The tiny coffins of Arthur’s Seat

three tiny coffins in NMS display

image: National Museums Scotland

Chatting with a colleague today, he told me he was planning to climb Arthur’s Seat to the Salisbury Crags, while off work next week. Something he’s never done before. I said he should also try to find “the spot where the wee coffins were discovered” and he had no idea what I meant. Neither did the next person I mentioned it to… or the next.

This is really surprising to to me since I honestly thought everybody knew this story. I thought is was part of Edinburgh lore, like Deacon Brodie, Burke & Hare or Greyfriar’s Bobby. I thought is was known.

I do not recall how I learned this story myself. I do know that when Ian Rankin mentioned it in his Rebus story “The Falls, I knew exactly what he was talking about. Did my dear grandad tell me the tale when I was a wee smout? I’ve seen the remaining coffins displayed at NMS but did I stumble upon them that first time or seek them out? I can’t remember.

However I learned it, this is a unique Edinburgh story that deserves to be told. NMS has compiled an excellent and detailed retelling here so I only need to summarise.

In 1836 some boys playing on Arthur’s Seat discovered a hidden stash of tiny wooden coffins. 17 coffins were apparently found but some were broken or lost. The remainder eventually found their way to NMS years later and can be viewed there now.

There was, of course, great excitement in the press at the time. No one knew who had built the tiny coffins or why. There were various theories but none answered all the questions surrounding the find. My own favourite, and I believe the same explanation given in The Falls, is that these tiny graves were made in remembrance of the victims of Burke & Hare, the infamous Body Snatchers. There may be a slight discrepancy between the number of coffins and the known Body Snatchers victims… But couldn’t it be that they killed more people than they admitted to? It’s not as if they were paragons of honesty.

And who made the 17 tiny offerings? This is still an absolute mystery but I do have my own thought about that.

There was insufficient evidence to convict both Burke and Hare so, the authorities convinced William Hare to turn “King’s evidence” and betray his co-conspirators. Beginning on Christmas Eve 1828, William Burke stood trial for murder in a courtroom which has since become part of the Advocates Library! Burke’s co-accused was his “common law wife” (i.e. bidey-in) Helen McDougal. Burke was found guilty and was hanged and his body sent for dissection, but the case against McDougal was not proven. She was released and nothing much is known about her life from that point.

I wonder if Helen McDougal, in guilt and shame, could have had anything to do with the making of the tiny coffins. Small offerings to the dead she had been partly responsible for. Hidden away… but placed on the city’s most prominent feature. There is no evidence of this that I’m aware of, it’s just my own theory, but it’s as likely as anything else in this odd story.

And finally – Coffin number XVIII. In December 2014 NMS received a mysterious package containing another tiny coffin. The craftsmanship and accompanying card point towards this being a work by Edinburgh’s mysterious, magical Book Sculptor. I think this makes a wonderful end to this twisty tale.

small doll figure in coffin

image: National Museums Scotland

Van Gogh – art and angst

Happy birthday to a glorious nutter!

A Very Fine Library

Wheat Field with Cypresses, Saint-Remy, Oil on Canvas, 1889Wheat Field with Cypresses, Saint-Remy, Oil on Canvas, 1889

Vincent Van Gogh, that glorious nutter, was born today in 1853. He died at the age of 37 after a short life filled with genius and despair.

Some years ago I read Martin Gayford’s book The Yellow HouseVan Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Provence. This excellent work uses old letters to reconstruct the few months Van Gogh spent living and working with Paul Gauguin in a house in Arles. I was left with the overriding feeling that Van Gogh wanted nothing more in life than to be loved and understood (I can so relate to that).

101407Vincent invited Gauguin to stay because he deeply admired his work and imagined he could learn much from the older man. In preparation for Gaugin’s arrival at the Yellow House, Vincent painted his iconic Sunflowers series just to decorate the walls of Gauguin’s room! But Van Gogh’s mental illness made…

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History of the house: 94 and 96 Grassmarket

Interesting stuff – I do love old photos!

Tales of One City

Our house history spotlight falls on no.s 94 and 96 Grassmarket, now occupied by Biddy Mulligans Irish pub but which facade hides an interesting past.

First though, we need to set the scene and go back to the mid 19th century when the Grassmarket was a melting pot of activity and commerce.

East end of Grassmarket showing foot of West Bow, c1856

Using the old Edinburgh Post Office records we find in 1854, the occupations of Grassmarket residents included surgeon, draper, brewer and spirit dealers, baker, flesher (butcher), an Innkeeper at no 100, victual dealer, grain merchant, ropemaker, saddler, ironmonger, china merchant, stables worker and corn merchant.

By 1874 new occupations have appeared including horse dealer, tanner, tobacco manufacturer, wright, iron merchant, brass founder, cork cutter, sack manufacturer, clockmaker and saw maker.

In 1884, rag merchant, teacher, hairdresser, egg merchant are added to the variety or working lives in the…

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Please Sir, may I be excused?

