Weird Scottish Mummification 

We don’t think of Scotland as a place where you would find Mummies - preserved dead human bodies - but think again. Egypt wasn’t the only country that wanted to preserve its ancestors. Scottish peat bogs provided the perfect mummification materials.

By Gordon Mooney

The Gunnister Mummy

When I was a wee lad in Edinburgh the ‘Gunnister Man’ used to be on display in the Queen Street Museum of Antiquities but has since been taken back to Shetland where he was originally dug up.

The Gunnister Man is the remains of a man found by two Shetlanders in a peat bog not far from the junction of the A970 road in Gunnister, Shetland. The bog body was found on 12 May 1951 as the men were digging up peat for fuel. It was discovered at a depth of about 75 centimetres (30 in) at grid reference HU3290 7330. A stone placed by the Northmavine History Group now marks the location of the find.

The body is believed to date from the late 17th or early 18th century. Three coins found in his knitted purse were a 6-Stuiver piece from Nijmegen (Netherlands) dated to 1690, a 2-Stiver piece from Overijssel dated to 1681, and a ⅙ Öre from Sweden dating from 1683. It is not known if Gunnister Man was a Shetlander or a visitor to the islands. The coins were common in Shetland at that time because of trade by north European merchants, so these give no clear indication of his origin. The knitted purse found with his body is believed to be the earliest example of two-colour knitting in Shetland. The man’s woolen clothes were preserved in excellent condition even after their long burial in the peat. He wore a woolen shirt, a long coat, short wide breeches, and an outer jacket. He had two caps, a pair of gloves and knitted stockings.

The only remains of the man were a piece of skull with dark hair, finger and toe nails, fragments of bone from the sleeves and in one stocking. His remains suggest he was walking in wintertime, and he may have died of illness or exposure. It is not possible to see any settlement from where the Gunnister Man was buried. The weather in northern Europe from the late 17th to the early 18th century was fiercely cold and stormy. It is clear that his body was purposefully buried, because the objects he carried were carefully buried with him. Other items found included a leather belt, a silk ribbon, three woolen cords, a small knitted fragment, a birch stick, a wooden stave tub, a knife handle, a horn spoon, a quill, a horn container with wooden stopper, and two flat pieces of wood.

Immediately after the burial was discovered, the finds were taken to a local house, where some people knitted replicas of the stockings and purse. These replicas are on display in Tangwick Haa Museum in Northmavine, Shetland. In 2009, Shetland Museum and Archives made full replicas of all of the finds, which are together displayed in a permanent Gunnister Man display in Lerwick, Shetland. All original objects in the original find are now in the collections of the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh. Some objects are on permanent display in various parts of NMS galleries.

The Mummies of Stroma

Stroma is an island off the northern coast of the mainland of Scotland. The name is from the Old Norse Straumr-øy meaning "island in the [tidal] stream". It is the most southerly of the islands in the Pentland Firth between the Orkney islands and Caithness, the northeasternmost part of the mainland. Ancient stone structures testify to the presence of Stroma's earliest residents, while a Norse presence around 900–1,000 years ago is recorded in the Orkneyinga Saga. There is a Viking stronghold precariously perched on top of a sea stack.

Today Stroma is within the jurisdiction of Caithness and Highland Council, having been politically united with Caithness since at least the 15th century. Although Stroma lies only a few miles off the Scottish coast, the savage weather and ferociously strong tides of the Pentland Firth meant that the island's inhabitants were very isolated, causing them to be largely self-sufficient, trading agricultural produce and fish with the mainlanders. But Stroma was abandoned in the mid 1960’s and is only used now to graze sheep.

One curious side-effect of the constant spray of sea-water over Stroma – apart from making the drinking water brackish and giving the air a salty taste – was that it mummified the corpses of some of the island's inhabitants. They were housed in a mausoleum in the south-east corner of Stroma, built by the Kennedy family in 1677. The building still stands, although it is now unroofed; it comprises a two-storey structure which incorporates a burial vault and a doocot. The building was constructed from grey flagstones and pink sandstone quoins, measuring 25 ft (7.6 m) by 18 ft 5 in (5.61 m) externally and standing 22 ft (6.7 m) high. The lintel of the door has the inscription "I.K." (John Kennedy) and the date 1677 carved into it.

