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Issue 31 - Spooky Edinburgh

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 31
February 2007


This article is 11 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Spooky Edinburgh

Gary Hayden looks at a few places where you can experience the ghoulish history of Edinburgh's Royal Mile

Edinburgh is one of the world’s most haunted cities. During its 1,000-year history it has seen more than its share of horror: witch-burning, plague, body-snatching, torture and murder.

Tour-operators now capitalise on the city’s macabre past. Costumed guides lead thrill-seekers through dank labyrinths, eerie vaults and creepy graveyards. Many tourists hope for supernatural encounters en-route; others are content to hear ghostly tales in atmospheric locations.

If you stroll along the Royal Mile, you can see many of the city’s haunted sites for yourself – and pick up some history along the way.

The Palace of Holyroodhouse At the foot of the Royal Mile lies Holyroodhouse, the Queen’s official residence in Scotland.

King David I founded the palace as an Augustinian monastery in 1128. Since then it has been home to a number of monarchs, including Mary Queen of Scots, who lived there from 1561 to 1567. It is a fine old house, richly furnished, and commanding fine views of Holyrood Park.

Like many old buildings, Holyroodhouse has its phantoms. Some say it is haunted by Mary Queen of Scots herself – though she was executed at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire, and her remains now lie in Westminster Abbey.

Holyroodhouse’s most notable spook is Mary’s private secretary, David Rizzio, who was murdered in the Queen’s apartments by Scottish nobles led by her jealous husband, Lord Darnley. Legend has it that after the deed, Rizzio’s bloodstains could not be removed from the floor – and that they can be seen to this day.

Queensberry House Walk a short distance up the Royal Mile. On the left, incorporated into the strikingly-modern Scottish Parliament complex, is a red-roofed 17thcentury building, Queensberry House. This was home to James Douglas, the second Duke of Queensberry, who was influential in arranging the 1707 Treaty of the Union.

When the treaty was passed, Edinburgh’s disgruntled citizens flocked to Parliament Square, where the Duke – accompanied by his entire household – attempted to placate them.

Meanwhile, the story goes, the Duke’s lunatic son escaped from his locked room and roamed through the deserted house. Before long he came across a solitary kitchen boy who had been left turning meat on a spit.

The servants returned to find the kitchen boy roasting above the fire, and the Duke’s son feasting on his flesh. The oven is still visible in the Parliament’s Allowances Offices.

Museum of Childhood Further up the Royal Mile, just past St Mary’s Street, stands the Museum of Childhood. Town Councilor Patrick Murray founded it in 1955.

Its deceptively large interior is crammed with dolls, teddy-bears, toys, games and other childhood memorabilia.

Children will be intrigued by the simple toys that kept earlier generations amused; adults will rush around exclaiming, “I had one of those!” But not all childhood memories are happy ones. In the 1600s, an outbreak of the plague occurred in a nearby nursery. According to local lore, the building was sealed-off with the children and their mothers inside. If you pass the museum late at night, you can still hear their cries.

South Bridge Vaults Further up the hill, the Royal Mile passes between North Bridge and South Bridge.

The South Bridge was constructed in the 1780s. Most of its arches were enclosed on both sides by shops and tenements, and the arches themselves used as storage-space by South Bridge merchants, or as makeshift workplaces by local tradesmen.

Unfortunately, the bridge had not been dampproofed.

So the arches and vaults quickly became unusable. The merchants and tradesmen moved out… and the poor and destitute moved in.

Eventually, the squatters were evicted and the vaults filled with rubble. They were largely forgotten until excavations in the 1980s made the eerie chambers accessible again.

The South Bridge Vaults are now a tourist-attraction, and feature on many of Edinburgh’s ghost-tours. So much paranormal activity has been reported that the vaults are considered amongst the UK’s most haunted locations.

The spooks of South Bridge are too numerous to mention. Two of the most celebrated spirits are a mischievous boy who pulls visitors’ legs, and ‘Mr Boots,’ who whispers obscenities.

