Ghost stories and other tales of the paranormal abound in Edinburgh. It’s hardly surprising – with a history that stretches over a thousand years and involves plague, war, witchcraft and gruesome executions, it’s a wonder the city has room for its living inhabitants.
Talk to an Edinburger and they’ll most likely have an eerie tale to relate: perhaps an encounter in a graveyard crypt, or a mischievous spirit in their tenement flat. It’s a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by enterprising tour operators, and Edinburgh abounds in walking tours that take in the spookiest parts of town.
The McKenzie Poltergeist
According to Edinburgh writer and sometime tour guide Jan-Andrew Henderson, the area that has seen the most activity is the Black Mausoleum and Covenanters’ Prison in Greyfriar’s Kirkyard. Better known for its more family-friendly tale of Geryfriars’ Bobby, a faithful pet who supposedly sat by his master’s grave for 15 years, the graveyard was the site of what Henderson calls the world’s first concentration camp. In the late 1600s, in one of the country’s many religious confrontations, 1200 Presbyterians were imprisoned in the churchyard without food or shelter, before most of them were executed at the hand of ‘Bloody’ George McKenzie., the King’s Advocate.
Today, the prison and a nearby tomb – the Black Mausoleum – are known for a plethora of unexplained happenings. In his book Edinburgh: City of the Dead, Henderson details first-hand accounts from tour participants, whose stories of strange bruises and scratchmarks, hair pulling and disorientation bear striking similarities to each other. The McKenzie poltergeist, as he has come to be known, is said to have at times reached beyond the churchyard walls to start mysterious fires in the surrounding homes – including that of the author, who was researching the phenomenon at the time. Believer or not, a visit to Greyfriars has to be on any visitor’s list, just to see if the tales are true.
Spirits of the South Bridge Vaults
Almost as active are the spirits of the South Bridge Vaults. Created in the late 1700s as the arches of the South Bridge were filled in, the vaults became almost a city in themselves. Originally used as warehouses and workshops, the dank, dark caverns were soon filled with the poorest of Edinburgh’s poor, living and dying in the most squalid conditions imaginable.
Tour the vaults in the middle of the day, and it may as well be midnight. Small lights shed some illumination these days, but when turned off, the eeriness of the place seems to seep from the walls. In his book, Henderson recounts tales of tour participants reporting mysterious hand holding in the dark, strange hovering lights and mysterious figures who sometimes even converse with their surprised corporeal visitors. There’s nothing like a chatty ghost!
These are just two of the best sites in one of the spookiest cities in the world. Take a tour or two, and you’ll return home with many a dinner party tale – and maybe even your own personal encounter.
City of the Dead Tours run nightly 7.30pm and 8.30pm (Halloween – Easter) and 8.30pm, 9,15pm, 10pm (Easter- Halloween) and last approximately 75 minutes. Adults $16.50, children (not recommended for very young children) $12.50. Meet outside St Giles Cathedral in the Royal Mile or call +44 (0)131 225 9044 for more information.
Auld Reekie’s Terror Tours depart nightly at 10pm and 10.30pm and last 90 minutes. Adults $19.50, children (also not recommended for the very young) $17.50. Depart from the Tron Kirk in the Royal Mile – call +44 (0)131 557 4700 for more information.