Edinburgh – refined and genteel by day, dark and sinister by night. Burke and Hare, Deacon Brodie and countless other thieves, cutthroats and vagabonds have crept around Auld Reekie under the cover of darkness.
And is Edinburgh ashamed of its dark past? Not a jot. This is a city that marks the site of public executions with shiny brass studs – lest we forget the ne’er do wells who once swung by the neck there. Today, the fine townsfolk of Edinburgh watch shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Once they flocked to public executions, hungry for blood.
This All Hallows’ Eve I’m taking you on a creepy tour of my hideous hometown, so read on if you dare.
Plague and ghostly goings on in Mary King’s Close
Growing up in Edinburgh I was fascinated by Mary King’s Close. I’d heard chilling stories of an underground street, that’d been sealed up with its plague infected residents inside. The underground street was real, but thankfully no one had been walled in and left to die.
I’ve visited Mary King’s Close many times over the years. On my last visit, I had “WITCH” screamed in my face by a 17th century witch hunter.
Nerves recovered, I recently ventured back into the close, dragging Mr G along to protect me from madmen looking for witches.
We arrived at the City Chambers on the Royal Mile, and joined a tour party led by Jonet King (Mary King’s 400-year-old daughter). Jonet led us down several flights of stairs into the gloomy close below.
There, we were given a fascinating insight into the lives of the people who once lived and worked on Mary King’s Close. 17th century Edinburghers lived cheek by jowl, in dark, narrow streets (closes) where buildings could rise to eleven storeys.
Gardyloo – life in a stinking cesspit
It was common for large families to live in a single room. They’d burn fish oil for light, and use a shared wooden bucket as a toilet. The smell must have been eye watering.
Twice each day, with a cry of “gardyloo” the bucket would be emptied out of the window and onto the street below. Gardyloo comes from the French ‘Prenez garde a l’eau!’ – meaning beware of water. It’s a cry that would’ve sent those on the street running for cover.
The discarded human waste coated Edinburgh’s streets in a putrid, ankle-deep sludge. Some of it ran downhill and into a filthy cesspit known as the Nor Loch. The Nor Loch was located where Princes Street Gardens are today. It was a popular spot for dumping slaughterhouse waste, hiding murder victims, and testing the theory that witches could float.
Stomach heaving? We have a good Scottish expression for that – ‘the boak’, otherwise known as retching.
A-tishoo, a-tishoo we all fall down
Living in such unsanitary conditions meant disease was rife. More than any other, one disease struck terror into the hearts of all who lived in the city – The Plague or Black Death.
In 1645 Edinburgh, and the neighbouring Port of Leith were struck by a plague epidemic. The epidemic killed tens of thousands, and the residents of Mary King’s Close were particularly hard hit.
There were two types of Plague. Pneumonic, which ravaged the lungs and made the skin turn black, and bubonic which saw sufferers break out in large, pus filled boils, which would burst and poison the bloodstream.
White flags hung from windows throughout the city to warn there were plague sufferers inside. Bodies piled up in the streets, and mass graves were dug to deposit victims.
Throughout the outbreak one terrifying figure walked the streets. The Plague Doctor aka George Rae – my favourite old Edinburgh character.
Rae was offered a handsome salary to take on ‘the job from hell’ after Edinburgh’s first plague doctor succumbed to the disease. Although he looked scary, he saved many lives.
Treatment for the bubonic plague was torturous. First the boils were lanced to let the pus run out, then they were cleaned with alcohol or vinegar, before being cauterised with a red-hot poker – ouch!
Edinburgh’s Plague Doctor wore a full-length animal-skin robe, and a beaked mask filled with herbs to protect him from the airborne miasmas, which were thought to spread the plague. Little did he know, his unconventional outfit also protected him from flea bites – the real reason behind the spread of bubonic plague in the city.
Otherworldly goings on
With such a torrid history, it’s no surprise Mary King’s Close has a resident ghost.
In 1992 a Japanese medium visited the close with a film crew. She felt nothing otherworldly, and was disappointed with her visit until she entered a small room with a fireplace inside. There, she claims to have communicated with the spirit of a young girl called Annie. Tugging at the medium’s hand, the crying child said she’d lost her doll and couldn’t find her parents. The medium was so disturbed by the encounter that she returned to Mary King’s Close with a doll and left it in the room for Annie. It seems to have done the trick – Annie hasn’t been seen since.
Despite her long silence, her toy box continues to grown.
We’ll say goodbye to Mary King’s Close, but not before taking a quick peek inside the house of Andrew Chesney, the last resident to leave the street in 1901. Chesney’s once fashionable, green painted walls are laced with arsenic. Let’s not linger though, as arsenic poisoning isn’t very nice.
Click here to find out more about the one hour, immersive guided tour of The Real Mary King’s Close.
Discovering haunted Edinburgh, The Ghost Bus Tours
Free from the plague infested confines of Mary King’s Close, it was time for us to join The Ghost Bus Tours Ltd for a spooktacular tour of haunted Edinburgh.
