Unsolved Mysteries of Scotland

Eloise Madigan

Hello my amazing readers,

In my book, The Highlander’s Captured Bride, we see a young woman helping her father solve a murder case like a medieval Sherlock Holmes. Of course, the real “Sherlock Holmes” takes place in England much later…

But what would he (or even the protagonists of our book) do, with these unsolved mysteries of Scotland from long ago? 

Are you ready for some downright creepy mysteries? It’s been years, some eons even, and nobody has managed to solve these…Will you?

The Faery Coffins, image source: https://mikedashhistory.com/2010/08/31/the-miniature-coffins-found-on-arthurs-seat/

The Fairy Coffins

In July of 1836, some boys made the biggest discovery of their lifetime…Upon searching for a few rabbits burrows around Arthurs Seat (a rocky formation near Edinburgh), they stumbled upon a little cave. And inside this cave?

Seventeen little coffins. Three or four inches long. Inside those coffins lay miniature wooden figures, all dressed in different styles. 

Now, this might seem weird, alright. But maybe a child decided to hold a burial for their dolls, right? Well, my lads and lasses, we wish it were that simple. 

For the coffins were not all from the same time period. Buried in three rows of eight coffins each (with the third row holding only one), the first row was decayed by time and weather, with their wrappings almost moldered away. The second tier was more recent, and not so decayed. But the third was almost as good as new. 

Another quite important detail is the fact that these lilliputian figures were all dressed differently, but all presented the funeral trappings which the dead usually bore. The greatest mystery of all is not only what exactly these miniature coffins were, but who placed them there and when. 

Many theories have been brought up for discussion. Some state they might be burials for seamen lost at sea, never to return to have a proper burial. Some others state that it might be connected to the West Port Murders by William Burke and William Hare in 1827 and 1828. They were committed in Edinburgh by two Irish laborers, Burke and Hare, to profit by supplying corpses to Edinburgh’s medical school, where they were in great demand for dissection. The pair’s victims, mostly indigents who, they supposed, would not be missed, numbered 17, of whom one expired of natural causes while the rest were murdered. 

But could the faery coffins be the work of those serial killers? Or simply childish shenanigans? We might never know! 

Artwork created by Prof Caroline Wilkinson of suspect Ailean Breac Stewart. Image source: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-23960171

The Appin Murders

It was May, 1752, when Colin Roy Campbell of Glenure was shot near the Scottish town of Appin. A man that nobody liked, and had many enemies as a government agent in charge of evictions. But who was actually the gunman that took him down? 

The only possible suspects, at the time, were the Stewart clan, as Campbell was on his way to evict them and put members of his family in their position. The main suspect, Ailean Stewart, fled, but was tried and sentenced to death in his absence. His brother, James, was also sentenced to death, on the grounds that he worked as an accomplice, even though he had a solid alibi. But James took the fall for another man

A terrible miscarriage of justice, the case was reopened to be overturned in  2008, as there wasn’t a shred of evidence that the Stewart clan was involved. It didn’t help, at the time, that the judge and the majority of the jury members were of Campbell clan. 

A legend passed among generations of the Stewart clan: it is said that everyone in the clan knew who the murderer was, but sheltered him for years to come.  In 2001 Anda Penman, an 89-year old descendant of the Stewart clan decided it was time to break the silence. She claimed that four young highlanders had planned the murder. They held a shooting contest, and the best marksmen among them then delivered the fatal shot. That marksman was none other than the one who buried the body, Donald Stewart of Ballachulish.

However, her claim was never confirmed, and the old lady soon passed away.

A case that was never properly tried will remain a mystery for everyone; but it stirs strong emotions in Scots even centuries later…

The Missing Library of Iona

A more modern version of the Library of Alexandria, the missing scrolls of endless knowledge of this Library have been missing for centuries. 

In 563 A.D., St Columba, a Scottish missionary, and his followers, landed on the island of Iona. There, he founded a monastery, which was a pillar of hope for the Scots during the Dark Ages. The best literary works  of that time period were sheltered there; kings were buried under this monastery and people made pilgrimages to benefit from the wisdom of the monks. 

It is believed that Viking raiders destroyed this monastery and everything it hold in the 9th century. The only known survivor is the Book of Kells, now sheltered at Trinity College in Dublin. 

However, many believe that the books might have survived, buried somewhere to keep them safe. After all, the Dead Sea Scrolls were found when a shepherd simply stumbled upon them in a cave. 

The Dark Ages were known for not allowing writing, but we might have access to a beacon of knowledge of the time – or might have lost it forever.

The Mysterious Hangman of Mark Devlin

Dundee in 1830 had only 14 police officers – which resulted in crime skyrocketing around the city. A band of ruthless criminals named Black Band wrecked havoc on the city for a long while, until 1835 – when Mark Devlin was caught. 

As a notorious member of the Black Band, the Scottish authorities wanted to make an example of his death – and the hangman it was. However, Dundee didn’t have a hangman at the time, since only the English used hanging as a punishment. Nobody wanted to be associated with them, however, so that created a bit of a problem. 

Finally, a man from Edinburgh was chosen to travel to Dundee and hang Mark Devlin. But the executioner never showed; scrambling to find a replacement, the authorities chose a local showman, James Livingstone, to do the deed. And thus, Mark Devlin was executed. 

That might be all, you think. How is this a mystery?

You see, James Livingstone was actually, at the time, 15 miles away, in the neighborhood town of Forfar. He even had witnesses who testified who saw him there, and persuaded everyone that he wasn’t the hangman of Mark Devlin. 

So, who actually hanged Mark Devlin? We might never know…

Do you have a solution for any of these mysteries, my dear reader? 

Let me know in the comments!

Until next time,

Written by Eloise Madigan

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