The Ghosts and Dungeons of Edinburgh

Few cities can hold a candle to Edinburgh when it comes to tales of ghouls and grotesques. It might stand high and handsome in the postcard stakes but it’s also renowned as one of the most haunted places in Europe, with a history rich with intrigue, hardship and good old-fashioned horror. We take a walk through the city’s backstreets and dungeons to dig up the richest treats on offer for ghost-hunters.

Bloody battlements

Crowning the city skyline, the brooding grey majesty of Edinburgh Castle (Castle Hill, 0131 225 9846) has a history stretching back almost a millennium, during which time it’s seen its fair share of mystery and malevolence. The roll call of castle ghosts reads like a list of Scooby Doo extras: there’s a headless drummer, a black hound, a phantom piper (strains from whom can still be heard on still nights) and a ghoulishly pale prisoner, to name just four. And it’s not the only allegedly haunted castle in the region – just outside the city, Borthwick Castle (North Middleton, 01875 820 514) has connections with Mary Queen of Scots, whose spectral presence is likely to outstay the venue’s soon-to-be-finished refurbishment work, while Dalhousie Castle (Bonnyrigg, 01875 820 153) is said to be roamed by Sir Alexander Ramsay, one of the medieval owners. It’s now a top-tier hotel and spa, so there is at least the prospect of a nice massage to soothe your fears.

Subterranean spooks

Edinburgh’s snaking laneways and cobbled hills might be atmospheric enough, but they’re more than matched for mood by the dark network of tunnels and cellars found underground. The magnificently eerie Edinburgh Vaults (28 South Bridge, 0131 625 8625) are the most obvious place to start, a set of abandoned chambers beneath the arches of South Bridge. Their otherworldly occupants are said to include a dog, a laughing child and an ethereal cobbler – it’s been called the most haunted spot in Britain. Also able to be visited is Mary King’s Close (2 Warriston’s Close, 0845 070 6244), a warren of underground streets and dwellings preserved from the 1600s. The close’s stories include that of Thomas Coltheart, a lawyer who refused to leave when the streets were evacuated and was subsequently driven mad by visions of disembodied heads, and a young girl, Annie, for whom some visitors still leave dolls and treats.

Paranormal pubs

Edinburgh is as famed for drinkable spirits as it is for the ghostly variety, and plenty of the city’s pubs give the chance to knock back a stiff Scotch or two in purportedly phantom-frequented surrounds. The Banshee Labyrinth (29-35 Niddry Street, 0131 558 8209) bills itself as Scotland’s most haunted pub – largely due to the fact that half of the venue was once part of the Underground Vaults – while the centuries-old Tolbooth Tavern (167 Canongate, 0131 556 5348) is said to have a malevolent poltergeist, tying in with the fact that the building once served as a prison. Elsewhere, the suitably named Last Drop (74-78 Grassmarket, 0131 225 4851) was the site of the final hanging to take place in Grassmarket, and reportedly has a medieval ghost in the form of a young girl, sightings of which have occurred in both the cellar and the bar area. Close by at The White Hart (34 Grassmarket, 0131 226 2806) – where it’s said Robert Burns himself stayed on his last visit to Edinburgh – the cellar is reputed to regularly witness rogue bumps, bangs and barrel-movings. Happily for drinkers, such mysterious goings-on don’t seem to detract from the quality of the guest ales.

Tours of terror

If you’re serious about delving into the city’s paranormal side, there’s no shortage of themed tours on offer. Mercat Tours (0131 225 5445) have some highly rated options, including a late-night candlelit visit to the vaults and a ‘Doomed, Dead & Buried’ tour which also takes in Canongate Graveyard. Offering guided walks throughout the day and evening, meanwhile, Auld Reekie Tours (0131 557 4700) specialise in underground explorations, ranging from a 45-minute tour at midnight to a 90-minute ‘Terror Tour’ involving plenty of storytelling and a visit to a stone circle vault at 10pm. They often run extra, and sometimes later, tours over the Fringe Festival and Halloween. Other good tour options are the award-winning nerve-janglers offered by City of the Dead (0131 225 9044) – their ‘Double Dead Walking Tour’ warns that it can cause “genuine physical and mental distress” – and it’s worth too considering the after-dark tours run by Cadies & Witchery Tours (0131 225 6745), many of which are presided over by the ‘ghost’ of an old highwayman.

Ghostly graveyards

Cemeteries are rarely cheery places through which to wander, and those in Edinburgh are thick with tales of the supernatural. Most infamous of all is Greyfriars Kirkyard (Old Town, 0131 226 5429), which has been holding burials since the 16th century and provides the scene of the well-documented activities of the Mackenzie Poltergeist. Said to be the spirit of an old lawyer who oversaw hundreds of death sentences, its presence has seemingly been responsible for a very real number of incidents – Scotland’s Daily Record claimed a few years ago that no less than 350 ‘attacks’ had been reported over a decade and a half, as well as more than 170 cases of people collapsing. Most of these are centred on Mackenzie’s final resting place, the so-called Black Mausoleum. Similarly spectral in atmosphere, Canongate Kirk (153 Canongate, 0131 556 3515) has a graveyard containing various notable figures. These include Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie, who gave inspiration for Charles Dickens’ Scrooge, as well as the philosopher Adam Smith and, allegedly, the murdered courtier of Mary Queen of Scots, David Rizzio.

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