Category Archives: SCOTLAND

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?

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 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.

“ATROCIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES”

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 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.”

National Museums Scotland
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.

An archaeological dig in Scotland reveals the medieval building

An archaeological dig in Scotland reveals the medieval building

Archaeologists working in the Scottish town of Dunfermline have uncovered the remains of a medieval building.  Dig Dunfermline was a community project that included an archaeological team and 83 volunteers who spent several weeks examining an area where a museum and art gallery will be built next spring.

Thomas Rees of Rathmell Archaeology who started the six-week dig in late August described the top discoveries as follows

A Building

The test dig discovered a building in the southeast corner of the car park just to the north of the Abbey graveyard.

This year’s full dig revealed only three courses of the foundations of the structure and there was very little in the way of dating evidence.

However, archaeologists are confident that it is the remains of a medieval building – we’re just unsure what it was used for.

There will be more investigation in the block-paved car park area before the construction work on the new museum starts.

A Stove Tile

Perhaps one of the smallest finds from the site was a small fragment of pottery that has been identified as a stove tile that would have formed part of a smokeless stove.

North German in style this tile is probably from the 16th century and is a rare example of a prestigious, high quality and desirable household device.

Not only does this show the wealth of some of the homes in Dunfermline, but also the trading links across the North Sea into Germany and the Baltic States.

Leather Fragments

The remarkable discovery of fragments of preserved leather will provide great information as to how the early monastic community lived.

Discovered at the very base of the excavation within waterlogged sediment this material will allow for accurate dating of this earliest midden deposit and has changed the understanding of this area.

Such a boggy midden suggests a damper and more unpleasant environment to the east of the Abbey than was previously thought, showing the Abbey to have been sited on a rise when approached from the east.

Councillor Helen Law, Chair of the City of Dunfermline Area Committee said, “I think these are excellent and exciting discoveries that show what can be revealed when we excavate within an important burgh.

The dig was a real community effort that created a lot of interest in what was going on and I’m thrilled that so many local people have already been involved in helping make the new museum and art gallery a reality.”

Douglas Speirs, Archaeologist for Fife Council added, “It was so encouraging to see the project team commit sufficient resources to undertake such a thorough archaeological excavation.

Combining planning requirements with the public’s enormous appetite for local heritage has surpassed expectations and resulted in real, immediate and tangible benefits for the whole community.

“Due almost entirely to the hard work of the scores of volunteers we have shed more light on Dunfermline’s medieval past than any previous excavation.

The project is contributing a great deal to the history, identity and future economic potential of Dunfermline as a premier cultural destination and this dig is already being hailed as an exemplary approach in community archaeology!”

Along with the people who participated, another 500 people visited during the dig to find out about the project and nearly 100 children took part in specially organized events for young people.

Viking Chess piece bought for less than $10 sells for over $1.3M

Viking Chess piece bought for less than $10 sells for over $1.3M

A 900-year-old Viking chess piece purchased for $6 in the 1960s recently sold at auction for $1.3 million.

The Lewis Chessmen are intricate chess pieces in the form of Norse warriors that were carved from walrus ivory in the 12th century. A large hoard of the chess pieces, totaling 93 objects making up some four chess sets, was discovered in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland.

The elaborately carved pieces soon became featured attractions at museums. Of the 93 pieces, 82 are now in the British Museum in London and 11 are in the collection of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Five of the pieces, however, were missing. In June 2019, Sotheby’s announced it had authenticated a missing piece, the equivalent of a rook, and would sell it in with an estimated value of $1 million.

The missing piece had been bought in 1964 by an antique dealer in Edinburgh and passed down through this family. For some time, the Chessman was kept in a drawer at the home of the antiques dealer’s daughter.

Lewis Chessmen set

According to The Guardian, a family member said it had been stored away in their grandfather’s house, with everyone unaware of its importance

“When my grandfather died my mother inherited the chess piece,” said a family spokesperson. “My mother was very fond of the chessman as she admired its intricacy and quirkiness.

She believed that it was special and thought perhaps it could even have had some magical significance. For many years it resided in a drawer in her home where it had been carefully wrapped in a small bag. From time to time, she would remove the chess piece from the drawer in order to appreciate its uniqueness.”

