Hidden Edinburgh: The Craigentinny Marbles

9 May

It’s not everyday you come across a grand monument incongruously surrounded by bungalows (think of the Arc de Triomphe dropping into Barnton, or the Collossus being rebuilt on Dalkeith Road). This really is a strange sight for even the most hardened sightseer. And just think about it – how would it feel if you walked out of your door each morning to be greeted by the grandeur of classical sculpture? Probably pretty great. Well, if you are on the lookout for this kind of thing it might well be worth your while taking a trip up to Craigentinny for a look at the ornate grave of William Henry Miller, also known as The Craigentinny Marbles.

And what’s more, if you like a bit of mystery with your marbles then you’re in the right place. The details of Miller’s burial arrangements, and the speculation surrounding his life and death are extremely bizarre…

The Miller mausoleum is designed in the style of a tomb on the Appian Way in Rome. It was designed by David Rhind and completed in 1856, in open fields on the Craigentinny estate, to the north of the Edinburgh Portobello road, between Piershill and Portobello. On either side of the enormous structure two stone carvings depict epic scenes from the bible. These were carved by Alfred Gatley, an eminent Victorian sculptor,  and fixed to the north and south sides of the monument in 1867. Strangely enough the sculptures are not actually marble at all – they picked up their name from the resemblance they bear to the bas-relief sculptures on the Elgin Marbles which are held in the British museum in London.  The tomb marks the last resting place of William Henry Miller who was at one time a prosperous landowner and member of Parliament for Newcastle under Lyme. Miller inherited Craigentinny house and estates from his father but spent much of his life in England.  It is clear, however, that he had a strong affinity with Edinburgh for it was here that he decided he wanted to be buried. And for the sort of lavish arrangement Miller had in mind you really have to plan ahead.

In his lifetime Miller was a renowned collector of books, one of the great collectors of his age infact. He amassed a library that included six books from William Caxton’s press and was unrivalled among other private libraries of the time for the number, rarity, and condition of its examples of early English and Scottish literature. His pedantry in regard to book collecting was legendary. He became known as ‘Measure Miller’ after his habit of carrying around a ruler to measure the exact size of copies of books before deciding whether or not they would enhance his collection.

Miller died without heirs in 1848 at his estate in Craigentinny after a short illness, he was sixty. His opulent burial arrangements would cost £20,000, a staggering amount of money at that time. Yet it was not merely the cost of his entombment that aroused the public interest. Details of his last will and testament began to circulate around Edinburgh. Miller’s will stated that he should be buried at the bottom of a 40ft stone lined shaft beneath a giant monument, and that on top of his coffin should be placed a heavy stone slab. The town was full of gossip.

The book Old & New Edinburgh, published in 1890, documents that during the time between Miller’s death and his eventual burial people began to think he might have been posing as something he was not:

  “… he was averred to be a changeling – even a woman, a suggestion which his thin figure, weak voice,  absence of all beard and some peculiarity of habit, seemed to corroborate”

It was suggested that Miller, who had never married, had been an adopted female orphan who throughout his life had cunningly disguised himself as a man. And not only had little William been masquerading as a man, but he had used his newfound gender to get all the way to the highest office in the land. Thus his burial arrangements were thought to be a way of ensuring that this secret stayed a secret for ever more.

Absence of all beard or not I think that you’ll agree this all seems a little farfetched. The man was an MP, a figure of public prominence, you would think at least one of his colleagues or constituents might have smelled a rat, confronted him in the local Turkish baths etc. It is true that he was a notoriously private man – rarely allowing anybody to inspect or study his book collection  – but in no way can he be said to have shied away from public life, having run for election seven times.

The most likely explanation for Miller’s esoteric burial arrangements, and the one that is generally accepted, is that his tomb was designed as a way to deter body snatchers. Edinburgh was still recovering from the Burke and Hare scandal a few decades before – and the city still had a tricky problem getting rid of those pesky grave robbers. So, providing one had the requisite funds (which Miller certainly did) it probably seemed like a good idea to bury yourself deep underground where nobody could get their hands on you. Makes perfect sense to me.

For a long time after Miller’s death the monument above his remains stood bare. When the two panels were finally fixed to the mausoleum in 1867 they were described in the press as: ‘the most remarkable pieces of sculpture executed during this century.’ Why not take a trip to Craigentinny for a look and see if you think they were right. (Grave robbers not welcome).

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3 Responses to “Hidden Edinburgh: The Craigentinny Marbles”

  1. Frances antoinette May 10, 2012 at 1:37 am #

    I found it funny that “Measure Miller” would allow a book to be in his collection if it “fit”.

  2. Russ June 24, 2013 at 11:22 am #

    Thanks for this research and your insights. I have seen the ‘Marbles’ from the top of the number 26 bus. You have inspired me to investigate further!

  3. Lis August 13, 2014 at 8:05 am #

    My mum grew up there in the 30’s and 40’s and she and all the other children were terrified of it. They thought it was haunted and hated walking past it.

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