Edinburgh has a rich history of ghosts and ghastly characters, so much so that it is supposedly the most haunted city in all of Europe! Most of the tales and sightings take place around Edinburgh’s Old Town, in particular the Castle, which is said to be home to as many as seven spirits, the vaults below the city and Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, which is home to a fairly malevolent presence…
The spirit that stalks the kirkyard of Greyfriars, known as the ‘MacKenzie poltergeist’ is believed to have been one Sir George MacKenzie, known to the Scots as ‘Bluidy MacKenzie‘. The summer of 1679 saw defeat for the Covenanter’s at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge and 1,200 men were captured. It was MacKenzie who organised an enthusiastic and bloody persecution of these unlucky men. MacKenzie brought them to Greyfriar’s and they were held within a small courtyard to the back of the kirkyard, now referred to as the Covenanter’s Prison, in horrible conditions open to the elements. MacKenzie had some of the men hanged, others beheaded, their rotting skulls displayed around the city. The more unfortunate were publicly tortured. Many died due to this harsh treatment and those that didn’t were executed or sold to slavery. Their only way out was to swear an allegiance to the King, which they refused to do. Those that died in Greyfriars remain there to this day and ironically share their final resting place with Bloody George Mackenzie.
Although stories of unusual occurrences within the kirkyard had been told for years, it seemed to intensify greatly after one incident 1998. A homeless man looking to get out of the Scottish weather, made the unfortunate decision that the MacKenzie tomb looked like a cosy and safe place. For reasons known only to himself, the man began to break into the coffin that lay within, whilst doing so he slipped dragging the coffin down with him and ending up sprawled on the floor with the remains of Bloody MacKenzie across him. He understandably fled the area, but it seems the disturbance he caused awoke something in the tomb.
By early 1999 reports of strange goings on in the kirkyard had significantly risen, but not by the MacKenzie tomb but around the corner in the Covenanter’s prison, so much so that the council made the decision to close the area off from the public. Luckily for those looking for a thrill or keen on the paranormal a tour company was granted access to the prison, to guide small groups through the area in controlled visits. Those on these tours have reported many strange phenomena including being scratched, attacked, feeling nauseous, discovering large marks and bruises on their bodies the following day and drastic changes in temperature. There are even those that have been knocked unconscious! In 2000, an exorcist, Colin Grant was summoned to the graveyard to perform an exorcism ceremony; he was said to have picked up “evil forces” and claimed that the forces were too overpowering and feared that they could kill him. A few weeks later, he died suddenly of a heart attack.
Only a short walk from Greyfriar’s can be found the Edinburgh or South Bridge Vault’s, but only by venturing under the streets of Edinburgh. The vaults are a distinct series of chambers formed in the 19 arches of the South Bridge, built to span the Cowgate gorge between High Street and the growing University of Edinburgh on the Southside, which was completed in 1788. These vaults where walled in on either side due to the building of tenements leaving spaces ranging from 2m square to 40m square.
From taverns and tradesmen’s workshops, a red light district and even, a rumoured hunting ground for serial killers Burk and Hare – each vault has its place in history and a story to tell. They were also home to an infamous distillery that once labelled the area ‘Whisky Row’ and, at some point they served as stables to the Royal Families’ bodyguards, the French Cavalry. As the conditions in the vaults deteriorated, mainly because of damp and poor air quality, the businesses left and the very poorest of Edinburgh’s citizens moved in, though by around 1820, even they are believed to have left too. That people had lived there was only discovered in 1985 during an excavation, when middens were found containing toys, medicine bottles, plates, and other signs of human habitation. The vaults on the southside where converted into several very unique venues, the most well known being the Caves, the vaults on the northside however are used for ghost tours and are known to house several unique and characterful spirits…
The most famous of the spirits that roam the vaults is known to the guides as Mr Boots, an apparition that earned its nickname from the many unexplained reports of heavy footsteps heard since the vaults opened nearly 20 years ago. Mr Boots is regularly spotted within the vaults and has been described as being attired in a long blue frock, tri-corner hat and large leather boots. He seems to have an issue with the visitors that regularly explore the area and has been reported blocking doorways, shoving and breathing whisky fumes on the guests and has even been known to throw stones at those he deems unwelcome.
Another apparition, on who little is known, is a wee bit friendlier. Little Jack as he is known, is believed to be the spirit of a small boy who was murdered within the vaults. He is reported to take the hand of guests in the hopes they will lead him out of the dark and foreboding vaults. An unsettling event you might say, but with innocent intentions.
As with areas such as these other phenomena have been reported such as sudden drops in temperature, whispers heard in the distance and even fire doors opening of their own accord(these can only be opened from one side, and never is a figure seen on the side with a handle). Even stranger is events that go unnoticed until mentioned by the guide. One room in particular was believed to have been a men only drinking establishment, and guides advise the patrons that the feeling of segregation of the sexes pervades the room to this day. Invariably the guests then notice that the group has separated on it’s own accord, men on one side of the room, women on the other.
Another short walk away, a little up Edinburgh’s world famous Royal Mile, you will find another of Edinburgh’s most haunted areas, Mary King’s Close.