We found the Edinburgh necrobus waiting for us on Waverley Bridge.
Smoke billowed from inside, as we stepped aboard the vintage routemaster. Our deathly pale host greeted us with a sinister smile.
Edinburgh is a hotbed of
genius paranormal activity
Red velvet curtains and Victorian table lamps made the interior look like an undertaker’s waiting room. And it was of sorts – as this was a necrobus. A 1960s funeral bus, once used to transport corpses and mourners to funerals.
A slack-jawed skeleton stared blankly out of the window – no one chose the seat next to him.
Cautiously, we picked a seat downstairs – and off we went on a theatrical ghost tour of the city. It soon became apparent that Edinburgh was a hotbed of paranormal activity.
As we passed Edinburgh Castle, we heard the tale of a ghostly piper who still plays from beyond the grave.
We paused to listen for the skirl of pipes…..🎶
Sweeping silently through the New Town, we kept our eyes peeled for apparitions on every corner. Monks, murder victims and shopkeepers were all out there (somewhere) – doomed to wander Edinburgh’s streets for eternity.
Cemetery or skeleton?
Stopping at St Cuthbert’s Burial Ground, we had a choice. Follow our barking mad host into the dark graveyard, or hang out with Boney Maloney on the bus.
We all got off the bus.
Inside, we huddled close together as we listened to gruesome tales about grave robbers and people being buried alive.
A 19th century night watchtower stood in the corner of the cemetery. Its purpose was to protect the dead, and (hopefully) prevent them from ending up on the dissection table at Edinburgh’s medical school.
In the 19th century fresh corpses were a nice little earner.
Edinburgh’s laziest grave robbers
Back on the bus, we learned about Edinburgh’s laziest grave robbers, Burke and Hare. Digging was too much like hard work for this gruesome twosome. They found murder a far easier way to guarantee a steady supply of fresh corpses. They’re thought to have murdered seventeen victims, to supply the unscrupulous Dr Knox and his anatomy students with cadavers.
Passing Greyfriars Kirkyard, our journey continued through the city’s Old Town. It was as haunted as the new, with ghosts, ghouls and spooky goings on at every turn.
Seventy-five, exhilarating, creepy and hilarious minutes flew by in a flash. Our tour drew to a close, with us hurtling over the cobbles of Market Street, curtains drawn and lights out. It was a thrilling finale.
I’ve kept most of the theatrical elements of the tour and storyline out of this post on purpose. You may venture aboard the necrobus yourself one day, and I’d hate to deprive you of screams.
Click here to find out more about theatrical ghost tours from The Ghost Bus Tours Ltd.
Malevolent spirits in the heart of haunted Edinburgh
You’ve probably noticed that The Wee White Dug has been conspicuous by his absence in this blog so far. He didn’t pass up the opportunity to scare you though. He bravely ventured into Greyfriars Kirkyard (the epicentre of haunted Edinburgh) in search of a malevolent spirit.
Greyfriars is famous for the heartwarming tale of a loyal wee dug called Bobby, but our terrier friend won’t be making an appearance today. You see, Greyfriars is also famous for a far less lovable resident – Bloody MacKenzie (more on him in a minute).
Dressed in his favourite ghost hunting neckerchief, the boy was ready to fearlessly explore the haunted kirkyard.
Passing gothic crypts and grotesque carved skeletons, he sniffed his way around.
Resurrectionists keep out
At the side of the kirk he stopped beside a cage like contraption. Was MacKenzie locked inside? “Sniff, sniff, sniff” – apparently not. It turns out it was a mortsafe – further proof (if proof was needed) that Edinburghers once had a penchant for digging up the dead.
The cage may look like it’s there to ensure zombies remain six feet under, but it’s not. It’s there to prevent resurrectionists (grave robbers) from spiriting the dead off into the night.
MacKenzie, no friend of the Covenanters
Opposite the mortsafe, an ornate black tomb with a sinister air caught the boy’s eye. He crept over to take a closer look. It was the MacKenzie Mausoleum.
So who was Bloody MacKenzie? Sir George MacKenzie of Rosehaugh was Lord Advocate during the reign of Charles II. He’s best remembered for his ruthless persecution of the Covenanters, which earned him the nickname Bloody MacKenzie.
The Covenanters followed the Presbyterian religion, which had been outlawed by King Charles, driving the movement underground.
On 22 June 1679 the Covenanters rebelled, clashing with government forces at the Battle of Bothwell Brig. MacKenzie’s response was swift and brutal.
He had 1,200 Covenanters imprisoned in a small section of Greyfriars Kirkyard, which is now known as the Covenanters Prison. Hundreds died as a result of starvation, mistreatment and execution. It was a shameful episode in Edinburgh’s history.
Come oot if ye daur, ye auld scunner
Fast forward to the late 1990s and tour parties visiting Greyfriars Kirkyard start to complain of a malevolent force attacking them inside the Covenanters Prison. Dozens of attacks are documented, and terrified visitors report being scratched, burned, pushed, choked and having their hair pulled. Some pass out from fright.