Lewis Chessmen Queen. 
Lewis chessmen Queen (back view).

Alexander Kader, the Sotheby’s expert who eventually examined the piece for the family, told The Guardian that his jaw dropped when he saw it, and he knew immediately what it was. “I said: ‘Oh my goodness, it’s one of the Lewis chessmen.’ ”

Lewis chessmen Bishop.

He added: “They brought it in for an assessment. That happens every day. Our doors are open for free valuations. We get called down to the counter and have no idea what we are going to see. More often than not, it’s not worth very much.”

Lewis chessmen King.

The 3.5-inch warder is a bearded figure with a sword in his right hand and shield at his left side.

Experts believe that this Viking chess piece along with the rest of the Lewis chessmen hail from Trondheim, Norway, which specialized in carved gaming pieces in the 12th and 13th centuries.

The Isle of Lewis was Norwegian territory until 1266, and one theory is that the chess set was buried there after a shipwreck.

Lewis was on a thriving trade route between Norway and Ireland and another theory is that they were hidden for safekeeping by a traveling merchant.

They became arguably Scotland’s best known archaeological find when they were found buried in the beach of Uig Bay in 1831, said The Guardian. :How they were discovered is still disputed, with one account claiming they were uncovered by a grazing cow.”

The Lewis Chessmen are “steeped in folklore, legend and the rich tradition of story-telling,” Sotheby’s said in a press release, adding that they are “an important symbol of European civilization.”

Alexander Kader said in a statement, “It has been such a privilege to bring this piece of history to auction and it has been amazing having him on view at Sotheby’s over the last week—he has been a huge hit. When you hold this characterful warder in your hand or see him in the room, he has real presence.”

Since their discovery in the 19th century, a Viking chess piece and the Lewis chessmen has become an important symbol of European civilization, often inspiring portrayals in pop culture, such as the life-size chess game in the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Huge Dinosaur Footprints Discovered on Scottish Coast

Huge Dinosaur Footprints Discovered on Scottish Coast

A newfound site on Scotland’s Isle of Skye contains about 50 dinosaur footprints, many belonging to long-necked dinosaurs called sauropods. This footprint preserves the outlines of a sauropod’s toes—and even traces the animal’s fleshy heel pad.

MORE THAN 160 million years ago, long-necked dinosaurs called sauropods lumbered through the ancient lagoons that dotted what is now Great Britain. Now, dozens of their footprints have been found on the forbidding, wave-pounded coast of Scotland’s Isle of Skye.

Researchers Davide Foffa and Hong-Yu Yi, University of Edinburgh paleontologist Dr. Stephen Brusatte and his student Paige dePolo went back to the site to take a closer look at the prints and learn more.

They are not so easy to access, located in the wave-pounded tidal zone of a headland called Brother’s Point. A collaborative study of the footprints by the University of Edinburgh, Staffin Museum, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, led by dePolo, was presented in the Scottish Journal of Geology, along with a full catalog of images of the 50 footprints.

The team has dated the tracks at about 170 million years of age, and conclude that they were made by the gargantuan animals as they waded through a shallow lagoon. In the distant past, when these tracks were made, Earth was a very different place. It was shortly after the time when Pangaea started to break apart, and our planet was transforming into the continents we know today.

In those days, experts believe that the area of Skye was positioned somewhere in the subtropic belt, with a much warmer climate. According to Brusatte, “This was a subtropical kind of paradise world, probably kind of like Florida or Spain today.”

The latest find of dinosaur prints in Scotland is a source of great excitement in the worlds of paleontology and geology because they are from the Middle Jurassic epoch.

As Brusatte explained to National Geographic, this was an important time in dinosaur evolution. It is probably the era when the first birds appeared and the largest species of a sauropod were thriving, but dinosaur fossils from this period are scarce compared to other periods.

The recent find follows hot on the heels of the discovery in 2015 of hundreds of Middle Jurassic sauropod tracks at another location on the Isle of Skye, Duntulm beach. The Brother’s Point prints were found in older rocks than those of the 2015 discovery.

The study has increased knowledge of dinosaurs from this era significantly and offered some valuable insights: for instance, sauropods were roaming this corner of the globe for a greater period of time than previously thought.