Mary King’s Close, possibly named after the daughter of Alexander King a wealthy property owner ran from High Street all the way down to Market Street, before Cockburn Street was built. In 1645 the inhabitants of the buildings served by Mary King’s Close were stricken with the plague. It had probably come from rats arriving in Edinburgh through Leith docks. In order to quarantine them and prevent the spread of the disease throughout Edinburgh, Mary King’s Close was sealed, possibly according to legend with some people still alive and suffering inside. Due to housing shortages becoming a worry, the people of Edinburgh wanted to open up Mary King’s Close and shortly after it was opened and the houses reoccupied due to overcrowding.
The new inhabitants of Mary King’s Close found the buildings to be haunted and various reports were made of apparitions including a dog, headless animals, a young girl and several severed limbs and body parts such as heads.
The inhabitants were then evicted in 1753 to make way for a new building project. The upper stories of the buildings around Mary King’s Close and its immediate neighbours were demolished and The Royal Exchange, now the City Chambers was built on top of them. The lower eight stories of beneath the City Chambers, dropping down to Cockburn Street were sealed up, including Mary King’s Close.
Sealed for two hundred and fifty years, Mary King’s Close has now been re-opened for tour groups and you can go down beneath the City Chambers to the lane and buildings that still exist, hidden away. Visitor’s still report to this day strange goings on and apparitions…
The most famous ghost to haunt Mary King’s Close is that of a little girl known as Annie. Her tale starts in 1992 when she scared the daylights out of a Japanese psychic. This lady had been unimpressed by the tour until she arrived at one of the many small rooms. There she was suddenly struck by an overwhelming feeling of sickness, hunger and cold and, when she tried to leave felt the ghastly tug of a ghostly hand on her leg. In order to placate the spirit the women left a small doll within the room, and was released and allowed to leave.
Annie’s story has been fleshed out since then, and it is now believed that she had been left to die in the close by her family during the plague outbreak, although there is very little evidence to back this up. A tradition has built up from the ‘gift’ the psychic left, and now many tourists leave a toy for Annie, and the room in which she was found has turned into something of a shrine…
Dr Caroline Watt of Edinburgh University’s Koestler Unit had her own experience when conducting experiments into the paranormal activity within the close…
“I was in a part of the close where no one else was supposed to be,” she says. “I heard footsteps and the sound of rustling clothing. From a professional point of view I was annoyed because I thought it was someone intruding on our experiment, but when I asked the tour guides I found out there was no one there.”
Another short walk, and almost taking us full circle through the Old Town, leads to Edinburgh’s biggest and most famous tourist attraction, Edinburgh Castle. With a history hundreds of years old it’s not surprising that the Castle has it’s own share of ghost stories.
Edinburgh’s hidden underworld is said to be strongly connected to the castle due to a series of secret tunnels leading from Edinburgh castle down the Royal Mile. One of these is even rumoured to lead all the way to Holyrood House, at the very bottom of the Royal Mile. When the tunnels were first discovered several hundred years ago, a piper was sent to explore. As he navigated the tunnels, he played his bagpipes, so that his progress could be tracked by those above. About half way down the Royal Mile the piping suddenly stopped. When a rescue party was sent, there was no trace of the piper. He had simply vanished. Several search parties went into the tunnel system but no trace of the piper was ever found. It is said that the Piper’s ghost still roams the tunnels to this day, and those on the Mile on a quiet evening can hear the sounds of the pipes drifting up from below the streets.
Another apparition commonly reported at the castle is that of a drummer on the battlements. One account, reported in 1960, told of a sentry who whilst patrolling the battlements heard the faint sound of the drums. On closer investigation the sentry witnessed a figure standing on the battlements and as he drew closer he found the figure was missing his head. As he watched, it turned to face him, then vanished completely. Who this drummer is and why he haunts the castle is something that still remains a mystery.
The next ghostly presence from Edinburgh castle is believed to be that of a rather desperate prisoner. In a rather unsanitary bid for freedom the man hid himself in the castles dung cart, ready to be carried out and down the Royal Mile where he could make a run for it. Unfortunately the men in charge of the dung cart were not willing to heave the smelly load quite so far and instead emptied it over the side of Castle Rock and the prisoner plummeted to his death. Visitors have claimed that this man attempts to push people from the battlements and is always accompanied by the strong and unpleasant stench of dung.
On April 6th 2001, a 10 day study scientific investigation into the paranormal events at Edinburgh castle took place. Dr. Richard Wiseman, a psychologist from Hertfordshire University enlisted the help of 240 volunteers to explore allegedly haunted sites. Chosen from visitors from around the world, each was carefully screened to ensure only those that knew nothing about Edinburgh’s hauntings were selected to participate.
The volunteers were not told of any areas previously reported as haunted and were led in groups through locations with a reputation for strange activity as well as ‘red herring’ sites that had no history of activity at all. Interestingly the volunteers only reported paranormal experiences in the areas with a history for it, and not one of the 240 volunteers reported activity in the ‘red herring’ areas.
Some of the activity recorded include seeing shadowy figures, and unseen presence touching the face, sudden drops in temperature and a feeling of being watched.
Wiseman, a sceptic who has in the past attempted to expose the myths of several British hauntings, admitted his surprise at the results. “The events that have been taking place over the last 10 days are much more extreme than we expected,” he said.
So although there is no solid proof, there is evidence to suggest that something odd is definitely going on at Edinburgh castle and the surrounding old town. But is it ghosts or something else? Let us know what you think in the comments…