The mummies of Stroma were something of a tourist attraction in the 18th century. Welsh naturalist and traveller Thomas Pennant described them as "entire and uncorrupted bodies of persons who had been dead sixty years. I was informed that they were very light, had a flexibility in their limbs and were of a dusky color." However, their popularity proved their undoing. In 1762 Bishop of Ross and Caithness, Robert Forbes recorded this bizarre entry in his journal:

that Murdoch Kennedy... played such wretched tricks on the [mummified] Body of his Father, for the Diversion of Strangers, as in time broke it to pieces, and the Head was the part that fell first off. He used to place Strangers at his Father’s Feet, and by setting a Foot on one of his Father’s, he made the Body spring up speedily and salute them, which surprized them greatly. Then, after laying the body down again, he beat a march upon the Belly, which sounded equally loud with a Drum.

By 1786 the mummies had been destroyed by cattle and careless visitors as, according to Walker's Hibernian Magazine, "curiosity to see the mummies had brought many idle people to Stroma, [and] that some, out of wantonness had shattered the door, and others the bodies; and the door not being repaired, sheep and cattle entered the vault, and trampled them to pieces."

There is now no trace of the original burials in the vault.

The Frankenstein Mummies -

The Scottish Mummies Of Cladh Hallan predate Tutankhamun

Scientists have discovered that two 3,000-year-old Scottish "bog bodies" are actually made from the remains of six different people! Perhaps the work of a Bronze Age Dr. Frankenstein?

Cladh Hallan (Scottish Gaelic: Cladh Hàlainn,) is an archaeological site on the island of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland. It is significant as the only place in Great Britain where prehistoric mummies have been found. Excavations carried out there between 1988 - 2002 indicate that the site was occupied from 2000 BC.

In 2001, a team of archaeologists found four skeletons at the site, one of them a male who had died c. 1600 BC, and another a female who had died c. 1300 BC. (about the same time as King Tutankhamun of Egypt). At first the researchers did not realise they were dealing with mummies, since the soft tissue had decomposed and the skeletons had been buried. But tests revealed that both bodies had not been buried until about 1120 BC, and that the bodies had been preserved shortly after death in a peat bog for 6 to 18 months. The preserved bodies were then apparently retrieved from the bog and set up inside a dwelling, presumably having religious significance. Archaeologists do not know why the bodies were buried centuries later. The Cladh Hallan skeletons differ from most bog bodies in two respects: unlike most bog bodies, they appear to have been put in the bog for the express purpose of preservation (whereas most bog bodies were simply interred in the bog), and unlike most bog bodies, their soft tissue was no longer preserved at the time of discovery.

Two skeletons - excavated by archaeologists at Cladh Hallan, on South Uist in the Western Isles Scotland - seem to have been deliberately mummified. One of the skeletons was buried about five hundred years after the person died. Both skeletons provide evidence of mummification and post-mortem manipulation of body parts. Perhaps these practices were widespread in Bronze Age Britain? Based on radiocarbon evidence from the male’s skull and the female’s tibia, the male is believed to have died around 1600 BC, and the female at around 1300 BC. But other tests showed they were both buried around 1120 BC.

The Cladh Hallan Mummies represent the only proof to date that Bronze Age Britons practiced mummification.  The remains exhibit strong evidence that the bodies were intentionally preserved by placing them in an acidic environment, probably a peat bog. The preservation effect of peat bogs would have been well known at the time, as people would regularly have seen preserved artefacts and animals as they dug up the peat to fuel their fires.

As an interesting and important aside - the male mummy predates Tutankhamun by centuries!

A population boom

South Uist was heavily populated from around 2000 BC until the end of the Viking period over 3000 years later. The Cladh Hallan mummies were found in an unusually well-preserved group of Late Bronze Age-Iron Age roundhouses. The houses were constructed as a row of four roundhouses all built as a single structure with party walls.  The environment consisted of grasslands, sand dunes and a beach – with over 200 settlements in the wider area.

