Unusual Place of the Month: Edinburgh Ghost Tours

underground edinburgh vaultsIn honor of Halloween (my favorite holiday), this month’s unusual place is Edinburgh, Scotland, or, more specifically, haunted Edinburgh. Edinburgh is supposed to be one of the most haunted cities in the entire world. When I was there a few years ago, I took part in some of the city’s many ghost tours.

Now whether you believe in ghosts or not, these tours take you on an adventure that not only teaches you a part of Edinburgh’s history, but also leaves you feeling just a little “weird.” Or, if you are like me, scared shitless. I hate horror movies because I find them unbelievable but, as Hitchcock knew, a good fright comes from what people don’t see or know. When I left the underground vault tour, I was so spooked that I refused to sleep with the light off that night. The only other time I felt such unease was after I saw The Blair Witch Project.

One of the most popular ghost tours is through the underground vaults. The underground vaults were built in 1788 and used as storage space and workshops for businesses near the South Bridge. However, the bridge was poorly constructed and water from the surface would leak down into the vaults. The vaults were then abandoned in 1795 and became slums turning into a red light district with countless brothels and pubs. Moreover, the city’s poor called these vaults home. The rooms were cramped, dark, had no sunlight, had poorly circulated air, no running water, and no sanitation. Crime was widespread but, by 1820, the leaking became so intense that even the squatters had left.

underground edinburgh vaults

While many companies offer tours through the vaults, I went with City of the Dead. Their tour takes you through all the old vaults, explains their history, describes some of the characters that lived in them, talks about ghosts, and regales you with stories of people who have experienced a close encounter of the supernatural kind. The story I remember most is of a girl and her mother. The little girl felt someone grab her hand. Thinking it was her mom, she grabbed back. But the hand, according to the story, “felt weird” and slowly kept squeezing her hand until it hurt. When the girl said “you are hurting me,” the mother said “I’m over here, honey.” The guide, moving the flashlight to the girl, found that she was standing alone. Who held her hand? How did she get separated? I don’t know. Maybe they made the story up. Or all the other stories for that matter. But moving through the vaults in the dark, with your mind in overdrive, creates an atmosphere of unease that you want on a ghost tour. Of course, the guy jumping out of the corner in the dark doesn’t help at all.

edinburgh scotland graveyard

But the real “ghost “experience is the MacKenzie Poltergeist tour that takes you through Greyfriars Cemetery. The MacKenzie poltergeist is the most famous of Edinburgh’s ghosts.

George MacKenzie was in charge of the local prison in the 17th Century and loved persecuting the Scots Presbyterians (Covenanters). MacKenzie was infamous for the glee in which he would send people to the gallows. After he died, he was buried near Covenanter’s Prison in the cemetery. After a local homeless man accidentally opened his coffin in late 1998, his ghost supposedly began haunting the area.

edinburgh scotland graveyard

Tours take you through the graveyard and around the prison area. There are many stories of people being scratched or attacked, feeling sick, or discovering marks on their bodies the next day. It could all be psychosomatic, but a ghost tour through a “haunted” graveyard on Halloween? Perfect.

No matter which tour you go on or whether or not you believe in ghosts, like all good ghost tours, haunted houses, and Halloween exhibits, these tours make you feel uncomfortable by playing on people’s innate fear of the unknown. Are these places really haunted? Is your mind just playing tricks on you? Did you cut yourself on a branch or did MacKenzie actually claw at you? It doesn’t matter. It’s Halloween. It’s good to be a little frightened. The ghost tours are perfect for Halloween or to just spook yourself out while in Edinburgh.

  1. My cousin used to lead ghost tours in Edinburgh; she was occasionally scheduled to ‘jump out’ at the end of a tour to freak the hell out of everyone. Stupidly, I agreed to do it with her. I got so scared in the vaults that I fell down a small set of stairs…in front of the entire tour group. The fear sort of evaporated for the tourists because they were laughing too hard, but I was creeped out for the rest of the night!

  2. john

    hi just saw this post..i was in edinburgh some years back…true stoy had a night out with a friend we met two girls..anyways long story short me and this girl was walking past a graveyard and a man came up to us and asked if we had seen a small child, cant remember if he said boy or girl anyways there was a grave yard right next to us and he ran into it and disapeared…didnt really believe in ghosts till then. i wouldnt have believed it myself becasue i was pretty drunk but the girl i met saw hum too, and she was really freaked out ha! nobody believes me to this day though but i know what happend..

  3. These tours sounds pretty awesome. Although, the best ghost tours are the ones where the guides turn out to be ghosts themselves.

    I’ve seen it happen, I swear….

  4. There are plenty of spirits in Edinburgh, whether you meet them on a ghost tour or a Scottish whisky tour (in fact if you do the latter before the former, you may see even more).

    I do love Edinburgh (when it’s not too cold though).

  5. Meredith Bellaway

    The scariest tour being offered in Edinburgh is Ladies of Pleasure tour based on the 17th and 18th Century brothels in The Royal Mile.

    We recently went whilst on holiday and found it absolutely brilliant!

    Even though it had a lot of humour, it also gave you the tale of why the ladies did these jobs at the end and we got a couple of ghost stories thrown in too.

    I would highly recommend it, I think it is called Royal Smile tours or something similar.

    We booked it from an old converted police box or tardis which they had rather enjoyably called The Royal Smile Time Machine, opposite the Tron Kirk on Hunter Square.

    I am aware that they also do tours that go into Greyfriars Kirkyard and I’ve been told that is is terrifying in there! Glad we only done this tour as we are too fainthearted to do their Extreme Paranormal one!

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