Spooky Edinburgh

One infamous holiday dinner, many years ago, my family and all of our spouses sat talking about each other. It was in the most glorious way, as we went around the table, commenting on all the good things we loved about our companions.

Just before Pete’s turn, we sat and listened to my brother-in-law Chris talk about my sister, and what a loving, compassionate person she is. Words flowed about how she is an incredible teacher and an even better mother. Eyes welled up and there was a heartfelt exchange of smooches at the end.

And then it was Pete’s turn.

“Dalene’s very logical,” was the first thing he said.


Of all the things he could say, he chose…logical?

It is a running joke between us still.  And for as much as I comment on the fact that I apparently have no greater quality then to reason in accordance with the principles of logic, he is right about it, in a way. I like to think I have pretty sound judgment, and can often make good decisions fairly quickly.

This also means, however, that I need to see to believe. If any phenomenon or story can’t be explained logically, then it’s just not possible. My line of reasoning thus excludes a belief in ghosts, the supernatural, or anything of that nature.

Which is why, when my skin started to crawl during a walking tour of Edinburgh, I REALLY got freaked out.

Upon first arriving in the city, I quickly commented on the eeriness of the setting. It’s climate means most days are spent under a shroud of grey clouds, the stonework on the ancient buildings are stained black after years of being subjected to pollution. Ranking high in popularity are the Edinburgh ghost tours which delve through the seedy tunnels of the city’s underground and lead visitors to dark statues looming in steamy corners. Imagine the settings to the movies Sweeney Todd or Sleepy Hollow and you’re not far off.

On our first morning, we embarked on a free walking tour offered by our hostel, and found ourselves breathing the heavy air of the nearby Greyfriars Kirkyard – a large and spooky graveyard on the south end of Old Town. Definition to the age-old terminology of “graveyard shift” instantly gave me shivers. During the 18th century, grave robbing was a serious problem as people dug up bodies to be sold to the nearby medical college for a hefty sum. Some were thus kept in mausoleums or the burial spaces were encaged in steel bars to protect the graves. Those that couldn’t afford such extravagance to protect the deceased instead worked the graveyard shift to stand guard over their loved ones. (Is this one of the more eerie facts about Edinburgh, Scotland? I think so.)

As our tour continued towards the back corner of the cemetery – it started.

My breath got illogically shorter. The hair on my arms stood up as we passed the monument to George Mackenzie.

He was a bad ass of the worst kind.

He carries the nickname of “Bloody Mackenzie” for a very good reason.  Near his monument is the Covenanters’ Prison, a garish place that he filled and ruled in the late 1600s.  It’s prisoners were held for their refusal to conform to the King’s new branch of Christianity that put the King next in line to God. 1,200 held true to their opposing beliefs and were imprisoned, tortured, starved, and left to die at the hand of Mackenzie.  It is his poltergeist that is said to still be active here, so much so that the Covenanters’ Prison is closed off to visitors (save for one available late night tour for the super brave), after a young boy was reportedly trapped inside and lost his mind when confronted by Mackenzie’s ghost. Many people have reported feeling strange sensations in the area (count me in!) and it even made the ABC TV show “Scariest Places on Earth”.

The spookiness of Edinburgh doesn’t stop there.

There are tales of the infamous witch trials, and how those condemned to death would be drowned in a lake of sewage (which has since been turned into a beautiful park dividing Old and New Town).  Shudders ran down my spine at the thought.

And the current North Bridge, that now is an integral part of Edinburgh infrastructure, used to be avoided by all costs out of superstition after the first bridge collapsed.  Upon completion of the new bridge, and realizing that residents were too apprehensive to use it, the city government went on an aggressive campaign to reassure citizens of its safety.  They asked the oldest living resident in the city to be the first to cross it, to show that if she could do it, so could everyone else.

The old lady agreed to do it, but died a couple of days before the scheduled bridge opening. They wheeled her coffin across the bridge, but this ultimately convinced no one it was safe.  Over time, it only began to be used out of necessity.

There are undoubtedly many more stories that were not covered in our quick morning tour. Steeped in rich Celtic history, many Scottish legends and stories are laced with superstition.  

But the memories of being near breathless and having the hair raised on my arms stayed with me, delaying sleep that evening. Enough had already been seen to make this logician think twice.


45 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • September 14 2011

    Glad to see you were not to scared to take great photos!