Sauropods were the largest land-dwelling animals at that time, and despite their size, they were plant-eating creatures. The field team not only mapped tracks from sauropods; scattered among them are distinctive three-toed prints belonging to theropods, a distant and more primitive relative of the Tyrannosaurus Rex. These meat-eating dinosaurs were able to grow to about 6.5 feet in height.

The largest sample of theropod footprint left on the Isle of Skye was about 19.6 inches across, which is still nowhere close to the largest belonging to a sauropod–one example of these was reportedly some 27.5 inches across.

The endeavors of the researchers were not without challenges. As the area is continuously hammered with cold winds and rain, the team could not easily proceed with mapping the area. Another challenge was the high tides that regularly reclaimed the footprints, hence the team was constantly clock-watching while they measured and inspected the tracks on the rocky ledges. They also had to improvise with cameras and equipment, but in the end, it paid off, as 3-D images of the terrain were produced.

Part of the dinosaur traces found were actually hand prints, Brusatte explained, a clue that it was a huge creature in question, like the sauropod. This enormous animal, which could grow up to 50 feet long, needed all four limbs to support itself while lumbering around. The theropod tracks indicate that these dinosaurs walked only on their hind legs.

Sauropods were previously thought to have been purely amphibious creatures, the Smithsonian notes. Paleontologists of the early 20th century believed that sauropods could not walk on the land because of their weight.

Evidence that was acquired later on proved the contrary. And the recent finds coming from Scotland suggest that, while some representatives of the species were able to move comfortably on land, others opted to wade through waters near the coast.

Related story from us: This dinosaur had a swan-like neck and crocodile teeth and walked like a duck and swam like a penguin

In fact, Brusatte remarked to National Geographic, sauropods “were so dynamic and so energetic,” meaning it is likely that they were abundant in various environments as their species spread around the world.

Brusatte also acknowledged that more Middle Jurassic era dinosaur fossils could lurk hidden on the Isle of Skye, hence this might be only the beginning of what this Scottish island has to offer to the knowledge of dinosaurs in the world.

Ancient Well With Stone Stairs Unearthed in Scotland

Ancient Well With Stone Stairs Unearthed in Scotland

An ancient well at the top of one of Scotland’s most iconic mountain peaks has been unearthed for the first time in hundreds of years.

Archaeologists from Aberdeen University’s Northern Picts projects made the incredible discovery this week at the Mither Tap, one of the summits of Bennachie in Aberdeenshire.

Ancient Well With Stone Stairs Unearthed in Scotland
The well was discovered at the top of Mither Tap, on Bennachie

The deep granite well would have served as a water source for the occupants of the impressive fort at the top of the hill, the remains of which can still be seen today.

Although it was previously discovered in the Victorian period, it was recovered and has lain beneath thousands of hillwalker’s feet ever since.

Gordon Noble, the head of archaeology at Aberdeen University, said: “We have been interested in this site for some time because Mither Tap hasn’t really been excavated in any scale since the 19th century.

“We received permission from Historic Environment Scotland – as it’s a scheduled monument – to open up a number of trenches in the area to get dating evidence from all around the fort at the top of Mither Tap.

“We were really expecting to find a pretty bog-standard well, but we uncovered these fantastic steps leading all the way down to the well chamber.

“It’s particularly sophisticated for the period and created a huge amount of excitement both in the team and online.

“It really gives you an idea of the efforts that would have gone into building this fort – the ramparts would have been huge.”

It is not yet known precisely what historic period the well belongs to.

Mr. Noble said a shepherd put a large rock into the well at one point to prevent his livestock from falling in, and it currently blocks access to its lower levels.

He added: “We’re hoping to try and get the stone out to look underneath, but we’ll see what happens.

“I hope we’ll be able to find intact deposits we can sample for dating, or do some pollen sampling to find out about the environment at the time the well was used.

“But even without that, it’s still an incredibly exciting sight to see.”

The team hope to conclude their initial excavations by the end of next week and could return to the Mither Tap in the future subject to funding.

Visitors are invited to go and see the well and the rest of the ongoing archaeology work on Sunday, from 11 am to 1 pm.