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Arthur's Seat Coffins


In June 1836, a group of boys hunting rabbits on the slopes of Arthur’s Seat discovered a small cave hidden with gorse and slate. Inside in three layers of 8, 8 and 1, they found 17 small coffins about 100mm in length. Inside those were small dolls, dressed in cloth. The boys reported their find and though some have been lost in the intervening years, 8 were donated to The National Museum in 1902, where they are on display today.

Why were they there? All we can say definitively is that they were placed in the cave only a few years before their discovery. The cloth on the dolls can be dated to the 1820’s. Remarkably, the 17 coffins match the 17 known victims of Burke & Hare, the notorious murderers who sold their victims to the anatomists for dissection and who had faced justice in 1828, just a few years before their discovery.

The author Ian Rankin used the coffins as a plot device for his Rebus novel The Falls and in 2014, the museum received a new coffin with a note referring to it as XVIII, and the accompanying note quoted the final scene from Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Body Snatchers. We will likely never know the true reason for why these coffins were left in a cave on Edinburgh’s volcano but mysteries allow us to weave stories around them to fill in the gaps in knowledge. It’s a great example of mystery mongering - using something we don't have enough information about to make fanciful explanations that can suit our own biases and agendas.

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