Fairy coffins, or murder victims remembered?
February 8, 2014 6:21 PM   Subscribe

The mystery of the tiny coffins of Edinburgh, Scotland, found in 1836. Still of unknown origins, the meaning behind these tiny coffins could have various answers. Were they to honor the victims of Burke and Hare? Perhaps instead, some answer to a sailors superstition? Maybe they had an obscure meaning regarding the superstitions of 19th century Scotland. Whatever the case, it's open to speculation.
posted by annieb (36 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Pretty fascinating stuff!
posted by Wolfdog at 6:42 PM on February 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've studied a lot of sailors' folklore and never encountered anything about making small coffins. This is fascinating but I would doubt it has anything to do with sailing - though any community where people make their living on the water is characterized partly at least by obsession with death.
posted by Miko at 7:08 PM on February 8, 2014

OK, I've read through all the links about it now. I think the central hypothesis that's not getting attention is to focus on the schoolmaster(s) credited with the analysis of the discovery as the people who actually planted these works. Since they were very likely created within a few years of their findings, and since documentation doesn't cite or name the boys themselves but only their masters, it seems possible that the master(s) wanted to be credited with an archaeological find at a time period when the science of archaeology was nascent and the stuff of celebrity.

It's not especially romantic, but the simple human craving for distinguishing attention is the "expect horses" of history.
posted by Miko at 7:27 PM on February 8, 2014

"expect horses"?
posted by various at 7:43 PM on February 8, 2014

The great Edinburgh crime writer Ian Rankin adapted this incident, in his Rebus novel "The Falls".
posted by oluckyman at 7:57 PM on February 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Geddes’ advice to his accident investigation students? “When you hear hoof beats in the hallway, think horses, not zebras.” In other words, most times the obvious answer is the correct answer.
My suggestion is that here, the "horses" are the ambitions of schoolmasters to make breakthough archaeological discoveries that enhance their reputations and give them a professional life beyond instructing 12-year-olds in Latin grammar, at a time when archaeology was the hot topic. It's the simplest explanation. Even if they have to create the discovered material themselves.
posted by Miko at 8:02 PM on February 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

various: it means if it looks like a duck...
posted by Leon at 8:04 PM on February 8, 2014

If it looks like a duck, expect horses!
posted by jason_steakums at 8:05 PM on February 8, 2014 [20 favorites]

I didn't even read the link and I can guarantee you that those are definitely fairy coffins.
posted by vorpal bunny at 8:38 PM on February 8, 2014

Oh my, that eerie sense of deja vu..

(Not hassling, Annieb. Really just noting that Mike Dash seems to be recycling his old blog posts for the Smithsonian rag.)
posted by Ahab at 9:15 PM on February 8, 2014

If it looks like a duck, expect horses!

People always jump to conclusions - it could also be a horse-sized duck.
posted by Dr Dracator at 10:15 PM on February 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

Pretty creepy.

As for Miko's theory, while these finds did produce notoriety, wouldn't Scottish schoolmasters planting "grave goods" for archaeological fame want something with the appearance of greater antiquity? I'd guess either legions wandering beyond Hadrian's Wall or something romantically Celtic like Ossian.
posted by Gnatcho at 10:27 PM on February 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Metafilter: it could also be a horse-sized duck
posted by Hairy Lobster at 10:54 PM on February 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

I don't think it's useful to make up hypothetical motivations that would exclude the real items which are known to exist. Somebody created them for some reason, after all. In any case this was before the great era of archaeological hoaxes, which ran from about the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th (for a lot of good reasons involving the growing scientific reputation of archaeology, especially after Darwin). Personally, I'd class this more in the realm of things like the Devil's Footprints, or even in its own way (and some generations later) the Fairy Photographs of Conan Doyle -- a need or desire, conscious or unconscious, to create mystery and intrigue. A creative endeavor that today might be sated by making YouTube videos or the more professional like. It's sort of an evolutionary step in a culture from mythology to rationality.
posted by dhartung at 10:55 PM on February 8, 2014

If it's the size of a horse, and it looks like a duck... it must be made of wood!
posted by Foosnark at 10:56 PM on February 8, 2014

If your wood is the size of a horse. but looks like a duck, you should probably get medical attention.
posted by Paul Slade at 1:56 AM on February 9, 2014

Fairy coffins? Omigod I didn't clap...
posted by Segundus at 3:06 AM on February 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

Are there any other examples of 'fairy coffins'? Asking this sincerely - a simple search on my mobile device is not turning up much unrelated to this one set of examples from Edinburgh.

Maybe fairies don't use coffins. The whole coffins-and-graveyards thing seems pretty Christian, at least in that part of the world. Besides, aren't most fairies practically immortal?
posted by newdaddy at 3:43 AM on February 9, 2014

The (likely apocryphal) story I've heard about this is that a group of school boys once wandered into one of the caves on Salisbury crags, never to be seen again. The entrance was too small for an adult to follow them. After some months several of the cave entrances were sealed up to prevent this ever happening again. Decades later the miniature coffins were found (by a different group of school boys) - one coffin for each of the lost boys.
posted by Lanark at 4:47 AM on February 9, 2014

Lanark, How did the second set of schoolboys get in if the entrance had been sealed, and how did the coffins get in there, or were they made by the first group of lost schoolboys?
posted by marienbad at 5:04 AM on February 9, 2014

Also, what is it with Scotland? Glamis Castle (via the FT link)
posted by marienbad at 5:12 AM on February 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

marienbad The coffins were found buried nearby, not in the actual caves, presumably placed there by a grieving relative (not having an actual body to bury).
posted by Lanark at 5:34 AM on February 9, 2014

Some evidence seems to be getting ignored -

Figurines are all of males of uniform height (plus or minus a wee bittock)
All are "modelled" with knee breeches
All are modelled with ankle boots.

