Today, Arthur’s Seat sits humbly overlooking the city of Edinburgh. Its name has sparked many theories, with some saying its namesake is from none other than King Arthur himself, with others even believing that it was once the site of the fabled Camelot, or perhaps the field of a revolutionary battle won by King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. 

Whether it be a historical site since faded to legend is not the topic today, however. The mystery we uncover today involve artefacts that were discovered within a cave at Arthur’s Seat, almost a hundred years ago.

In the summer of 1936, a group of boys were hunting for rabbits at the base of the mystical mountain. It was here they discovered a strange formation of rocks. As the boys removed the stone slabs, they discovered the entrance to a cave. And inside, 17 mysterious small dolls lay before them, each resting within a coffin.

Today, eight of these dolls remain on display at the National Museum of Scotland. These elusive dolls are said to be one of the most popular exhibits of the museum due to the mystery surrounding them. Who made these morbid figures? For what purpose were they carved? And how long had they been laid to rest with Arthur’s seat?

There has been much speculation over the origins of the dolls since their discovery, with the nature of their existence baffling both experts and historians. Below, we have compiled a short list of the most relevant theories among the hundreds that have spread since their discovery.

Burke and Hare murders theory  

One of the most prominent theories relating to the 17 doll’s origins could be that they were created as effigies relating to the 17 murders that were committed around Edinburgh a decade prior to their discovery. 

The story goes that during the late 1820s, William Burke (Right) and William Hare (Left) provided fresh bodies to the local anatomy school for Dr. Robert Knox to provide his students with specimens to teach with. It is widely believed that Knox knew that Burke and Hare had attained the bodies through deplorable means, but paid the men anyway. But would he have known that the two had resorted to luring lodgers to their homes in order to murder them?

One fateful evening, a lodger of Burkes and Hares stumbled upon the body of a previous tenant still waiting to be delivered to Dr. Knox. The police were alerted and thankfully, Burke and Hare were arrested, along with Hare’s wife and Burke’s mistress. Even with the body found in Knox’s classroom, ready for dissection, the evidence against Burke and Hare wasn’t damning enough to convict them. This was until Hare gave a full confession to the murders. William Burke was hanged soon after and his body was dissected and can be found in Edinburgh’s Royal College of Surgeons as a skeleton and a leather bound notebook said to be made from the murderers skin. You may have found that last sentence disturbing, but even more strange is that William Hare was eventually released and left Edinburgh altogether. Nobody rightly knows what happened to Hare, where he ended up or if he had committed any murders since. It is a mystery as provocative as the dolls themselves.

Speaking of the dolls, where do they come into play in this tale? Well, legend has it that the dolls were created by the notorious killers themselves. It is unknown which culprit fashioned the figurines or why, but speculation leads us to believe that they were made to appease a guilty conscience of one of the murderers, or perhaps even Dr. Knox himself made them, knowing full well where his supply was coming from. It will never truly be known if these dolls were even linked to the terrible murders of Burke and Hare. Yet the tale in itself is the most fitting and the most disturbing one that has been theorised.

Radical War of 1820

Author and amateur historian, Jeff Nisbet, believes the dolls were mementos of remembrance given to the people who lost their lives during the Radical War of 1820. To give context, this war was more of a political protest amid a series of worker strikes that went awry. Originally meant to improve the pay of destitute workers at the time, instead the protests and strikes ignited a civil war that led to the arrest and eventual execution of the leaders of the movement. 

When the war was over, there were many who still believed in the movement. Some of which were instructed to build a path around Arthur’s Seat that has since become known as ‘Radical Road’. Nibet believes that the disgruntled workers built these dolls and coffins and buried them within a cave close to the path they were building, as their way of honouring the lives of the people who started the movement and the sacrifices they had made. 

Witches and the occult theory 

These dolls have been described as voodoo dolls over the years, with many believing that the strange artefacts were connected to pagan ritual or witchcraft. There is much evidence supporting this theory, as there have been a number of discoveries found among the wilds of Arthur’s Seat, including a calf’s heart pierced by several needles, now resting in Scotland’s National Museum.

Some theories relating to superstition are less worrying, as there are stories such as the wives of fishermen burying these dolls as a funeral for their husbands who were lost at sea. Although this practice was unknown around the time historians believe the dolls to have been buried and for 17 of these dolls to be placed together would have meant a collection of widows would have had to have come together, making the site of burial more well known in the area. 

In conclusion

The mysteries surrounding these artefacts are almost as perplexing as the dolls themselves. Who can say that these figurines were anything more than a child’s toy or created by a cobbler or wood-carver as part of a hobby or past-time. In the end, the origins of these dolls will just be a mystery in a long line of things we will never truly understand. And that is the reason why they will remain in the history of Edinburgh for many generations to come. 

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