The enigma of Edinburgh’s miniature coffins

There is an unresolved mystery in Scottish folklore, it concerns the discovery of 17 miniature coffins in a cave in the 19th century in Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh. It remains a mystery to this day who put these tiny coffins in the cave in Edinburgh and for what reason. The mystery is even the subject of a teen novel, titled Seventeen Coffins, by Philip Caveney. The story follows ‘Crow Boy’ and his ability to travel back in time brings him to the 19th century and the caves where the coffins were found. Maybe this novel has inadvertently uncovered the truth of the story.

How did we find them?

Several young boys went hunting rabbits when they came across a small cave in 1836. Inside the cave, they found the little coffins which had been placed in the cave at different intervals. Several of the coffins had decayed significantly while other had not decayed at all, meaning they were more recently placed there. The figures inside the coffins were dressed in cotton outfits, as though to represent different people. The coffins are about 3-4 inches in length with miniature wooden figures inside them, they are a little bit creepy but fascinating at the same time. Seemingly the boys decided to throw the coffins at each other for a while before deciding to inform someone about them. Only eight of the original 17 have survived. The remaining coffins are exhibited at Edinburgh museum.

The enigma of Edinburgh’s miniature coffins

What happened?

There is a belief that the coffins are actually representations of victims of homicide at the hands of Burke and Hare in 1826. 16 victims fell at the hands of Burke and Hare, one for each coffin. There is still one coffin extra though! Experts have theorized that the 17th coffin represents the first person to die in Burke and Hare’s company, they died of natural causes and were passed to a doctor. This 17th person could be the final victim to complete the quota. In Scotland at the time, lots of research was being done on dead bodies, but they ran out of cadavers in the end. Burke and Hare decided to take matters into their own hands and were bumping people off to sell their bodies to doctors.


While the numbers add up to presume it was Burke and Hare, it begs the question why. They sold the bodies for profit so really didn’t seem like the sentimental type to keep miniature representations of their victims. Another theory that was discussed at the time of discovery was that it was witchcraft. Despite putting down their pitchforks years before the discovery of the coffins, the paper that covered the story pointed their finger at witches. They denied that all witches had disappeared and no doubt some were still hanging around with powers messing with people. It was feared that the figures were a type of voodoo doll and whoever had carved them had meant serious harm to someone.

Many people have tried to solve the mystery, but no one has come to a definitive conclusion. The only thing people know for sure is that no one knows what they are representing. Maybe one day the truth will come out, but unfortunately, it seems unlikely.