In 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 and dark and had poorly circulated air and no sunlight, running water, or sanitation. Crime was widespread, but by 1820, the leaking became so intense that even the squatters had left.
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’re 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.
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) — he 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.
The 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 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 good to be a little frightened. These ghost tours are perfect for Halloween — or to just spook yourself out while in Edinburgh.