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

Storytelling, cats & infographics

Back in the spring Helen was thinking about ways to raise the profile of the library. As a result of a 3am light bulb moment she came into work with infographics on her mind. Co-incidentally Jane had also been looking into this method of communicating information in a gorgeous and eye-catching manner. We got quite excited – posted on SLLG blog

In recognition of #librariesweek, Reader Services Librarian Helen Robinson and I co-wrote a wee post for the SLLG. However, I am so proud of our infographics, I want to post about them here too.

We started talking about this project in the spring sometime. It was wonderful serendipity that I had been noticing and thinking about infographics just when Helen saw them as an opportunity to market and raise awareness of our Library services, and of the staff who provide them. When she mentioned her idea to me I immediately jumped at the chance to get involved. I relish any opportunity to get to know new bits of software.

Staff are at the heart of the Advocates Library

Staff are at the heart of the Advocates Library

I looked at a few infographic sites but settled on piktochart.com because that platform offers excellent functionality and an impressively large amount of content for free (more is available with a subscription). Piktochart has a variety of pretty templates but, because my ‘story’ ideas are very specific, I like to start with a blank page and build up from scratch.

I have been having an indecently large amount of fun working on this project. I get to utilise my creativity as well as my technical skills. Also, I spend a few hours playing happily while producing something of legitimate value to my job. Although the presentation is always lighthearted and upbeat, I like to include something slightly daft in each one. To my utter joy, even the inclusion of a spurious cat one month was accepted as an obvious and integral part of the overall scheme. Incidentally, that infographic has probably been the best received (a not just because of the cat).

The industry driving our Enquiry Service

The industry driving our Enquiry Service

I particularly enjoy joining and layering the icons provided by piktochart to create bespoke shapes. I love that I can edit most icons to fit my custom colour schemes – and I adore my wee enquiry-train! (it took 8 separate parts to make that – and 3 for the pipe/tunnel!)

We’ve received very positive responses to this infographic series – certainly more than I’d expect if we’d circulated the data in purely text form. I hope that I get to play… that we continue to utilise infographics for a good while longer.

The sad history of the Faculty Mummy (EDIT)

In 2008 I put on a small, internal exhibition at the Faculty of Advocates. The exhibition was based around the unique and wonderful ‘Mummy file’, a collection of letters and newspaper clippings held in the Faculty’s archives.

This file was the result of the huge (and hilarious) interest generated by an article The Scotsman published in May 1958. This is the wonderful story behind the Faculty’s letters…

A Very Fine Library

The Earl of Morton
In the year 1748 James Douglas, 14th Earl of Morton, presented an Egyptian mummy to the Faculty of Advocates Library*. It is not known exactly why the Earl chose to bestow this gift but it was duly accepted and “set up in the Library”. The Advocates Library was always more than just a repository for books. From the earliest times Members were collecting artworks and curios as well as books and manuscripts. The Library became something of a museum and guests – such as the English writer Samuel Johnson – were often shown round the exhibits.

No doubt coincidentally, just 18 months after the Mummy had been stowed away among the stacks, the Faculty Records note an application from the Earl of Morton, on behalf of the Philosophical Society, to hold “their monethly meetings in their Library”**

Pharaoh’s Daughter
During its time in the vaults the Faculty Mummy suffered more…

View original post 1,186 more words

RLS music recital – my visuals

Last Friday evening, after months of planning (and talking about it), we finally put on our recital:

Robert Louis Stevenson  The Story of His Life in Word and Song Narrated by Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith – Narrator Anna Poole QC – Soprano, script and fiddle James Mure QC – Baritone John Cameron – Piano Jane A Condie – Visuals

The idea for this recital, and the script, all came from Anna Poole – a trained singer as well as a QC. My job was to create a visual backdrop to the music. I decided that, for copyright reasons, I should gather images from as few places as possible. That way I could easily credit my sources. So, most of my images originated on two sites:

Although this made them easy to credit, it was a challenge locating the right pictures from such limited sources. garden of verses The old photographs come mainly from the Gallery section of the RLS Website and most of the colour illustrations are from the NLS Digital Gallery. The fun bit for me was making the images to illustrate songs based on A Child’s Garden of Verses. Via the RLS Website I found and downloaded a digital version of the work from 1895, illustrated by Charles Robinson (as pictured above). I located the poems we were using, cut and manipulated the illustrations and turned them into a usable format. It was time consuming work but so worth it. I love the way those pictures look on screen.

