Haunted Edinburgh: A Spooky City Guide to Edinburgh
Born just outside the city, Fiona grew up exploring Edinburgh’s many nooks and crannies. And those years spent exploring the dark corners of the Scottish capital have served her well in her role as a tour guide on the Edinburgh Darkside Walking Tour: Mysteries, Murder and Legends.
On the evening walking tour she regales visitors with tales of Auld Reekie’s grisly past and the people who shaped it, from body snatchers to cannibals, as she leads them to some of its most atmospheric—and often eerie—destinations. On a tour with Fiona you’ll explore the cobblestone streets of the Old Town; see Calton Hill, site of historic witch trials and modern-day pagan festivities; and enter, if you dare, one of the city’s haunted cemeteries.
Her role requires none of the bells and whistles that feature on many a ghost tour, either: Edinburgh’s history is dramatic enough. “On the Darkside tour,” Fiona says, “we let the history speak for itself and talk about all the horrible and gruesome events that occurred through Edinburgh's long and gory past.”
A haunted history of Edinburgh
“Edinburgh and ghosts go hand in hand,” Fiona says. “Living in the Old Town, it's assumed that anywhere you go, you're walking over history and stories of people no longer with us.”
Both Scotland’s history and its folklore are laden with grisly tales. “We've always been a learned nation, keen to explore the unknown. This has [led to] many enlightened ideas but also a lot of peculiar traditions."
Scotland also saw "some of the bloodiest witch trials in Europe and a plethora of public hangings,” Fiona adds, and the history of these witch trials hangs heavy on Edinburgh. Beginning in the 16th century, hardened attitudes to traditional healers (of whom there were many), combined with King James VI’s zealotry, led to more than 200 years of terror in which accused ‘witches’ were tortured and executed. An estimated 4,000 people (mostly women) were put on trial for witchcraft and up to two thirds of them executed.
“This is just a little piece of Scottish history, so you can imagine how many spirits we are crossing paths with around Edinburgh nowadays,” Fiona explains.
Edinburgh’s most haunted attractions.
When in Edinburgh, “you've got to explore the graveyards," Fiona says. "We've got several very old graveyards right in the center of town. Try out Canongate Kirkyard, Greyfriars, and Old Calton to really get an understanding of how we appreciate and spend time in these places.”
Getting lost is no bad thing, either; in fact, according to Fiona, “it's almost encouraged.” When walking down the Royal Mile, be sure to duck into the many dark closes (alleyways) that fan out from the main drag where you can “really explore and feel the history just seconds away from the hustle and bustle of the Mile.”
Fans of the macabre shouldn’t miss Mary King’s Close, named for a widowed merchant burgess and shrouded in tales of hauntings. In 1645, hundreds of residents perished of the plague and their ghosts are believed to still stalk the area. Inevitably Edinburgh made a thriving tourist attraction out of it.
Don’t-miss spirited establishments.
If you want to explore Edinburgh’s infamous underground vaults, head for Banshee Labyrinth, said to be haunted by a banshee. “This underground bar does exactly what it says on the tin,” Fiona says of the spot where drinks have been known to mysteriously fly off tables. However, the bar’s spookiest legend is that of a workman who heard a bloodcurdling scream then, a few hours later, received a call about the death of a family member.
In the Grassmarket, the White Hart Inn claims to be central Edinburgh’s oldest pub—parts of the building date back to 1516. With a history of more than 500 years, it’s no surprise it’s been the backdrop for some ghostly encounters. Patrons, who may or may not have been under the influence at the time, have reported hearing unexplained noises and seeing shadowy forms and doors slammed shut. (Although, the Friday night streets of the Grassmarket likely offer up scarier scenes.)
Find out what goes bump in the night.
Beneath its glam and opulent facade, rumor has it that The Witchery at Castle Hill has a deep connection with Edinburgh’s haunted history. The building dates from the 16th century, a time when people were burned on Castle Hill for witchcraft.
“It’s believed that some of these [accused] witches haunt the place,” Fiona says. “Certainly, what I can say about The Witchery is that it is definitely a magical place to stay and to dine in.” Fiona recommends the restaurant for those to whom the eerie is coupled with the intimate. "If you have dinner there, you’ll eat by candlelight, which provides a very romantic or spooky ambiance.”
Edinburgh’s most famous ghosts.
While exploring Greyfriars Kirkyard, you may come across the mausoleum of George McKenzie, one of the city’s great villains. A barrister known for his severity, McKenzie was responsible for (and was said to take pleasure in) the deaths of thousands of Covenanters. His ghost haunts visitors to the Kirkyard and his manners haven’t improved: some say they’ve been scratched, bruised, or even rudely pushed over when walking past his tomb.
Edinburgh Castle also boasts several ghosts. One, the headless drummer boy, only makes an appearance when the castle is under threat, so make a quick exit if you do see him. Another is the Lone Piper who was believed to have become lost in the underground tunnels. He played his bagpipes to attract the attention of people above but sadly never made his way out. Listen out and you may hear the melodious tones of his pipes as he endlessly wanders the underground tunnels—or that may just be one of the ubiquitous Old Town buskers hustling for tourist coins.
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