Edinburgh is the sort of vibrant city you can visit again and again, and never be short of something new to explore. A few days after attending the awesome Military Tattoo, I was back again, this time meeting up with a long-time writer friend I hadn’t seen for years. It was with Giselle that I visited St. Giles Cathedral, followed that evening by a ghost tour of the city’s old underground streets and dwellings.
From TripAdvisor: “At street level, Edinburgh is a peaceful and pretty city—but the subterranean tunnels below tell an entirely different story. On this ghostly walking tour, explore historic sites including Greyfriars Kirkyard and St. Giles’ Cathedral with your enthusiastic guide, and hear chilling tales of murder and revenge. Delve down into underground caverns normally closed to the public, and learn of Edinburgh’s grim and gruesome past.”
Perhaps his explanation of the map of the old city went on a bit long for his last customer?
Edinburgh is a city built upon an older city, quite literally. Some of the old streets and houses still exist, but underground, beneath the existing streets!
That chink of light overhead is a thick, see-through block at street level, that we walked right over without noticing on our way to the tour.
We walked along this street-beneath-a-street (also known as a ‘wynd’) before ducking under an archway to enter a low-ceilinged room. Along the back wall were arranged rows and rows of dolls – so creepy I couldn’t bring myself to photograph them! This was one of the ‘safe rooms’ children were sealed into in the hopes they might survive the plague of 1645. The idea was to keep them safe from infection but, of course, so often they took in an undiagnosed infected child or adult, and the entire group would perish. The room was unbelievably claustrophobic, not only with the low arched ceiling, but also the almost palpable feelings of all those terrified children huddled together, separated from their families and denied ever seeing the sky again. To this day, people bring dolls and leave them for the ghostly children to play with.
This was the only other photo I took below ground – apparently the abode of a wealthy and important person.
Once we were above ground again (yes, we’d all tried our hardest to feel for any ghosts, but no luck), we set off for Greyfriars Kirkyard – purported to be the most haunted graveyard.
I’d been meaning to get to Greyfriars for a while – not because of the ghosts, but to see the famous statue dedicated to Greyfriars Bobby.
Bobby was a Skye Terrier that became famous in 19th-century Edinburgh for spending 14 years faithfully guarding the grave of his owner. Such is the love for this story it has been turned into numerous books and films.
After his death, a drinking fountain topped with a bronze statue of Bobby was erected opposite the entrance to the churchyard to commemorate him.
The fountain became a category A listed building in 1977, reputed to be Edinburgh’s smallest listed building. In recent years a superstition has sprung up, with people believing that to rub Bobby’s nose will give you luck, which unfortunately is gradually wearing the bronze away.
I refrained from touching him.
Back to the ghost tour…
Greyfriars Kirkyard is founded on the former site of a Fransiscan friary that was dissolved in 1560.
The graveyard itself is both beautiful and quite creepy.
The occupant of this particular mausoleum goes by the name of Bloody MacKenzie, and the distinctive domed tomb has long been associated with rumours of ghosts.
From Wikipedia: “As Lord Advocate he was the minister responsible for the persecuting policy of Charles II in Scotland against the Presbyterian Covenanters. After the Battle of Bothwell Bridge in 1679 Mackenzie imprisoned 1,200 Covenanters in a field next to Greyfriars Kirkyard. Some were executed, and hundreds died of maltreatment.”
He was also involved in witchcraft trials, and his Laws and Customs of Scotland in Matters Criminal (1678) was the first textbook of Scottish criminal law, which endorsed the legal use of torture to gain confessions.
In keeping with the strange contrasts of the time, in private, Sir George MacKenzie was a cultivated and learned gentleman with literary tendencies, who in 1660 published Aretina, which has been called the first Scottish novel.
Also from Wikipedia, there is a record of a rather more recent event that took place in the tomb:
“In 2003 two teenage boys, aged 17 and 15, entered the tomb via a ventilation slot in the rear (now sealed). They reached the lower vault (containing the coffins), broke the coffins open and stole a skull. Police arrived as they were playing football with the skull on the grass. The pair narrowly escaped imprisonment on the little-used but still extant charge of violating sepulchres.”
Other graves are rather less grand, but also bear witness to Edinburgh’s often gruesome past.
When our guide asked us if we knew why the bars covered the graves, I immediately suggested it was to prevent anything from escaping! Our fellow tourists looked rather shocked, but then I am author of some urban fantasy works that involve the undead…
A rather more mundane, but no less grisly reason was offered.
I hope you’ve enjoyed your second-hand tour around some of the less ‘nice’ parts of Edinburgh?
There is still more to come from this trip.