Five humans, (three of them children), and two dogs were buried within the huts. They were buried in the north-east quadrant, which is consistent with burial practice in the area.  The children and dogs were buried, and then the floor and huts were built over them. The two mummified adults seem to have been buried at a later time, under the floors of the houses.

The male bones were examined by X-ray scattering. They were partially mineralised, with larger than normal crystals towards the outside of the bone. This crystalization indicates an environmentally acidic burial, as in peat.  Osteological evidence on the woman’s bones shows that the left knee was broken off while the body was still articulated (meaning, the bones were still joined by tissue).  The fact that the bones were still joined by tissue so long after death shows very long-term preservation of the soft tissue – by natural mummification.

British Bronze Age mummification in Britain developed a unique local innovation. In Egypt, dead bodies were preserved was to ensure that pharaohs, priests and nobles could exist in the afterlife.   In Scotland, mummification may have been done to secure a place in the afterworld, but because the mummies were left unburied for centuries, they could also—importantly— keep watch over the living. These ancestors were mummified to serve as the guardians of ancient traditions.

The Bronze Age was a time of transformation in Britain’s prehistoric past. Mike Parker Pearson of Sheffield University, in charge of the Cladh Hallan excavation, explained that the landscapes long-dominated by the barrows and cairns of the dead, were replaced by “Landscapes of the living, filled with houses, settlements and field systems. This change is particularly evident at Cladh Hallan around 1100 BC, when these mummified, ancestral dead were deliberately buried within the solid and imposing roundhouses, which marked a significant change from the small and ephemeral houses of the Earlier Bronze Age.”

Mummies assembled from various bodies

According to new isotopic dating and DNA experiments, the Cladh Hallan mummies—a male and a female—were actually assembled from parts of various bodies. We may never know the reason or purpose for these gruesome Frankenstein composites. The mummies were discovered over a decade ago below the ruins of 11th-century houses at Cladh Hallan, a prehistoric village on South Uist. The bodies had been arranged and buried in the fetal position 300 to 600 years after death. Based on the condition and structures of the skeletons, scientists had previously determined that the bodies had been placed in a peat bog just long enough to preserve them, and then dug up. The skeletons were reburied centuries later.

Terry Brown, a professor of biomedical archaeology at the University of Manchester, said there were clues that these bog bodies were more than they seemed. On the female skeleton the jaw didn't fit into the rest of the skull. Mike Parker Pearson suggested try to figure it out through DNA testing. Brown sampled DNA from the female skeleton's jawbone, skull, arm, and leg. Astonishingly, the results showed that the female body parts came from different people — none of whom even shared the same mother! The female skeleton was composed of bones that dated to around the same time period. But isotopic dating showed that the male mummy skeleton was made from people who died a few hundred years apart. Another clue to the odd nature of the Cladh Hallan mummies is their unusually well-preserved bones.

A peat bog is a high-acid, low-oxygen environment, which inhibits the bacteria that break down organics, said Gill Plunkett, a lecturer in paleo-ecology at Queen's University Belfast. "The combined conditions are particularly good for the preservation of most organic materials," she said. "But on the other hand, the acidic conditions will attack calcium-based materials," with the consequence that bog bodies have better-preserved skin and soft tissue than bones. In the Cladh Hallan bodies, the bones are still articulated—attached to each other as they would be in life. This suggests that the buriers removed the bodies from the peat bog after preservation, but before acid destroyed the bones. When the mummies were later reburied in soil, the soft tissue again began to break down.

Why composite mummies?

Why did villagers go to such extremes to preserve their dead? And why would they create composite mummies? A cynical theory, study author Brown said, assumes that the Bronze Age people of Cladh Hallan were just eminently practical: "Maybe the head dropped off and they got another head to stick on." Another possibility is that the merging was deliberate, to create a symbolic ancestor that literally embodied traits from multiple lineages. Brown cites the example of the Chinchorro mummies discovered in the Chilean Andes, where embalmers reinforced or reconstructed bodies with sticks, grass, animal hair, or even sea lion skin.