During her script research Anna discovered that, as well as writing books and poems, RLS dabbled with playing and composing music. Therefore, challenge number two was to locate sheet music for one of Stevenson’s compositions for Anna to play on the fiddle. After so many months I can’t even recall how I came across it, but eventually I learned of the Stevenson House Collection in Monterey, California. This building, formerly a hotel where Stevenson stayed while waiting for his beloved Fanny Osbourne’s divorce to be finalised, has been turned into a museum dedicated to RLS. Among their collections they hold pieces of music written in Stevenson’s own hand. aberlady links I made contact with the curator there, explained what we were doing, and managed to obtain both a copy of Stevenson’s original music (see above) and permission to use it in the recital. All they asked for was a mention – which I happily give again now:

Thank you to the Stevenson House Collection, Monterey for permission to use this sheet music

My final challenge was to create a presentation in keeping with the music, the occasion and the beautiful venue. I first put it together on PowerPoint, twiddling and tinkering over months to get the balance right. However, when I came back to it several weeks ago, as we prepared to actually stage the recital, I was disappointed by the overall look of the thing. It was flat.

So, having just purchased my gorgeous new MacBook Pro featuring Keynote presentation software, I set to work beautifying my visuals. The end result was just stunning! Keynote doesn’t just transition slides – it ushers them in and out with a wave of shimmering gold. My presentation became a thing of utter beauty. Sadly I was forced to export back to PowerPoint for practical purposes (the data-projector doesn’t talk to Macs).

However, I was happy and relieved to find that, though the golden wave was gone, most of the other Keynote additions remained. After some adjustment to sort out formatting issues, the presentation looked great. It was a huge improvement and I was very pleased. I really enjoyed setting up the animations and transitions, slowly fading stuff in and out. Avoiding jarring movements and sudden disappearances. Reading and re-reading the script to best fit the images with the text.

The slide below is my favourite for three reasons. Firstly, I just love these images: a beautiful view of Samoa and a coloured print of Robert Louis Stevenson looking rather dashing and buccaneerish. Next, it illustrates a poem called Envoy, about the way reading can transport you to another time or place – and I can obviously sympathise with that.

envoy - and death Finally, this slide also illustrates the part of the recital where we recount Stevenson’s sudden and tragically early death. I set the text, then the images to fade one by one as the narration went on – Stevenson himself fading last – to leave a blank screen. I feel that has quite a haunting effect.

As I said, we staged this recital last Friday – to a full house and rapturous applause – in Parliament Hall, Edinburgh. It lasted only an hour but it was a fabulous event. The singers and piano sounded glorious in the wonderful acoustics of the hall. Author, and honorary Advocate, Alexander McCall Smith made gently hilarious additions to the scrip and narrated in his lovely chocolatey voice. And I, couried in behind the grand piano, worked my slides and lapped up the ambiance.

Credits

After so much preparation it all seemed to be over too quickly – but I enjoyed every minute of it, and would probably like to do it all again next RLS Day… Maybe. A video version of the full slide show can be viewed here:

The sad history of the Faculty Mummy

Once upon a time and long, long ago (660-330 BC, to be slightly more precise) a man lived, died and was mummified in ‘late period’ Egypt. Sadly that is all we currently know about this person, but death was only the beginning of his story…

The Earl of Morton
In the year 1748 James Douglas, 14th Earl of Morton, presented an Egyptian mummy to the Faculty of Advocates.[1] It is not clear exactly why the Earl chose to bestow this gift but it was duly accepted and “set up in their Library”.[2]

The Advocates Library was always more than just a repository for books. From the earliest times Members were collecting artworks and curios as well as books and manuscripts. The Library became something of a museum and guests were often shown round the exhibits.

The life of Samuel Johnson: including A journal of a tour to the Hebrides, Volume 1, James Boswell, 1832, p. 333

The life of Samuel Johnson: including A journal of a tour to the Hebrides, Volume 1, James Boswell, 1832, p. 333

The English writer Samuel Johnson was once given a tour of the Library by his friend and biographer James Boswell, advocate. Although the mummy would have been in residence by that time, Boswell fails to mention him.

However, in his Handbook to the Parliament House (1884) James Balfour Paul, Faculty Treasurer, makes a passing, yet poetic, reference to:

An old mummy…[who] slumbers in a dark corner as calmly as if it were in the tombs at Memphis. (p.78)

Pharaoh’s Daughter
During its time in the ‘dark corners’ the Faculty Mummy suffered more indignities than the average Egyptian gentleman is used to. From having his wrappings partially removed by some curious person, to being used for bayonet practice by the Members’ Rifle Corps (according to Faculty lore)! Worst of all, it seems to be during this period that the Mummy came to be known as “Pharaoh’s Daughter”. On the plus side, he did have a standing invitation to the Faculty Annual Dinner where, we are told (by the lore again), songs were sung and toasts were drunk to the health of the Pharaoh’s Daughter.

