"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, May 23, 2022

The Bones in the Wall: An Edinburgh Castle Mystery

Engraved print of Edinburgh Castle, 1833

All ancient buildings have secrets, and Edinburgh Castle is no exception.  One of its more obscure mysteries was recorded in the “Glasgow Courier” on August 14, 1830:

“On Wednesday last, [August 11] as the masons were knocking off the loose lime, previous to re-casting the old palace in the Castle, they discovered a hole in the wall. The workmen described it as being three feet and a half long, one foot two inches high and one foot in breadth. Between the end of the opening and the surface of the wall (it is the front of the palace) there was a stone about six inches thick and about the same length which was supposed, from the thickness of the wall, to be between the extremity of the opening and the inner surface of the wall or room. In this cavity was found several human bones, some pieces of oak supposed to have been parts of a coffin, and bits of woollen cloth, in all probability the lining of it. On the lining the letter J was distinctly visible, and some of the masons said they saw the letter G also. The bones appear to have been those of a young child. Some of them are in the possession of the person from whom we received this communication. It is right to add that the opening was across the wall.”

All anyone could say about this strange find is that those bones had obviously been in that wall in the old Royal Apartments for a very long time.  At a February 14, 1831 meeting of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, an account written by one Captain J.E. Alexander was read.  According to Alexander, the shroud was of “Silk and Cloth of Gold, having the letter J embroidered thereupon.”  (Note: other observers thought the letter was an “I”.)  At that same meeting, the Society was presented with several of the bones.  In July of that same year, Sergeant Major Dingwall sent the Society more of the ancient bones and a piece of the coffin.  Unfortunately for historians, the physical evidence of the burial--cloth, coffin, bones, and all--have been lost over the centuries.

Over the years, this simple--if extremely weird--discovery inevitably had all manner of romantic fictions and inaccurate details attached to it.  Castle tour guides were fond of telling visitors that the tiny coffin held the remains of a stillborn child of Mary Queen of Scots, with some newborn baby smuggled in as a substitute.  In 1909, an antiquary named Walter B. Woodgate went even further.  As he thought James VI bore a strong resemblance to the Earl of Mar, he proposed that the Countess of Mar was James’ real mother.  Others have suggested that the bones were those of a “foundation sacrifice”--the body of some small animal buried to ward off evil spirits.  More prosaically, it has been theorized that the box or coffin of bones was a reliquary, although this notion does not explain why a holy relic would be so ignominiously walled up.  Jan Bondeson, who examined this puzzling story in his 2018 book "Phillimore's Edinburgh," threw cold water on all those theories, but did not venture to offer one of his own.

The many embroideries that have grown around the original discovery have caused many historians to automatically assume that the discovery of the secret burial never actually happened.  This is regrettable, because there is a genuine mystery here, one well worth contemplating, even if finding a solution is almost certainly impossible.


  1. You'd think Bondeson, or any other author, who discredited all theories on something would have one or two of their own, even if there was no evidence to back them up.

    1. Personally, I take the "foundation sacrifice" more seriously than Bondeson did. It's actually the least weird theory I can think of.


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