The night before, I’d met Aussie expat Pete from Wollongong. Having lived in Edinburgh for a year or so, he’d thought about doing the infamous City of the Dead haunted graveyard tour but was simply too scared by what he’d heard. That was all the convincing I needed – City of the Dead it was. The medieval Old Town is the perfect backdrop for a spooky stroll, with its Gothic spires and narrow, winding streets, some barely more than a shadowy corridor.
Dressed in a floor-sweeping black leather coat, our guide met us on Royal Mile and escorted us through the narrow streets of the Old Town to Greyfriars Kirkyard. On the way, we heard tales of Edinburgh’s shady past, from bloodthirsty ancient battles to the horrors of the plague years and a vivid description of the ‘nastiness’ that flowed through the city’s streets in times of poor sanitation. All very compelling stuff, but it was only when we got to Greyfriars Kirkyard that the truly creepy part began.
As old Edinburgh was scandalously overcrowded, it was inevitable that its burial grounds would fill up quickly as well. Space was at a premium, and during the plague years bodies were bundled unceremoniously into mass graves. This, apparently, is why the Kirkyard sits higher than the surrounding area, and why, from time to time, bones are said to pop up out of the wet earth. Nice.
Picking our way carefully though the pitch-black cemetery, we stopped off at points of interest along the way before reaching the climax of the tour – the Covenanters’ Prison. City of the Dead is the only company to have the keys for this padlocked corner of the cemetery. Within these walls, it is claimed, lurks the dreaded MacKenzie Poltergeist, and by all reports he’s not a very nice chap. Hundreds of visitors have reported bruises, scratches, puncture wounds, nausea, fainting and other unpleasant phenomena.
The Covenanters were 17th century religious dissenters, and George ‘Bloody’ MacKenzie was the judge who imprisoned and tormented over many of them before sending them to their deaths. Ironically, he was later buried in the cemetery himself, not far from where his victims were imprisoned. And it is in his final resting place – the Black Mausoleum – that the poltergeist is said to lurk.
So there we were: huddled in the mausoleum, listening to grisly tales of former ‘attacks’ for a whole 10 minutes. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Half of me expected someone to suddenly faint or scream. The other half expected old man McKenzie to emerge from behind a gravestone, shaking his fist and declaring: “I would’ve got away with it too, if it wasn’t for you pesky kids”.
As for what did actually happen … ah, sorry. I can’t tell you. You know the rules – what goes on tour, stays on tour.
I ain’t afraid of no ghost
City of the dead haunted graveyard tour
Many say this is the city’s scariest tour. It is not recommended for children, and the company warns that pregnant women, people with heart conditions and those of a nervous disposition take the tour at their own risk. See www.blackhart.uk.com.
Auld Reekie Tours
Auld Reekie take visitors to a torture museum, pagan temple and the underground vaults beneath South Bridge, “home of the violent and misogynistic South Bridge poltergeist”. See www.auldreekietours.com.
Researched and delivered by historians, Mercat’s five tours combine various aspects of Edinburgh’s spooky past, both above and below ground. Lots of detail and top storytelling. See www.mercattours.com
The Real Mary King’s Close
More historical than ghostly, this popular tour focuses on authentically portraying life in the grim underground tenements where the city’s poorest people once lived, worked and died. See www.realmarykingsclose.com