The Scotsman, 2 June 1958, page 4

The Scotsman, 2 June 1958, page 4

The Mummy nobody wants
Eventually though it was decided the Faculty didn’t really need an Egyptian Mummy anymore. According to the Records he was offered on loan to the Royal Scottish Museum in 1906. However, after examination the poor Mummy was “found to be in a condition unsuitable for exhibition” [3]

The Faculty tried again, in 1954, to rid itself of the unwanted artefact. Cyril Aldred the “Royal Scottish Museum authority on Egyptian things” examined the Mummy and returned a brief report. Although it is generally quite scathing you can’t help but enjoy the tone of his summary:

If [the Faculty Mummy] is never seen again by mortal eye, I can assure you that neither science, scholarship nor aesthetics will suffer in consequence [4]

In his accompanying letter W Beattie, National Librarian, is rather understating things with the comment “the enclosed report…is, I’m afraid, disappointing for you”.

Attempts were made to locate other museums interested in taking him – none were found. ‘For sale’ adverts were placed in the papers – there were no takers. When the Faculty at last tried to just throw the Mummy away, even the Council cleansing department refused to uplift on the grounds it was human remains – but remains which could not be buried without a death certificate!

In May 1958 The Scotsman published a piece entitled “Riddle of the mummy nobody wants”. This amusing article detailed the almost farcical trouble the Faculty was experiencing in its efforts to dispose of the artefact:

What is it which has no birth or death certificate, cannot be sold or given away, cannot be burned because it is a human body, yet cannot be buried for lack of a certificate of death?  The answer lies in the cellars of Parliament House, Edinburgh, in a dilapidated wooden coffin – a 3000-year-old Egyptian mummy, property of the Faculty of Advocates [5]

Following publication the story was picked up by newspapers around the world. The Faculty began receiving letters from such places as Holland, Germany, Belgium, France, Switzerland and Australia – as well as from closer to home. While many of these correspondents were offering the Mummy a new home, some just wrote tendering unhelpful advice on the predicament.

One of the correspondents, according to the Clerk of Faculty, had “a much more respectable offer than the others.” [6] Dr AT Sandison, a lecturer and radiologist at Glasgow University’s Pathology Department, was keen to take the mummy off the Faculty’s hands. He had “been working on the histology of such remains” and would be willing to collect.[6] On the 18th June 1958 the Faculty accepted Dr Sandison’s offer and in August the Mummy left the Advocates Library for the last time. This is where we lost track of him…

Until, that is, I decided to do some research of my own.

Rediscovery?
Starting with the Mummy’s last known address, I contacted Glasgow University. Learning that, on Dr Sandison’s death in 1982, his collection of antiquities passed into the care of The Burrell Collection in Glasgow, I contacted a Senior Curator there. He was able to confirm receipt of ‘The Sandison collection’ in 1982. He was aware of two mummies that were being kept in storage, neither with proper provenance… nor a head.

He described the artefacts to me as follows:

    • one was female; her wrappings in good condition, with decoration – like painted jewellery – round her neck and wrists
    • the other was male; in such bad condition he was little more than a skeleton…

I was able to say, with a modicum of certainty, that the tatty auld bag of bones was likely to be the former Faculty Mummy.

Unfortunately the storage facility was at that time inaccessible so I was unable to visit the Mummy myself. However, I did pass on some information – gleaned from the museum report of 1954  – about the condition of the Faculty Mummy’s wrappings and coffin at that time. This may help The Burrell Collection make a definitive identification once they again have access. It may also be possible to identify which of six mummified heads may belong with ours!

