was the remains of Skara Brae, a neolithic city. Researchers believed that the ancient settlement might’ve been over 5,000 years old, making it more ancient than even the Egyptian pyramids.

Luckily, because the city had been covered by the sand dunes, it remained preserved for centuries until the farmer found it, untouched by other humans and hidden from the wear and tear of the passage of time.

Researchers believed that this was one of the oldest permanent settlements in Great Britain.

Each house had been sunk into middens, mounds of waste used to stabilize the structure and insulate those insides from Scotland’s brutal climate.

Though only eight houses now remain, it is believed the settlement was once much larger.

Researchers estimated this ancient lost city could have been home to between 50 and 100 people.

All of the houses were connected using a tunnel system, but those tunnels could be closed off and separated with large, sliding stone doors.

Early citizens would then be able to travel throughout the city, but close off their homes for privacy when they needed to.

Each hut contained multiple bedding areas; in most of the huts, researchers discovered, one of the bedding areas was typically larger than the others. These rooms were presumably reserved for the heads of the house—kind of like ancient master bedrooms.

The houses also contained a waterproof storage bin. Researchers believed this could’ve been an indication that these early people stored fresh fish in the huts. If that was the case, fish was likely their main source of food.

There are still questions to be answered about this hidden city and its people. Nevertheless, there is so much we can learn from ancient cities like this.

For many years, archaeologists thought that every important Egyptian discovery was already found. But that all changed recently.

Brainless Tourists Slaughter 5,000-Year-Old Sacred Scottish Tree

Brainless Tourists Slaughter 5,000-Year-Old Sacred Scottish Tree

Trees are a natural sight, and for a long time certain species can live. Nevertheless, one particular tree is of great importance and is considered to be holy at its home country of Scotland, and it is believed to be up to 5,000 years old.

This ancient Scottish tree, The Fortingall Yew, is located on the Glenlyon Estate in Perthshire, and could possibly well be the oldest tree in Europe.

While this may sound impressive, it’s status and media presence may also be its downfall. Scientists have released a claim that this sacred tree could die in less than 50 years’ time due to brainless tourists tearing off its branches for souvenirs, which is causing it to weaken.

This amazing yew tree is the oldest one left in the UK and potentially even Europe. However, despite it being even caged inside the Fortingall Churchyard in Perthshire, it has been left in increasingly bad health due to obnoxious tourists.

Tourists are taking it upon themselves to chop the branches off to keep as a souvenir. The tree is under stress from being attacked by so many people.

The tree warden for Fortingall, Neil Hooper, has said in a statement that a metal plaque had been forced down and twisted flat.

Those metal plaques aren’t very pliable and so to bend it in such a way would have taken considerable force, presumably by someone climbing into the enclosure.

In addition to taking parts of the tree and ripping it to shreds, visitors also think it’s alright to climb over the clearly marked boundaries so they can tie beads and ribbons to the tree’s branches.

The Fortingall Yew then and now: partying with Victorian dandies in 1822 on the left, and switching gender at present time on the right.

An Awe-Inspiring Tree

So, what makes this tree so special? Well, apart from the age of it, it is actually an incredibly important tree. For centuries, it has been part of a Christian pilgrimage.

Many pilgrims hold the tree as a landmark of early Christianity – believing that this is the tree that provided shade at the birth of Pontius Pilate, who is said to have been born in the village during the Roman occupation and played beneath the Yew as a boy, before he grew up and ordered the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Therefore the tree has quite a bit of religious significance. However, some skeptics have doubted the truthfulness of this story.

Ignoring the potential myths though, this tree is still a miracle of nature. Why? Four years ago, scientists in Scotland announced that the sacred tree was undergoing a sex change.

The Fortingall Yew had always been recorded as a male tree. However, in 2015 someone spotted that it had started sprouting berries, which is something only female yew trees do.

While it isn’t uncommon for yew trees to change sex as they often do it to increase chances of survival, the odd thing here is that a tree of this age and stature would do such a thing now, it’s completely unheard of!

Can it be saved?

Plenty of people will probably be wondering; why can’t everyone just stop destroying the tree and it will be fine? While this would work in a perfect world, it simply isn’t that simple.

Due to it’s worsening poor health, the tree could keel over at any moment, no one is sure when though. It may happen in 50 or 300 years, no one can say.

The Fortingall Yew sits in the corner of the churchyard and is surrounded by a wall and railings, which are there to protect it.

Despite the bleak outlook, there is still hope! The Church Yew Tree project is a 10-year program that is working in partnership with the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

A cutting of the Fortingall Yew at Kindrogan Field Studies Centre.