Fishmarket Close Continue up the Royal Mile. On the left, just before St Giles’ Cathedral, is Old Fishmarket Close where a fish-hawker named Maggie Dickson once worked.

In 1724 Maggie fell pregnant to her landlady’s son. Her attempts to conceal the pregnancy resulted in the premature birth and subsequent death of the child. She was tried under the Concealment of Pregnancy Act of 1690, and sentenced to death.

Maggie was duly hanged, and pronounced dead by the attending doctor.

But as the coffin was borne to the graveyard, muffled moans emerged from inside. Maggie was found still alive, and within weeks was restored to full health.

Her astonishing recovery was seen as an Act of God, and ‘Half Hangit Maggie’ was left to live out her days.

Mary King’s Close The City Chambers stand almost opposite Fishmarket Close. Beneath them lie a network of narrow closes, which were covered over when the Chambers building was constructed. In the 1600s, these streets were amongst the most denselypopulated in Edinburgh.

The subterranean streets have recently been opened as a tourist attraction, The Real Mary King’s Close. Costumed guides take visitors on an underground tour that features accurate reconstructions of how people used to live.

The area has long been considered haunted. In 1685, Professor George Sinclair of Glasgow University wrote about Mary King’s Close in his work, Satan’s Invisible World Discovered. He recounted the terrifying tale of Mr Thomas Coltheart, who moved into the Close and encountered disembodied heads and arms, and ghostly cats and dogs.

Supernatural sightings continue to this day. In the 1990s a Japanese psychic identified the spirit of a little girl named Annie, who had lost her favourite doll. Since then, numerous visitors have felt Annie’s presence. Many leave dolls in what has become known as the Shrine Room.

Other visitors have reported scratching noises coming from a chimney where a young sweep is said to have died.

Deacon Brodie Further up the Royal Mile, just past Melbourne Place, is Brodie’s Close. This was once home to ‘Deacon’ William Brodie: respectable tradesman by day, and desperate villain by night.

Brodie’s gang committed a number of daring robberies before the gentlemanthief was finally apprehended. He was hanged at the Tolbooth on the Royal Mile.

Brodie’s dual-life provided the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Deacon Brodie’s Tavern, named in the villain’s honour, stands opposite Brodie’s Close.

Edinburgh Castle It is a short walk from Brodie’s Close up to Castlehill.

Perched atop its rocky crag, Edinburgh Castle looks for all the world like a haunted house, especially when viewed from Princes Street Gardens, below. With 1,000 years of bloody history, it is no surprise that the castle has acquired some spooks along the way. Two of the best-known have a military/musical connection.

A ghostly (some say headless) drummer is reputed to haunt the ramparts. He was first sighted in 1650 before the castle fell to Oliver Cromwell, and has been seen or heard a number of times since then. His appearance is considered a warning that the castle is about to be attacked.

There is also a ghostly piper. Legend has it that a secret tunnel runs the length of the Royal Mile, connecting Edinburgh Castle with Holyroodhouse. Long ago, a piper was sent to investigate the tunnel, piping as he went so that those above ground could follow his progress.

Part-way down the Royal Mile the piping stopped. Some calamity must have befallen the piper, for he was never seen again. But they say his ghostly piping can still be heard.

Ghost Tours
City of the Dead Leaves nightly from St Giles’ Cathedral.

Visits Greyfriars Cemetery – lair of the Mackenzie Poltergeist.

Tel: +44 (0)131 225 9044 E-mail:
Mercat Tours Achoice of spooky trails, most with access to the South Bridge Vaults.

Tel: +44 (0)131 225 5445
The Real Mary King’s Close Historical tour of ancient streets – with plenty of supernatural interest.

Tel: +44 (0)8702 430 160

Edinburgh Ghost Fest Edinburgh’s festival of the paranormal, currently in its third year, takes place from May 11-20, 2007.

Programme includes: Overnight vigils in vaults and graveyards Tours of haunted sites with celebrity psychics EVP (electronic voice phenomenon) workshops Supernatural-history tours Details at: