Edinburgh, sometimes referred to as the Athens of the North, is both enchanting and grotesque in equal parts. There are charming stories of loyal dogs, magical ‘haggis’ and fairies mixed with haunting tales of witches, murder, plots and torture.
Yet the reality of the city’s history is more engaging and appalling than any tale. A city buried beneath a city, a city of ghosts, of bodies lying far underfoot, hundreds of bodies, bodies of plague. Ghost stories run riot. Every street offers up its tales of doom and demise.
The bright and buzzing capital holds many untold stories, watched over eternally from the East by the now extinct volcano that is Arthur’s Seat. A popular tourist destination now, the hill is a striking mixture of gentle grassy slopes and impenetrable ragged cliff faces, spotted with ruined forts and legends of King Arthur.
In 1836 one of the lesser known but by no means less engaging mysteries of Edinburgh was unearthed by a group of boys playing on Arthur’s Seat while hunting for rabbits. The young children dug up a surprising discovery hidden in a crevice on the rocky North East face of the hill.
Buried under slabs of slate as if in their own personal tomb, lay 17 miniature coffins, each containing a small carved figurine in grave shrouds. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Fairy Coffins’, these dainty replicas have left historians arguing since their discovery.
The coffins evoke many questions; who put them there, when and why? What do they represent? Unfortunately about as much is known today about the coffins as when they were discovered. Even the location of the crevice that held them is only roughly known, as there is no first person account made by the young discoverers.
Newspapers at the time, such as the Scotsman, put forth their own theories, suggesting witches buried them as part of a dark spell, while others claimed they represented sailors lost at sea.
The most popular theory, however, is that these figurines represent the 17 known victims of the prolific serial killers and body snatchers Burke and Hare. Could it be that these ghoulish idols were simply a sincere attempt to give these victims the resting place Burke and Hare denied them?
The coffins and their inhabitants now stand in the National Museum of Scotland, only 8 of the original 17 remain, as according to the original Scotsman article in 1836 “a number were destroyed by the boys pelting them at each other as unmeaning and contemptible trifles”.
Peering down at them through the glass today you will find them eerily unsettling, their shoddily carved eyes and expressionless faces staring blankly back at you, some more rotten than others. Clearly crafted with meaning and intent that has been lost and forgotten, the coffins appeal seems to lie in their mystery and macabre.