It plans to plant seedlings from the Fortingall Yew at various Churches in and around Perthshire and Angus, and also at the Royal Botanic Garden. They hope to have successfully identified around 20 churchyards which will accept new saplings by next year, 2020.

Backyard Bones May Have Been Buried by 19th-Century Students

Human remains found in Aberdeen garden may have been buried by medical students 187 years ago

OLD ABERDEEN, SCOTLAND—BBC reports that 115 human bone fragments recovered from a private garden in northeastern Scotland by archaeologist Alison Cameron may have been buried by medical student Alexander Creyk and his roommates, who lived on the property in the early nineteenth century. 

Dr. Rebecca Crozier.

Old Aberdeen staff who refurbished a house on Canal Street discovered bones on garden soil last November, sparking a complicated investigation into how they got there.

The police quickly ignored the errors and tasked the puzzle to archeologists from the Aberdeenshire Council and Aberdeen University.

And after studying the bones and deciphering records from the last 200 years over an 11-month period, the team has pieced together a puzzle – determining the most likely explanation was a medical student trying not to fall foul of the law.

“The discovery of these bones reveals a little piece of the city’s lost history. It is a fascinating tale,” said Aberdeenshire Council’s archeologist Bruce Mann.

Hard at work unearthing a little bit of history in the city

After the discovery, Alison Cameron, of Cameron Archeology, spent several days excavating the garden to collect all the bones. They were cleaned and given to Aberdeen University archaeology lecturer Dr. Rebecca Crozier.

In all, there were 115 bone fragments and Dr. Crozier pieced them together to make 84 fragments. Her tests showed the bones are those of between five and seven people – two of whom were aged between two and seven.

A carbon dating test, performed at a laboratory in East Kilbride, concluded there was a 95.4% likelihood the bones were those of people who lived at some point between 1650 and 1750.

Dr. Crozier was able to tell that, once they had died, two people’s bones had been used for the purposes of training new doctors.

Marischal Museum. Bones were discovered in Aberdeen in February. For months Aberdeen Uni and Aberdeenshire Council staff have been analyzing them and concluded they are historical. Pictured is Dr. Rebecca Crozier, lecturer in archaeology from the uni, who studied them in a lab at Marischal Museum.

She concluded procedures had been carried out on the skull of one of the adults and on one of the children after they had died. Records told the researchers that medical students lived at the Canal Street house around 1832.

That year, the Government introduced the Anatomy Act to regulate the study of donated human bodies and halt the illegal trade in corpses and grave robberies.

Street directories show a young trainee doctor named Alexander Creyk was living at the house on Canal Street around 1832 along with other lodgers who were also medical students. Mr. Mann and his colleagues believe Mr. Creyk, whose father was a surgeon from Elgin, was the likely culprit.

“At the time, there would have been medical students who were concerned about being caught with human remains that could land them into trouble, so it is likely he disposed of them within the boundaries of the property and they remained undiscovered until November.”

Mr. Mann said: “Often, the bones and the physical objects you find at the site only tell half the story. “Then it is a case of studying records to get a holistic picture of what has happened. “You have to consider all the other factors to build up a full story.

“There were also objects, such as china, found at the site which were consistent with the early 19th Century.” Dr. Crozier said: “In the early 19th Century, a lot of people were terrified of being anatomized and the Anatomy Act was brought in to regulate it.

Archaeologist Alison Cameron excavating the garden

“It has been a fascinating exercise. It’s interesting to think that, from this little box of bones, a tale from the dark history of Aberdeen has emerged.

“This has brought history to life. It is so cool because we’ve been able to put together a really fluent narrative about the sequence of events.” The carbon dating works by testing to what extent bone has decayed, allowing scientists to say how old they are.

Dr. Crozier added: “In the case of the child, we were able to tell that a hole had been drilled into the skull and I was able to match it to a particular tool. “It was not a procedure that would have been carried out when the person was alive. One of the adults showed similar signs of skull drilling.

“We’re going to have a student look into the study of surgery and how it can be distinguished that it happened post-mortem rather than during their lives.” Mr. Mann said: “Exercises like this are important in ensuring the people who have died are treated with dignity.

“Once our research is done, we arrange a burial for the bones. That can involve researching their religion so we get their preferred kind of ceremony. Then we will locate an appropriate place – usually a cemetery close to where they were found.

“We get on average five such cases a year.”

Strange moments in Edinburgh’s history: The mystery of the miniature coffins found at Arthur’s Seat

Strange moments in Edinburgh’s history: The mystery of the miniature coffins found at Arthur’s Seat

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?


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 a 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.


Scottish doctor Robert Knox

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, 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.”

National Museums Scotland
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, the 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.