    • September 14 2011

      Pete was in charge of the camera that day! 🙂

      • September 16 2011

        Well good thing he took photos, although the eeriness comes through in the photos they are really good photos.
        Cornelius Aesop recently posted..Flinging Photos: Paraty, Brazil

        • September 17 2011

          Yup, good thing he took these ones…they turned out better than I could have done!

  • September 14 2011

    OK – now you HAVE to read the “Scottish play”…don’t say the title or doom will come to you!
    Teri recently posted..Do You Pin?

    • September 14 2011

      Ack! I don’t know if I want to!!

  • September 14 2011

    First and foremost, I love the pictures. Beautiful! Edinburgh is one of my favorite cities and means a lot to me. I took my mom there before she died. I wish we had taken the walking tour, but she just wasn’t up for it.

    (shameless post plug: http://leahtravels.com/site/people/why-i-travel-a-dedication#more-302).

    And as for the “Scottish Play,” I suppose I’m doomed. I taught that play for four years. Said it’s name all the time. It’s one of my favorites and quote it regularly.

    Again, great post and pictures!

    • September 15 2011

      Thank you for making that shameless plug 🙂 That was a very touching and beautifully written post.

      I had never even heard of the Scottish Play (you are a nerdy high school English teacher like my sister, I take it?) 🙂

      • September 15 2011

        You’re not familiar with Macbeth?

        Teri recently posted..Do You Pin?

        • September 15 2011

          I don’t think so? I think I read R&J and Hamlet. Maybe I read that too. I’m too old to remember.

      • September 15 2011

        Yes, I was a high school English teacher for a decade. Then I came to my senses! Thanks for visiting my site and the follows.

        • September 16 2011

          Hey – I’m a High School English teacher and am not crazy (yet…).

          You only read two Shakespeare plays in high school? There’s usually one every year!
          Teri recently posted..Do You Pin?

  • September 15 2011

    Ahhh I knew Scotland was thrilling, what a shame I didn’t visit when I lived in London. Terrible history they had, not just in Scotland, all over the UK I think..

    • September 15 2011

      I didn’t know much about it before I went there, but it is quite fascinating. I wish we had more time!

  • September 15 2011

    My birthday is Halloween, and I celebrated my 30th in Edinburgh. In the early evening, we stopped to have a look at an old cemetery off Princes’ Street. It’s been years and years, but I still remember seeing a stone with the epitaph: “Death is a debt to nature due, which I have paid and so must you”. In the background, the castle loomed and to top it all, it was a full moon. So deliciously spooky.
    Sophie recently posted..Two highlights of Bahrain

    • September 15 2011

      OMIGOD! That is perfectly (and deliciously!) spooky! I thought the entire time about halloween, and how much fun it would be to be there for it!

  • September 15 2011

    I laughed so hard at the part where the city officials wheeled that coffin across the bridge. WTF? How could they think that would in any way be reassuring?!
    Christy @ Technosyncratic recently posted..Are tours a good option for budget travelers?

    • September 15 2011

      I know, right? I don’t know why they didn’t try to “Weekend At Bernie’s” it, and pretend she was still alive! Hmmm…perhaps the family would have had something to say about that…

  • September 15 2011

    Beautiful photos!
    JoAnna recently posted..Two Eco-Resorts in the Riviera Maya | Mexico

  • September 15 2011

    Haunting. And those black and white photos couldn’t be a better fit for your story!
    Fida recently posted..Cottage Country Reflections

  • September 15 2011

    Your photos capture that eerie, moody quality very well. Thanks for taking me beyond my desk. 🙂
    Maria recently posted..Bird’s-eye View

    • September 16 2011

      You’re welcome! And thanks for your comment! 🙂

  • September 15 2011

    I’ve often pondered the topic of “worst way to die” to pass the time and I have to say I never considered the possibility of drowning in a lake of raw sewage. Wow. That’s up there for sure. Really interesting (and spooky) post 🙂
    Phil recently posted..Sound Memories

    • September 16 2011

      Haha, no kidding, hey? I think that punishment was only saved for the particularly bad witches. 🙂

  • September 16 2011

    What a great post! I LOVE the myths and history of Edinburgh. I did the ghost tour where you go into one of the crypts there and it was possibly one of the scariest things ever!
    Jade Johnston recently posted..Midweek Snapshot – Lone Cypress tree – California August 2010

    • September 16 2011

      We almost did the ghost tour, but just missed it (thanks to bad info from our hostel). But after the morning walking tour, I’m not sure I could have handled a later, scarier one!

