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

The proper order


An external enquirer asking for the case: Lord Hamilton v Glasgow Diary Company. “Ooh!”, I thought, “I wonder what that was about. Some salacious case of intrigue and scandal no doubt”…

Found the case. It’s the Glasgow Dairy Company (1933 SC 18). If there’s anything salacious in that I really don’t want to know.

To paraphrase the dearly departed Eric Morecambe, they used all the right letters, just not necessarily in the right order.

A tale of a Government cat — Open Book

The official kitty-cat of Parliament Square!!!

While the exploits of Whitehall Cats – Palmerston and Larry most recently – have been recently making the news, cats in Government employ are nothing new. In fact, here at National Records of Scotland, we have evidence of a feline curiosity – a cat tasked with protecting records more than three centuries ago. The Exchequer […]

via A tale of a Government cat — Open Book

…the horological journals…


I am minded to write a short article for one of the horological journals…

This is an actual quote from an email I received this morning. Gloriously olde-worlde as this is, it was only the second archaically worded email I got today (both from external enquirers). The other regarded a case from 1807… and could have been written by a gentleman of that time!

I love my job.



Stationery fish and the rule of law

So, I’ve long been commenting on the fact that legal publishers seem to embrace the use of copyright-free images for their cover art. This, however, goes beyond. Surely this…thing is the product of some child-art-prodigy. An editors offspring maybe? It looks like a poor sad fish has been skewered by a paperclip.

I’m wracking my brains but I see no connection between stationery fish and the rule of law. Help me out?

41rv2mQ8s-L__SX312_BO1,204,203,200_Reinforcing Rule of Law Oversight in the European Union by Carlos Closa (Editor), Dimitry Kochenov (Editor)

  • Hardcover: 356 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press (13 Oct. 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-13: 978-1107108882



Seasons Greetings

Merry Christmas

Nollaig Chridheil and Guid Yule to you!


Bliadhna Mhath Ùr (Happy New Year)

and all the best for 2017

from A Very Fine Library!


image source

And finally… “No, I ain’t got a badge”

This story from the Scottish Legal News has nothing to do with anything… except that reading it made me happy  🙂

And finally… roped in

A would-be bike thief was stopped in his tracks after he was caught – by a cowboy.

Robert Borba was in a Walmart car park in Eagle Point, Orgeon when he heard a woman shout that a thief had taken her bike.

Mr Borba, 28, explained: “[She said] ‘Stop him! Stop him! He stole my bike! He stole my bike!’ And I kind of look around and all of a sudden this guy goes whizzing by me on a bicycle.”

But Mr Borba gave chase on his horse and rounded up the suspect with his lasso. “A couple swings and then I threw it at him, just like I would a steer,” he said. “He’s like, ‘What are you doing, man? You got a badge?’ And I’m like, ‘No, I ain’t got a badge,’” Mr Borba added.

Police then turned up and dealt with the suspect. Mr Borba said: “If it was my wife or my little girl, I would hope somebody would help her if I wasn’t around.”

Police said the cowboy asked for his rope back, tipped his hat and rode off into the sunset.


“No, I ain’t got a badge”