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Issue 37 - The ghosts of Greyfriars

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 37
March 2008


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The ghosts of Greyfriars

Gary Hayden takes a walk round Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh's old town

On a summer’s day, Greyfriars Kirkyard is a very pleasant spot. It boasts a fine view of nearby Edinburgh Castle; encloses a well-preserved section of the Flodden Wall; and is surrounded by ornate and impressive mausoleums. It is a popular haunt for tourists on the trail of Greyfriars Bobby, the loyal Skye terrier who stood guard over his master John Gray’s grave until he himself died, and office-workers seeking somewhere green and shady to enjoy a packed lunch.

But for those with a penchant for the macabre, the best time to visit Greyfriars is on a wet winter afternoon when the tourists are seeking shelter elsewhere, and the silence is broken only by the drip-drip of water inside the tombs.

In Edinburgh Picturesque Notes, Robert Louis Stevenson writes: “We Scotch stand… highest among nations in the matter of grimly illustrating death,” and adds, “the classic examples of this art are in Greyfriars.” Astroll around the Kirkyard will confirm this. Many of the monuments and mausoleums are engraved with horrid symbols of death and damnation: skeletons and skulls; crossbones and coffins; austere angels blowing judgement-trumpets; and ‘figures rising headless from the grave.’ Even the walls of the kirk are decorated with lurid symbols of mortality and decay.

The higgledy-piggledy old houses of Candlemaker Row border the east side of the churchyard. Many back directly onto Greyfriar’s gloomy mausoleums so that, in Stevenson’s words: “Only a few inches separate the living from the dead.” Clearly, only those with very robust dispositions dare to live there.

Greyfriars Kirkyard dates back to the 1560s. The land, formerly a monastery garden, was given to the city by Mary Queen of Scots to be used as an overflow cemetery to relieve overcrowding in St Giles’s churchyard. Work on the kirk itself began in 1602 and was completed in 1620. A fire in 1845 caused immense damage, so little of the original kirk survives in the current building.

The churchyard is of great historical interest. Many famous – and, in some cases, infamous – Scots are buried there, including Captain John Porteous, William Carstares, James Hutton, George Buchanan – and even Greyfriars Bobby (just inside the main gates).

In 1638 the first copy of the National Covenant was presented and signed in front of the pulpit at Greyfriars, sparking half a century of fierce religious conflict. In 1679, following the Battle of Bothwell Brig, 1,200 supporters of the National Covenant were brought to Edinburgh. Four hundred were held in Greyfriars Kirkyard in an area now known as the Covenanters’ Prison.

They spent more than four months there, awaiting trial. They had no shelter, and were given a daily food allowance of just 4oz of bread. Conditions were so inhumane that the Covenanters’ Prison is often described as the world’s first concentration camp.

Some of the Covenanters died in the prison and were buried in the kirkyard; some escaped; some were executed for treason; others were freed after signing oaths of loyalty to the king. More than 250 were sentenced to transportation. Tragically, their ship sank off the Orkney Islands and many of them perished.

Bluidy Mackenzie
Given its history, it is not surprising that Greyfriars has acquired a reputation for being haunted. People can scarcely believe that the victims of such ill-treatment can rest quietly in their graves – particularly in a location so gloomy and foreboding.

However, the kirkyard’s supernatural reputation is built not on ghostly tales of long-dead Covenanters, but instead on legends connected with their chief persecutor, Sir George Mackenzie.

In 1667, Mackenzie became Lord Advocate, and conducted the persecuting policy of King Charles II against the Scottish Covenanters. The ruthless and inhumane manner in which he discharged his ‘duties’ earned him the nickname ‘Bluidy Mackenzie.’ After his death, in 1691, he was laid to rest in a fine dome-topped mausoleum close by the Covenanters’ Prison – the place where so many had suffered at his command. Traditionally, his tomb has been considered haunted.

In Edinburgh Picturesque Notes (1897), Stevenson, writing of Mackenzie says: “When a man’s soul is certainly in hell, his body will scarce lie quiet in a tomb however costly; some time or other the door must open, and the reprobate come forth in the abhorred garments of the grave.” He goes on to recount how “fool-hardy urchins” considered it: “a high piece of prowess to knock at the Lord Advocate’s mausoleum and challenge him to appear.

‘Bluidy Mackingie, come oot if ye dar’!” The mausoleum still looms ominous and defiant on the south side of the Kirkyard. I have stood many times at its black wooden doors, and peered through the small, square windows into its dark, damp interior. Sceptic though I am, it never fails to strikes a momentary chill into my heart.

The Mackenzie poltergeist
In recent times, Greyfriars has been the site of a remarkable series of hauntings. Visitors to the Covenanters’ Prison have reported a bewildering variety of ghostly phenomena including hot and cold spots, strange smells, spooky apparitions, disembodied voices and feelings of extreme unease.

Some even claim to have suffered physical attacks from an unseen entity, resulting in scratches, burns, bruises and even broken bones. Most of the attacks take place in and around the ‘Black Mausoleum,’ situated halfway down the Covenanters’ Prison, on the left-hand side.

These extraordinary occurrences began in 1999 shortly after a homeless man entered and desecrated Mackenzie’s tomb. This has led some people to suppose that the malevolent spirit haunting the nearby prison is in fact the LordAdvocate’s ghost, awoken untimely from its guilty slumbers. Hence its popular name, the Mackenzie Poltergeist.

The Mackenzie Poltergeist is now a major tourist draw. Black Hart Entertainment run nightly ‘City of the Dead’ tours of Greyfriars Kirkyard ( These provide spook-enthusiasts with the only opportunity to enter the Covenanters’ Prison since its gates are locked at other times.

Tour-guides work hard to make the experience as thrilling as possible – even providing spooky theatricals in case the poltergeist neglects to put in an appearance.

But note their warning: The Mackenzie Poltergeist can cause genuine physical and mental distress. You join the tour at your own risk!

The tours are great for thrill-seekers and those who want a bit of spooky fun. But for me, a solitary twilight stroll, unhurriedly absorbing the macabre atmosphere, is a more satisfying way to experience the gloomy delights of Greyfriars.

And if that sounds a little tame, you can always prove your ‘prowess’ in the timehonoured fashion, by knocking at the Lord Advocate’s door: Bluidy Mackingie, come oot if ye dar. Lift the sneck and draw the bar!