So, there you have it. The sad history of the Faculty Mummy: used as a political tool; shuffled from one dusty corner to another; prodded with all manner of pointed instruments; and now, headless and in storage. We should perhaps be thankful he was not the sort of mummy who comes with a curse…

[1] ‘The affair of Lord Morton’s Mummy’, Iain Gordon BrownEgypt through the eyes of travellers, Starkey and Kholy (eds), 2002, p.95
[2] Minute Book of the Faculty of Advocates, volume 2, 1713-1750, The Stair Society, 1980, page 237-238
[3] Faculty Records, 14 June 1906
[4] Letter from Cyril Aldred to William Beattie, 13 July 1954 with covering letter from Mr Beattie to the Vice-Dean of Faculty [Faculty of Advocates ‘Mummy file’]
[5] The Scotsman, 26th of May 1958, page 8
[6] Letter from AT Sandison to the Secretary, Faculty of Advocates, 27 May 1958 and a note (on a compliment slip) from RDI, 28 May 1958 [Faculty of Advocates ‘Mummy file’]

timeline


*EDIT – October 2015*

A version of this story was originally published in 1958 by The Scotsman newspaper. This post was inspired by research I carried out in 2008 for an internal exhibition at the Faculty of Advocates. The exhibition was based around the unique and wonderful ‘Mummy file’, a collection of letters and newspaper clippings held in the Faculty’s archives. These items were gathered following the huge (and hilarious) interest generated by the Scotman article – a copy of which was included in the file. The collection of letters is a treasure but, since they are physical items (and don’t belong to me), I couldn’t post them here. I could however recount the wonderful story behind them.

I am always scrupulous about citing my sources. However, when I first wrote this post (originally entitled The sad history of the Library Mummy) it was a only a short and entirely anonymous reminder of an enjoyable research project. I always prefer to keep posts anonymous when possible. References to the FoA were only added recently, after I received interest from that quarter.

At that time, I omitted to cite a work by Mr Iain Gordon Brown since I didn’t quote from it in the post. However, it was a handy guide to the background story and a resource I used alongside the ‘Mummy file’ and the Minute Book of the Faculty of Advocates. I also investigated methods of mummification via Google! I apologise to Iain Gordon Brown for hurting his feelings. It was not intentional. I sought only to write a nice wee story.

In order to avoid any further unpleasantness, here is a complete list of citations as they appeared in the full text of my exhibition, as well as names of the lovely people who helped with my enquiries.

References & resources:

  • Scots Magazine, July 1748
  • Minute Book of the Faculty of Advocates, volume 2, 1713-1750, The Stair Society, 1980, page 222
  • ‘The affair of Lord Morton’s Mummy’ by Iain Gordon Brown, Egypt through the eyes of travellers, edited by Paul Starkey and Nadia Kholy, 2002
  • Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 1997
  • Walks in Edinburgh, Robert Chambers, 1825, p. 108-109
  • Handbook to the Parliament House, James Balfour Paul (1884), p.78-79
  • Minute Book of the Faculty of Advocates, volume 2, 1713-1750, The Stair Society, 1980, page 237-238
  • Letter from Cyril Aldred, [Royal Scottish Museum] to William Beattie, 13 July 1954 with covering letter from Mr Beattie to the Vice-Dean of Faculty [Faculty of Advocates ‘Mummy file’]
  • Riddle of the mummy nobody wants’, The Scotsman, 26th of May 1958, page 8
  • Letter from AH Keizer to “Members of Parliament”, 19 June 1958 [Faculty of Advocates ‘Mummy file’]
  • Letter (with envelope) from Uta Schweiger, 3 July 1958 [Faculty of Advocates ‘Mummy file’] – translation from ‘The affair of Lord Morton’s Mummy’ by Iain Gordon Brown, Egypt through the eyes of travellers, edited by Paul Starkey and Nadia Kholy, 2002
  • Letter from AT Sandison to the Secretary, Faculty of Advocates, 27 May 1958 and a note (on a compliment slip) from RDI, 28 May 1958 [Faculty of Advocates ‘Mummy file’]
  • Letter from Ian S Macmillan, 25 May 1958 [Faculty of Advocates ‘Mummy file’]
  • Letter from AH Barrowman to the Secretary, Faculty of Advocates, 17 June 1958 [Faculty of Advocates ‘Mummy file’]
  • Mummy’, a song from The Best of Cameron Miller: an anthology of his songs and other writings, compiled by Sheriff N.E.D. Thomson CBE
  • http://www.mummytombs.com/egypt/methods.htm – page no longer available
  • http://www.schoolshistory.org.uk/mummification.htm
  • Newspaper clipping [Australian?] – date and publication unknown
  • Newspaper clipping [France-soir?] date unknown

Helpful people:

  • David C Brown, Senior Library Assistant (Bibliographic dept.), Advocates Library
  • Professor Barry Gusterson, Section of Pathology and Gene Regulation, University of Glasgow
  • Simon R Eccles, Senior Curator (The Burrell Collection) Ancient Civilisations, Glasgow

Extra special thanks are due to Simon Eccles for his kind assistance.