This sounds like a set of (home made ?) toy soldiers.

Was the figure's arm removed to fit the coffin - or was the arm lost in play (mock battle)?

Or maybe I should get out more.
posted by Crustybob at 6:46 AM on February 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Is this the setup for the Scottish Trilogy of Terror?
posted by lagomorphius at 6:49 AM on February 9, 2014

The Arthur's Seat coffins are an interesting plot component of Ian Rankin's Rebus detective novel "The Falls".
posted by cromagnon at 7:34 AM on February 9, 2014

I wasn't suggesting that there are (or were) fairies in Scottland. Just that the supposition of fairy graves doesn't seem consistent with the rest of that system of beliefs.
posted by newdaddy at 7:43 AM on February 9, 2014

Morbid little girls playing funeral. Seriously. Occam's bloody razor.

I totally used to do it myself. I hope the awkward silence where I assume everybody did something as a kid but it turns out it was just me isn't too long and deafening.

So, Mom says to me a couple of months ago, "When you were younger, I thought you were going to grow up to be one of those Goths. What is it they worship, anyway?" And I says, says I, "Mom, you were the one who celebrated our birthdays on Halloween so you didn't have to have separate parties in September and November."

So, yeah, I buried a couple of dollar-store fashion dolls when they got too broken-down to keep Frankensteining their spare parts around. It was fun building their little coffins and sewing their little going-away dresses and picking lilacs apart to make their little mourning wreaths. And yeah, maybe I also buried a couple of empty dresses with doll heads stuck on. I learned it from you, Mom; I learned it from you.

posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:54 AM on February 9, 2014 [6 favorites]

I did that too, Underpants Monster. It's what I assumed when I read the article. (And the bit about them probably being toy soldiers is mentioned in the first article.) If we're going for the most obvious reality, and the fact that this sort of thing doesn't show up in any sort of tradition, then I think a child's game is the most likely.
posted by RedEmma at 9:48 AM on February 9, 2014

Just exactly where are these caves? I've traipsed around the park many times, along the Radical Road at the bottom of the crags (where I once bumped into Ken Kesey appropriately enough) and up to the top of Arthur's Seat various ways and I've never seen anything cave like. There has been lots of erosion on the Gutted Huddie part of the hill but other than that I can't think there has been too much changes to the location since the coffins were found.
posted by gnuhavenpier at 10:46 AM on February 9, 2014

presumably placed there by a grieving relative (not having an actual body to bury).

So unlikely not to have even a ritual burial in sanctified ground, given religious mores at the time.
posted by Miko at 10:52 AM on February 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

That's a good theory too, Underpants Monster. We used to bury dead birds and squirrels as a fun exercise whenever we found them.

I'm still a little partial to the schoolmaster hoax theory, if only because the boys themselves don't seem to have ever been documented. What happened to them when they grew up? Why no comment on their find later in life? The absence of any claim of responsibility from one of the alleged former boys is notable.
posted by Miko at 10:54 AM on February 9, 2014

Moreover, “the open eyes of the figures suggest that they were not carved to represent corpses.”

With vinyl-headed dolls, a little enamel or acrylic paint, or modeling or polymer clay, makes great closed eyelids. Removing the eye paint tends to just make them look like mutants.

“an aperture about twelve inches square in which were lodged seventeen Lilliputian coffins, forming two tiers of eight each, and one on a third, just begun!”

Although seventeen is, of course, a tough number to evenly distribute, he unwittingly points out, in the words I bolded, the difficulty in connecting the number of coffins with any specific group of real dead people. We don't know if the mini-burial was finished.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:44 AM on February 9, 2014

An early form of guerrilla art.
posted by cedar key at 12:46 PM on February 9, 2014

Like most kids, I lined the neighbors' driveways with flaming woodchuck and raccoon skulls on sticks.

This fairy burial stuff is just creepy.
posted by codswallop at 2:57 PM on February 9, 2014

Wait, I just reread this article and it mentions there are many indications that the figures were indeed a set of wooden toy soldiers. They had been carefully sewn into tiny burial outfits.

My guess is that a kid played war with their toy soldiers, then wanted to give a decent burial to the ones who lost their lives on the battlefield.

Equal parts morbid and adorable, really.
posted by ErikaB at 5:52 PM on February 11, 2014

Reminds me of the episode of Dark Shadows where little David and Amy find the bones of the vengeful ancestral ghost that's been haunting them and sneak them outside in a trunk to give them a decent burial to appease the ghost. The only way they can do it without arousing the adults' suspicion is to say that it's David's toy box and they're giving his toy soldiers a top secret military funeral.

Of course, this was the same kid who had this conversation with his governess:

David: I hate you! I hope you die, and I won't even go to your funeral!
Governess: Now David, you know that's not true.
David: You're right; it isn't true. I WOULD go to your funeral.
Governess: Why do you say that?
David: I like funerals.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:20 PM on February 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

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