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Issue 39 - Supernatural Scotland

Scotland Magazine Issue 39
June 2008


This article is 10 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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Supernatural Scotland

It was extremely dark and unnaturally cold. I could hear a dog barking and the clatter of horses hooves on the cobbled street in front of me. On all sides were shadows cast by the flicker of lamplight. From the far distance came the hollow sound of laughter, then a sudden cry as the clock of the High Kirk of St Giles struck the hour. Anearby door creaked open, then slammed shut.

I was 40 feet below Edinburgh’s Royal Mile for the launch of the 10-day Mary King’s Ghost Festival, now in its fourth year. Mary King, I should explain, was the daughter of Alexander King, a wealthy Scottish advocate who lived in the 16th century.

He named the narrow passage of properties which he owned Mary King’s Close, after his daughter, and today, this lies directly underneath Edinburgh’s City Chambers. Scotland’s Capital was built on seven hills, and its old town drops down several layers below its highest point.

No doubt Mary King enjoyed the rental income she received from her inheritance during her lifetime.

However, in the following century, the bubonic plague swept through the wynds and vennels of the old town causing a death rate of 80 per cent. In 1645, Mary King’s Close, described as “the smelliest, most rat infested place on earth,” was evacuated, the doors and windows of its cramped houses bricked in and boarded up regardless of whether or not there was still anyone left inside.

By the 18th century, what had been there was totally forgotten, submerged far below the splendour of the Royal Exchange Building which fronted onto the High Street, opposite St Giles. It was only in the last century when somebody ventured down into the labyrinths below, that reports began to circulate of the sighting of a child and some old folk. As the rumours gained momentum, Edinburgh’s subterranean inhabitants came to life again, so to speak.

The interest in the paranormal being what it is, Mary King’s Close has now become a major Scottish visitor attraction, and I had come along on this occasion to meet up with the festival’s coordinators, Lisa Helsby and Ewan Irvine. Ewan is a spiritual medium and paranormal investigator who had previously been in contact with me concerning Supernatural Scotland, a book I had written some years ago and which is now out-of-print. Since I have another similar project in hand, I wanted to bring myself up-todate with Scotland’s spirit world.

Ewan and his colleague Andrea Byrne of Full Moon Investigations, have recently been preoccupied with petitioning the Scottish Parliament for a full pardon for Helen Duncan, one of the last people in Britain to be imprisoned under the Witchcraft Act of 1735. A native of the picturesque town of Callander, in Perthshire, Helen was conducting a séance during the Second World War when she told those present that a warship, HMS Barham, had been sunk and that all aboard had perished.

HMS Barham had, indeed, been sunk by a German U-Boat on 25th November 1941, but it remained classified information. None of the relatives of those lost had been notified, and when it emerged that a middle-aged Scottish housewife knew about it, the War Office was horrified. Helen was charged under the Official Secrets Act and, following a trail at the Old Bailey, which even the Prime Minister Winston Churchill described as “obsolete tomfoolery,” she was found guilty and sent to Holloway Prison.

When she was released in 1945, it was only on the promise that she would never again conduct a séance, and when caught in the act 11 years later, she was re-arrested. Genuinely loved and admired by those who knew her, it was this final indignity, they insist, that precipitated her death shortly afterwards.

I don’t think you have to believe in ghosts and spirits and things that go bump in the night to be amazed at such medieval injustice within living memory, but then there had been a war and when people get frightened they always look for scapegoats. Some might say that a pardon 50 or more years after her death is unlikely to be of any consolation for Helen, but I suspect they might be wrong.

If you believe in the spirit world, it could be exactly what she is waiting for. As I walked through the archway leading from Mary King’s Close and Warriston’s Close onto the High Street, a plumpish lady wearing a flower patterned, calf-length dress brushed past me. “Forgive me,” she said.