  • September 16 2011

    I am also logical, yet completely freaked out by the supernatural. The one thing I’m most scared of is not rapists, or axe murders, or famine, or disease, or even sharks. It’s ghosts. Stupid. I’m also very drawn to all things creepy, so I LOVED this post. Great pics.
    Torre – Fearful Adventurer recently posted..Finding The Determination To Finish Writing A Book

    • September 16 2011

      Thanks Torre! You definitely need to take a trip to Edinburgh then, and try the night tour that actually takes you inside the Covenanters’ Prison. I don’t think I have the guts to do that!

  • Great stories and pics! Jack’s parents are actually in Skye right now – they’re loving it. It makes us miss Scotland so much.
    jill- Jack and Jill Travel The World recently posted..Mountain Love – Top 5 Photos from Huayhuash Trek

  • Deb
    September 17 2011

    Great photos. I’m a believer in the supernatural and get a kick out of stuff like this. One thing that my teammate on the Mongol Rally Sherry Ott was surprised about how much I am into this stuff. Now I have to go to Edinburgh.
    Deb recently posted..The Martyr Jan Hus in Prague’s Old Town Square

    • Pete
      September 18 2011

      I’m a big believer too in the supernatural, but before Edinburgh Dalene wasn’t. I think this town changed her tune a bit.

  • September 18 2011

    Next to London, Edinburgh may be my favorite place to wander around the streets and get lost. Definitely agree that there are some spooky things that happen there- Bob is absolutely positive he was spoken to by a ghost near the castle!!
    Jade recently posted..China’s Forbidden, Unfinished Crystal Palace

    • September 18 2011

      That wouldn’t surprise me (about Bob and the ghost). I wish we had had more time there to wander. 🙁

  • September 18 2011

    Wow! I’ve been there twice! love that city (its one of my favorites 🙂 ), but definitely hadn’t heard some of those things before! it definitely has some potentially creepiness to it.
    Cailin recently posted..Top ten tips for attending & surviving La Tomatina Tomato fight

    • September 19 2011

      We need to go again! It really is such a cool city (albeit creepy). I’d love to go back and rent an apartment for all of August for the Fringe Festival…

  • Alouise
    September 19 2011

    Love the photos, they definitely have a great haunting look to them. I’m not really one for horror movies, but ghost tours… sign me up.

    • September 20 2011

      I’m with you – they always find a way to make horror movies cheesy or over the top, this was much more subtly spooky!

  • NLM
    October 9 2011

    Hilarious. Must be the mist and the climate–it’s hot and sunny here in Texas most of the time, which does not lend itself to ghost stories. Love to go to Edinburgh on day–thanks for the post!
    NLM recently posted..OK, I Like Ramen as Much as the Next Girl…

    • Pete
      October 9 2011

      Edinburgh is such a wonderful place to explore, I hope you get there!

  • Jim
    October 18 2011

    Spooky Dalene. We did the walking tours last year. Greyfriars does have an aura about the graveyard. Couldn’t quite figure out what but then the place was full of tourists and stopped any chance of ‘letting go’ and connecting. But a real weird coincidence happened later during the underground tour. Now that was weird.
    I have blogged it- http://holesinmysoles.blogspot.com/2010/10/cobblers-ghost-my-friend.html
    Just a couple of nice guys.
    Jim recently posted..YouTube Tuesday: Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu.

    • October 21 2011

      Awesome Jim – I had just heard about those places under the Royal Mile a couple of days ago! Wish I had known that while we were there…

  • October 23 2011

    I was in Edinburgh a long time ago, but really loved the city. It is spooky though! There was a ghost tour I wanted to go on … I didn’t get a chance to go, but would go back in a heart beat to do it! Great stories.
    dtravelsround recently posted..Feeding elephants

    • October 25 2011

      I would love to spend more time in Edinburgh, and maybe even get up the nerve to do a ghost tour next time!

  • November 14 2011

    Great story! I did a ghost tour one night in Edinburgh, and it was some of the spookiest stories I’d ever heard. Thanks for bringing back memories!

  • October 19 2013

    I am totally spooked by the story of Mackenzie’s ghost and the poor boy. Great story!
    Indian Takeaway recently posted..Indian Takeaway – A Great Weekend Treat

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