"It seems the person is not so important, but the image is. So it's not a single identity, but it's representing something." Brown thinks there may be other composite bodies waiting to be discovered. Often when scientists study the DNA of very ancient remains, they sample only one part of a body to prevent needless damage to the skeleton. Additional composite bodies, if they exist, are likely to come from such long-ago time periods. "I think you'd have to go back to a time when the rituals were more bizarre," Brown said. "You'd have to go back to the mists of unrecorded time."

Cladh Hallan (Scottish GaelicCladh Hàlainn,) is an archaeological site on the island of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland. It is significant as the only place in Great Britain where prehistoric mummies have been found. Excavations were carried out there between 1988 and 2002, indicating the site was occupied from 2000 BC.

In 2001, a team of archaeologists found four skeletons at the site, one of them a male who had died c. 1600 BC, and another a female who had died c. 1300 BC. (about the same time as King Tutankhamun of Egypt). At first the researchers did not realise they were dealing with mummies, since the soft tissue had decomposed and the skeletons had been buried. But tests revealed that both bodies had not been buried until about 1120 BC, and that the bodies had been preserved shortly after death in a peat bog for 6 to 18 months. The preserved bodies were then apparently retrieved from the bog and set up inside a dwelling, presumably having religious significance. Archaeologists do not know why the bodies were buried centuries later. The Cladh Hallan skeletons differ from most bog bodies in two respects: unlike most bog bodies, they appear to have been put in the bog for the express purpose of preservation (whereas most bog bodies were simply interred in the bog), and unlike most bog bodies, their soft tissue was no longer preserved at the time of discovery.

The Craigentinny Marbles - The William Henry Miller Mausoleum 


Looking rather out-of-place and towering 15 metres above the surrounding rows of pebble-dashed 1930s bungalows, this neo-classical mausoleum looks more like something that you would come across when visiting the Forum in Rome rather than beside a bowling club in an Edinburgh suburb!

This unexpected sight is the final resting place of William Henry Miller, one-time MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme, a rather curious and eccentric chap whose family once owned all the surrounding land and the nearby Craigentinny House. When it was built, the mausoleum stood in open fields and would have been slightly less incongruous, but a puzzle nonetheless. Why did he choose to be buried here rather than in a churchyard, and why was the coffin entombed at the bottom of a deep 40ft stone-lined shaft and sealed with a massive stone slab?

Miller spent most of his early life at his home in Berkshire, surrounded by the thousands of antique books that he was passionate about collecting. He moved to Edinburgh to live in the family estate in his later years. He died in 1848 leaving the huge sum of £20,000 (equivalent to about £2.3 million today) for the erection of a suitable monument to celebrate his life and the arts.

Designed by the architect David Rhind, and featuring two bas-relief carvings by the renowned British sculptor Alfred Gatley, known as ‘The Landseer of Sculpture.’ The carving on the south side, titled The Song of Moses & Miriam depicts the crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites with their possessions and livestock and - oddly - playing tambourines as they go. On the north side is The Overthrow of Pharaoh in the Red Sea, as Pharaoh and his army are engulfed by the power of the waves.

The carvings were widely admired at the time, and comparison with the famous Elgin stones lead to the ‘Craigentinny Marbles’, moniker.

Strange rumours abounded at the time that the burial conditions were to conceal the fact that William Henry Miller was a hermaphrodite or a changeling, or that he was a vampire or that he was he mummified like a Pharaoh. The most likely explanation was that he was simply, like Pharaoh himself, afraid of grave robbers. This was just a few years after a couple of other gentlemen grave-robbers called Burke and Hare had been active in Edinburgh.

If you want to view Miller’s 17th Century Family home, Craigentinny House, it can be found about half a mile back towards town at 9 Loaning Road.

The Mummies in the Museum

Because many Scots travelled the world and came back from Egypt with mummies, Edinburgh’s National Museum has one of the finest collections of Egyptian mummies and art in the world. Try these links for more information.'