Bones Abroad: Mysterious Edinburgh

Written by: Katy Meyers Emery

Primary Source: Bones Don’t Lie

Sadly I am not actually abroad, but a number of articles have come across my screen relating to Edinburgh, so I decided I would write a post-abroad post. I lived in Edinburgh, Scotland from September 2009 to July 2010 when I was completing my masters in Human Osteoarchaeology at University of Edinburgh. I can honestly say that it is one of the most enchanting and mysterious cities I have ever been in. The streets and sidewalks are a maze of levels, navigating them at first can be a challenge until you finally grasp which are the lower and which are the upper ones, made harder because the stairways and ramps between them are often twisting and hidden. In the mornings, daybreak can be glorious and sunlight, or it can be shrouded in a dense fog. At night, the city can be bustling with laughter and people, or as quiet as a cemetery. And speaking of cemeteries, it has some of the most wonderful sacred spaces to wander through. If you get the chance to visit, there are a number of things that you are going to want to see.

The Fairy Coffins

The Fairy Coffins

Fairy Coffins: The city of Edinburgh is overlooked by two major monuments, the first is the man-made castle, and the second is the natural hill of Arthur’s Seat. Arthur’s Seat is ensconced in its own mythology, and in 1836 became the site of rumor and intrigue. This written record comes from Charles Fort: “That, early in July, 1836, some boys were searching for rabbits’ burrows in the rocky formation, near Edinburgh, known as Arthur’s Seat. In the side of a cliff, they came upon some thin sheets of slate, which they pulled out… Little cave… Seventeen tiny coffins… Three or four inches long… In the coffins were miniature wooden figures. They were dressed differently in both style and material. There were two tiers of eight coffins each, and a third one begun, with one coffin.” Each coffin was deposited singly over a number of years, some were well-decayed and others were in perfect condition. The coffins were held in private collections until 1901 when they were transferred to the National Museum of Scotland.

Archaeological and historical analysis has revealed more information about these ‘fairy coffins’. Within each 4-5 inch coffin is a single individual. The coffins were carved by someone with skill but not a workworker as they lacked some tools such as those to make perfect corners and remove bases. The figures are all quite erect with black stained feet, and open eyes suggesting they were originally carved as a toy soldier or some other purpose than corpses. The metal decorating the lids was likely from shoes or other leather. The decay and timeline suggests they were placed there over  a number of years from 1800-1830. The presence of 17 original coffins with figures has led to speculation over who they represent. The major theory has been that they represent the 17 victims of the West Port Murders done by famous body snatchers William Burke and William Hare in 1827 and 1828 (Who murdered to create fresh bodies for the medical school- the fresher the more money they got. They also transported the human remains through the Edinburgh Vaults, hidden tunnels beneath the city!). However all the figures appear male, and 12 of Burke and Hare’s victims were female… perhaps it is time to find another potential theory. (Learn more about them from Smithsonian Mag).

Mary King's Close (with re-enactor)

Mary King’s Close (with re-enactor)

Mary King’s Close: In the 17th century, the High Street (now the Royal Mile) in Edinburgh was filled by packed tenement buildings that could reach up to 7 stories high. Sanitation was unheard of, and the streets ran with waste, rats and fleas. When the Bubonic Plague hit the city, these narrow closes became the perfect breeding ground for disease. Rumor has it, that in order to stop the plague, the tenement buildings were walled off, and the new city streets free of disease were built on top of them. However, the city and inhabitants actually took great care for the sick and managed the outbreak. It wasn’t until the 19th century that these tenement buildings were closed off. Instead of tearing them down though, they covered the first few levels, and built on top of them. The underground city was partially forgotten, until workers rediscovered it. You can now visit the tenements beneath the Royal Mile, learn about the plight of the plague in these buildings, and meet a number of ghosts- maybe. (Learn more about the close from Atlas Obscura). Supposedly in a specific room, known as Annie’s Room, there is a ghost of a little girl who will grab the hand of the last person leaving the room whenever tours visit. I did have the chance to be that last person- sadly no ghost tried to grab my hand despite my best effort to act nonchalant.

Greyfriars' Bobby Statue

Greyfriars’ Bobby Statue

Greyfriars Kirkyard: If you can only visit one cemetery, this is the one you want to see. First, it is guarded by Greyfriars’ Bobby (not the pub, the dog): a scruffy and adorable statue of a dog, dedicated to the original pup who stood vigil over his owner’s grave for fourteen years until he himself died and was buried at there as well. While it may in fact be a myth, perpetuated by the cemetery caretakers, it is still a nice entrance into the cemetery. The cemetery also has a number of mortsafes– which if you remember from previous posts, was meant to protect the dead from being taken by body snatchers, a prevalent issue in the 19th century. It was not to keep the dead from escaping their graves. In 1999, a homeless man broke into the crypt of Sir George Mackenzie. Since then, there have been numerous reports of poltergeist and paranormal activity throughout the cemetery. The area was closed off to the public after a failed exorcism in 2000 (the man performing the exorcism had a heart attack and died). You can still visit the crypt, but only as part of a controlled tour. A fun thing I noticed while walking through the cemetery is that 1) it is located right behind the famous Elephant Room where J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter, and 2) many of the headstones have names of characters in the book series (McGonigal anyone?).

Edinburgh is an amazing place, if I could afford to get married there I would, if I was offered a job there, I would take it. If you have the chance to visit- do it! I’ll be glad to give some food and pub suggestions as well.

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Katy Meyers Emery
Katy is currently a graduate student studying mortuary archaeology at Michigan State University. Her academic interests are in mortuary and bioarchaeology, with a specific interest in connecting the physical remains to the mortuary context. Along with this, she is also interested in Digital Humanities, and the integration of technology into academia, as well as public archaeology and outreach.
Katy Meyers Emery

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