Disease and death. Burning of witches. Rats. Bodysnatchers or “resurrection men”. Phantom pipers. Bubonic plague. Poltergeists. Conspiracy and murder. Decay. Ghosts and ghouls. Excrement and rot.
If life ever gets too sunny and cheerful, it is good to book a trip to Edinburgh. Its grim past, the narrow, dark closes of the Old Town, ancient graveyards, and thriving industry of horror/ghost/paranormal tours offer an undeniable reminder that there’s more to life than we like to think of. Disease, death and decay await all of us.
Just kidding. But not entirely. Edinburgh is quirky, proud, and by far the most exciting and most original city I have ever visited. It is a genuine real-life adventure park. Visiting Edinburgh for the first time in 2007 I felt as if I’d stepped right into the pages of a history book. Or a book of ghostly tales, for that matter.
When I was a little girl I was horribly afraid of the dark. At the same time I was fascinated by ghost stories. I had a vivid imagination and easily saw frightening shadows and shapes where normally there’d be familiar furniture, trees, and buildings.
I return to Edinburgh over and over again because I am still fascinated by ghost stories and darkness. Its old cobbled streets, dark alleys, hidden vaults, and beautiful old graveyards keep calling me to explore. It is a world that is at the same time peaceful and exciting, familiar and surprising – and always with a promise of Something Else.
During my years of frantic spiritual search I explored these sites hoping to find clues to the mystery of life and death. Nowadays I explore them for fun, the joy of discovery, and my interest in paranormal phenomena and the unknown. It is fascinating to see what happens in allegedly haunted sites, both out there and in me.
A couple of weeks ago I travelled to Edinburgh for the 6th time. In addition to exploring on my own, I participate in a couple of guided ghost tours during every visit. My favourite location is the South Bridge Vaults.
Edinburgh is built on bridges: North Bridge, South Bridge, and George IV Bridge. Buildings cover these bridges, so walking on the streets you won’t know you’re in fact walking on a bridge. And bridges have vaults.
This is the only South Bridge vault that is visible from the outside, at Cowgate. The rest are behind buildings.
South Bridge was completed in 1788. Its vaults were originally used as storage spaces for local businesses, but because of damp and poor air quality they were eventually abandoned and the poor, sick, and homeless of Edinburgh moved in. The vaults were emptied and closed during the 19th century and rediscovered in the 1980’s.
Several tour companies organise trips to different parts of the vaults. My favourites are Mercat Tours and City of the Dead Tours.
During a trip to these vaults you usually get to hear stories of hauntings and paranormal experiences. Some tour companies use special effects and re-enactments to create an atmosphere (read: scare you out of your wits); I prefer the ones that allow the vaults work their magic mostly in silence. Upon entering the vaults the first thing you notice is the promising smell of damp, earth, and sewage. The floors are uneven, the stone walls are cold, and candles flicker in the darkness.
During the very first tour I took, we were standing in a circle in the so-called double height room in the vaults, when suddenly I felt something touching my right wrist. I looked down, there was nobody there, and the rest of the group was standing in front of me and on my left. There was no draft. I had not moved my hand, and the space around my hand was empty. A few moments later it happened again. Now, I’m not saying it was necessarily paranormal, it could just have been the sleeve of my denim jacket settling on its own. But later I heard stories about the ghost of a little boy, called Jack, who’d been seen and felt tugging people’s clothes, especially women’s.
On another tour we were given EMF meters to track paranormal activity. My meter gave very loud signals when I entered one of the rooms alone. Don’t know what it was, but it certainly gave me the chills. Then again, I get the chills every time I enter a room down there alone. This year I participated on a self-guided tour, where we were given only a map and a torch, the guide opened the door, and we were on our own. I separated myself from the group and experimented by standing alone in the different rooms. Towards the end of the tour the rest of the group had already gone back up and the vaults were silent. That’s when I got the feeling of being watched and had a slight urge to turn and run. It was interesting to just feel the urge but not obey.
I don’t know whether my feeling was related to actually being watched, or was it the darkness, the stories, the smell that told my nervous system to run.
Another supposedly haunted location I’ve visited several times is the Greyfriars Kirkyard. During the religious conflicts in the 1600’s, 1200 members of a group that called itself the Covenanters were arrested and locked in the south-west section of Greyfriars nowadays known as the Covenanters Prison. There was no shelter in this walled area, no cover from the rain, and yet they were kept there for five months. Anyone trying to get out or communicate with the outside world was shot. The person responsible for this cruelty was the King’s Advocate in Scotland, George Mackenzie. His tomb, a huge mausoleum, is only 10 metres from the gates of Covenanters Prison.
City of the Dead Tours organise visits to Covenanters Prison. It is locked to the public and the only way to get in is with this particular tour company. Numerous people report having encountered poltergeist activity in this area, particularly in one of its mausoleums. People have passed out during tours, they have felt sick, cold, and dreadfully frightened, they have had unexplained bruises and cuts in their bodies after visiting this place. These unexplained phenomena, called the Mackenzie poltergeist, are said to be the reason why the area is locked.
During a tour you get to enter the very same mausoleum where this phenomenon has been experienced. Tours take place in the evening, and standing inside a dark mausoleum on a shadowy graveyard is an act of incredible trust for a girl who once was so afraid of the dark. I do prefer having another human being between my back and the wall, though. I’ve noticed that the more my focus is “out there”, the more scared I am. But if I focus on myself, staying aware of my core, I find I am safe. My feet stay firmly on the ground and I realise I can look around. Just look. There’s a huge difference between looking with expectation, judgement or fear, and just looking. During my first visit to this graveyard in the dark I was really surprised to see how beautiful it was, and I remember thinking: “if there is something out there, it’s okay, it can be there and I can be here, there is space for both of us.”
Though I am fascinated by mysteries, I remain a skeptic when it comes to unexplained phenomena. I am open to all explanations: scientific, physical, psychological, and paranormal. It could be that there really is something bad in these places, some remaining energies from the atrocities that took place hundreds of years ago. It could be that the past is somehow recorded in the stone walls and it keeps replaying, like a dvd. People’s energies may somehow concentrate in small spaces and create strange experiences. Poor air quality in the vaults can cause feelings of sickness, breathing difficulties, or heaviness in the chest. Or maybe there is a spiritual entity or a ghost looking for revenge, closure, or freedom. Perhaps I am just as much affected by suggestion as the next guy, and my imagination and sensitive nervous system are influenced by the stories, the dark, the candles, the smells, other people’s feelings, and the way the tour group becomes silent and huddles together. Who knows? And that’s the fun of it.
Mercat Tours organise 5-hour nighttime vigils in the vaults. That’s definitely on my list…