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

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

Book review – Gossip from the Forest by Sara Maitland

 

Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of Our Forests and Fairytales
by Sara Maitland
Published November 2012 by Granta Books
ISBN: 9781847084293

This started well, with the above – wonderfully feminist – definition of the word ‘gossip’. However, it quickly turned into an interesting but very confused book.

On one hand it’s a social history of England’s woodlands, examining how people have lived in and used the forests over the last thousand years or so. It’s also a fascinating breakdown of Germanic fairytales, their history and development. The author suggests that fairytales and forests are inextricably linked – an argument I find quite convincing. However, the problem for me is that Maitland spends her time frolicking round English woods (and a couple of Scottish ones) when the forests of the fairytales are in central Europe. The really nice premise of this book is spoiled for me by this odd geographic choice. I wanted to learn about the fairytales in the Germanic woodlands – their origin and real-world context.

A major bugbear for me was the author’s choice to visit a few Scottish woodlands… while still discussing english history! As well as just being insulting, those later forays into Scottish trees felt rushed, half-hearted and poorly written in comparison to earlier chapters. An attempt to pad out the book and nothing more.

The author’s re-tellings of several fairytales are excellent. If she had chosen to write two books, one about english woodland history and another about fairytales, I’m sure they would have made two very good works. Squashed together they seem disjointed, confused and un-natural.

…the horological journals…

IMG_2708

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.

 

 

Images of 1950s Glasgow in the National Records of Scotland

Fascinating photos contained within Glasgow Sheriff Court records held by the National Records of Scotland‏.

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Open Book

You might expect the pictures contained within Sheriff court Records to be graphic or disturbing, showing the details of crimes and their victims. Of course, this is often the case – but sometimes the pictures can instead give us a glimpse into social or local history.

In a payment case for damages for injuries occurring in a Glasgow washhouse or ‘steamie’ in 1959 we found this wonderfully candid shot. This photograph provides a snapshot into the working of such a wash house. The large washing machines can be seen in the background, with basins on the right, airing cabinets on the left, and tables for folding in the foreground. It definitely shows what a chore hand washing used to be and how much we take our home washing machines for granted! Such an everyday shot of a very ordinary place would usually not have been a typical subject for a…

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What can a battered old copy of Pilgrim’s Progress tell us about how books were printed in the past?

An interesting post explaining why we talk about ‘folio’ and ’12mo’ sized books. A nice accompaniment to my previous post ‘Adventures with auld Acts: Pre-1707 Acts of the Scottish Parliament’

University of Glasgow Library Blog

Both big books and small books usually started out being printed on sheets the same size Both of these early printed books could have been printed on the same size sheets of paper

When you look at an old printed book you’re not really looking at a single book but a series of smaller ‘booklets’ joined together. Books weren’t printed one page at a time but on large sheets of paper subsequently folded into booklets (called gatherings). Therefore pages aren’t the building blocks of early printed books; sheets are. Whether it’s a teeny wee pocket book or a heavy big lectern book, it may well have started out being printed on on the same size sheet of paper.1

A big book, like a lectern Bible, will often contain a series of four page booklets joined together, each booklet formed from two pages printed on either side of a sheet of paper which has then been folded once (books made in this way are described as folio format).2

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Adventures with auld Acts: Pre-1707 Acts of the Scottish Parliament

I had such a fun enquiry this morning! It started off looking like a simple request for an Act of the old Scottish Parliament. Easy-peasy since we have two sets of Thomson’s Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland in stock. However, my enquirer expected c.24 of 1661 to be on the topic of diligence… but it was not (dun dun daaaaa!)

We double checked a couple of sources, including Stair’s Institutions of the law of Scotland but the Act was always cited as c.24 of 1661. Then I remembered that, although Thomson’s Acts (known as the Record edition) is considered the key text, there are various other versions of the Scottish Acts available. Also, I later realised, since Stair’s work was published in 1681 he would certainly not be referring to a set of volumes commissioned by Queen Victoria!

I went off to find one of our tiny ‘Glendook’ editions of the Acts. The two volumes look striking when juxtaposed since the Glendook is only 16cm tall while the Record edition is literally larger than my torso!

 

Glendook is tough to work with. The tiny page size means tiny text. Also, there’s no space for extraneous information, such as year of enactment! As I paged through I happened upon what looked like the Act I was after but was required to leaf back several pages to check I was, in fact, looking at the correct year.

So, I confirmed that c.24 of 1661 was an ‘Act concerning appearand airs their payment of their own and their predecessours’ debtswhich was just what we’d hoped for. I then used the Record edition index to establish the Act was noted as c.88 in that publication. Job done! All I had left was a bit of fighting with the photocopier to make big copies of tiny books and small copies of giant ones.

Happy enquirer. Happy librarian  🙂

Some information on the two editions:

Record Edition
This is ‘Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland’ or ‘Thomson’s Acts’ by Thomas Thomson and Cosmo Innes, printed in twelve folio (43cm) volumes from 1814-75. Published by command of Queen Victoria, this edition was the most complete version of the Acts of Parliament published until that point, and has remained the key work used by historians ever since. The final volume contains an index which is very useful for tracking down Acts when you only have a name or subject.

Errors:  Separate but related acts are often merged into one, numbering of statutes is erratic from volume to volume, occasionally including forfeitures and other private business, in other instances leaving such acts out altogether. Original manuscript numbering is ignored completely.  Thomson’s overzealous editing means that some of the text, especially in the older Acts, is not as originally passed (see Notes on the Sources for the Parliaments of Scotland, 1426-1466 for details).

Duodecimo (or Glendook) Edition
Duodecimo Edition refers to ‘Glendook’s Scots Acts’ or ‘Laws and Acts of Parliament made by King James the First and his royal successors, kings and queens of Scotland‘ by Sir Thomas Murray of Glendook (1682). This was published as two volumes containing statutes from 1424 to 1681.  A third volume (1685 to 1707 by William Duke of Queensberry and others) was published later. The name ‘Duodecimo’ refers to the size of the volumes. These are the smallest volumes of the Acts we hold.

Errors:  There is a note on the St. Andrews University website detailing the errors in this edition of Scottish Acts.  Glendook’s work seems to be based on previous publications rather than original records. Of the two Glendook editions published, the earlier 1681 folio has fewer typos than this duodecimo edition.  The work is incomplete, excluding public acts and occasionally entire sessions of parliament but including Acts of Sederunt as if they were statutes.