Alarmed by rising hysteria, and the attention the kirkyard was attracting The City of Edinburgh Council locked the Covenanters Prison. It remains locked to this day.
But, who or what was responsible for the attacks?
The common theory is Bloody MacKenzie, who’s buried in a mausoleum next to the spot where hundreds died at his hands.
Would he allow us to wander unharmed, or would he send us packing?
The boy stood in front of his tomb and challenged MacKenzie to show himself.
Bluidy Mackingie, come oot if ye daur, lift the sneck and draw the bar!
We waited with bated breath….. and waited, and waited, and waited. He didn’t show.
It seems the MacKenzie Poltergeist is feart of wee dugs. The White Dug had proved himself to be a Halloween hero.
He ain’t afraid of no ghosts.
Hang out the white flag
I hope you’ve enjoyed this macabre tour of my hometown.
Since we delved into Edinburgh’s dark side Mr G and I have been struck down by a terrible lurgy. We’ve been coughing, sneezing, sniffing and wheezing. It can only mean one thing – pneumonic plague.
It’s time to hang out the white flag and call the Plague Doctor.
Thanks to The Real Mary King’s Close and The Ghost Bus Tours Ltd for two fantastic tours. Although our tours were provided on a complimentary basis, all opinions are my own.
Enjoyed this post? Here’s another bone chilling read about Halloween in Scotland.
Until next time (if there is a next time) ……..
20 thoughts on “Edinburgh – plague, a foul stench and ghouls galore!”
I remember taking a Ghouls and Ghost Tour back in the 1990’s. We were taken around the Wynds and houses by a young lady drama student. In those days Mary King’s Close had not been commercialised as it now has. We had to enter via the Council building that is above. There were no dolls or mannequins, just dirt floors. Very spooky then. Times move on and the Close is still worth a visit, if only for the historical side of how people lived in those times. Great Blog.
Thank you. My first visit was back then too. It was a wee man from the council that took us down into the basement. I remember it being dusty and dark, but really atmospheric. I love what they’ve done with it now, it’s nice that they’ve managed to piece together the history of some of the people who lived on the close.
Brilliant post! Thoroughly enjoyed reading, and Wee White Dug is adorable. We have recently relocated to Edinburgh and Saturday night is date night, so hubby is treating me to a ghost tour. Who says romance is dead, hey?
Thank you, glad you enjoyed it. Are you going on the ghost bus! Hubby and I loved our spooky date night when I was researching for this blog. 👻
Great post! I will probably never get there in person, so this was a great experience! My Corgis send your boy the message that if he licks your feet, it will cure all illness in man or dog.
Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it. Never say never. 😊
I did a ghost tour on my last visit to Edinburgh in 2016 and loved it. The guide was amazing at building the scares and the suspense. I really need to get into the closes though, never really delved into the full history of the city as only previously visited the city with my parents as a kid, or for a piss up with my friends when I was at uni.
Being a history geek the closes of the Old Town have always been my favourite part of town. It’s where you feel the city’s history most and all the dark tales associated with Edinburgh’s past. I definitely recommend delving deeper into the Old Town next time, you’ll love it. 😊
Enjoyed your story!
Thank you 😊
Loved my tour of Mary King’s Close. I almost didn’t do it, but I am so glad I did. I learned so much about the history of the city, and in a thoroughly enjoyable way! Next time I will do the theatrical ghost tour, it looks like a lot of fun. Great post – and bravo to the Wee White One, vanquisher of evil spirits!
I think a few people are a bit apprehensive if they’re claustrophobic but once you’re in there’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s such a fascinating tour. You’ll enjoy the ghost bus too, it’s great fun and a bit of ghostly drama on the move. The old bus is wonderful too. 🎃
OUTSTANDING BLOG! I spent 3 weeks in Auld Reekie this year, and am grateful for the clean-up over the centuries. What a beautiful, fascinating, historical city is Edinburgh! Happy Halloween, all, from Oklahoma.
Thank you. I’d give anything to see old Edinburgh, warts and all. It would have stank to the high heavens though. Glad you enjoyed your trip. Happy Halloween 🎃
Maybe the White Dug will be able to catch this? Wah-hah-hah
As a resident – I should say, former resident – of The Dear Green Place, called Glasgow, I have always felt there was something untoward aboot Auld Reekie. Still, the boy held his own against the things that go bump in the night. Great post …
It’s the contrast between dark and light, good and evil that I’ve always loved about Edinburgh. I’ve long been a fan of Gothic literature and architecture so Edinburgh is the perfect hometown for me. Glad you enjoyed the blog. 🎃👻
Fabulous! Will definitely make time to visit these haunts, no pun intended, next time we are in Edinburgh.
The tours are fantastic. Mary’s King’s Close is a must for history buffs who like to know what life was really like, and the bus tour puts a fun theatrical twist on ghost tours.