“From bodily indisposition it is not in my power to attend. These seven years by gone I never dare to go out of the house before 10 o’clock in the forenoon and never at no time after sunset in the evening and the last damp brings on my complaint on the other side” – I feel you guy. I feel you.

Open Book

Have you ever asked to be excused from jury service? Well you’re not alone! For centuries potential jurors have sought to escape their civic duty on grounds of health, work or simple inconvenience. Here are some such requests which survive within the High Court of Justiciary held by the National Records of Scotland.

Ill Health

By far the most common reason for non-attendance was ill-health. Lumbago [lower back pain] was a common affliction, as was gout – in 1790 a solicitor from Dumfries had been “for many months past very distressed with gouty and bilious complaints which have confined him to his house for several weeks.”

jury service 1Jury service 2The Sheriff Subsitute of Renfrewshire, reported in September 1790 that he had been “seized withcholera morbus” a historic term for gastroenteritis, and was confined to bed.

A similar reason was given to the HighJury Service 3 Court in Edinburgh in 1796, with the…

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In From The Cold…

This is so interesting – I love the long history of friendship between Scotland and Iceland. Long may it continue!

Open Book

National Records of Scotland recently welcomed a group of staff and history students from the University of Iceland at General Register House, Edinburgh.

The visit involved an introduction to Scotland’s archives and a seminar to consider Scotland and Iceland’s respective national histories, and the nature and survival of historical records.

As part of the visit, our Heads of Digitisation and Learning, Robin Urquhart and Tessa Spencer, as well as Samantha Smart from Digital Services, looked into our archives for interesting documents from Iceland and Icelanders, some demonstrating historic links between our two countries.

We’ve included images of some of the more striking documents from our archives:

– an Icelandic calendar and a book of devotion from 1588-1589;

– a map of Iceland, c. 1748;

– an extract from Sir George Steuart Mackenzie’s travels in Iceland in 1810; and

– an inventory of Thiorbjorn Jonasson, a merchant in Reykjavik who died in Leith…

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Votes For Women! #Suffrage100

100 years ago today Westminster finally passed an Act giving  women over 30 (who owned property) the right to vote.  As an information geek, I’m celebrating the day with a (very) short list of data sources on the Women’s Suffrage Movement…
Suffragettes umbrella stand, Glasgow Women's Library

An umbrella stand painted by Suffragettes in Glasgow’s Duke Street Prison, at the Glasgow Women’s Library

#ReadHarderChallenge 2017 – final list

Here’s my final BookRiot Read Harder Challenge list for for 2017:

  1. Read a book about sports – Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall
  2. Read a debut novel – The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
  3. Read a book about books – The Gifts of Reading by Robert Macfarlane
  4. Read a book set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author – A View from the Mangrove by Antonio Benítez-Rojo

  5. Read a book by an immigrant or with a central immigration narrative – The Highland Clearances by John Prebble
  6. Read an all-ages comic – Lobey’s the Wee Boy!: Collected Lobey Dosser by Bud Neill
  7. Read a book published between 1900 and 1950 – The Hidden Staircase by Carolyn Keene, 1930
  8. Read a travel memoir – The Desert and the Sown: Travels in Palestine and Syria by Gertrude Bell
  9. Read a book you’ve read before – The Rowan by Anne McCaffrey
  10. Read a book that is set within 100 miles of your location – 365: Stories by James Robertson
  11. Read a book that is set more than 5000 miles from your location – A Splendid Isolation: Lessons of Happiness from the Kingdom of Bhutan by Madeline Drexler
  12. Read a fantasy novel – The Obsidian Throne by James Oswald
  13. Read a nonfiction book about technology – Unbound: How Eight Technologies Made Us Human, Transformed Society, and Brought Our World to the Brink by Richard L. Currier
  14. Read a book about war – Damn’ Rebel Bitches: The Women of the ’45 by Maggie Craig
  15. Read a YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+ – The Marvels by Brian Selznick
  16. Read a book that has been banned or frequently challenged in your country – Ulysses by James Joyce (I haven’t finished this one yet. It’s gonna fit great into one of the 2018 challenges!)

  17. Read a classic by an author of colour – The Man in the Iron Mask – Alexandre Dumas
  18. Read a superhero comic with a female lead – The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer by Sydney Padua
  19. Read a book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey – Warrior of Peace: The Life of the Buddha by Jinananda
  20. Read an LGBTQ+ romance novel – The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

  21. Read a book published by a micropress – The Birlinn of Clanranald by Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair (Alexander MacDonald), translated by Alan Riach, (published by Kettillonia)
  22. Read a collection of stories by a woman – Gossip from the Forest by Sara Maitland
  23. Read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love – Nua-bhárdachd Gháidhlig/Modern Scottish Gaelic Poems: a bilingual anthology – edited by Donald Macaulay
  24. Read a book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of color – Little Green by Walter Mosley