An obese seagull is eyeing my breakfast. It tries to intimidate me with a high-pitched – almost deafening – cackle, but the moment I take my camera out to take a picture, it flies away. I continue eating my sausage roll in peace and quiet, watching early commuters disappearing into the morning fog. The visibility is so poor that Edinburgh’s mighty castle is barely discernible. They call this phenomenon haar in Scotland.
My usual infallible sense of direction is skewed on this foggy day. Spotting the city’s landmarks is going to be almost impossible, but I have an idea. As an eerie atmosphere envelops the city, I decide to go on a ghost tour of Edinburgh.
Edinburgh’s Old Town
After grabbing a coffee from one of the kiosks in Princes Street Gardens, I manage to find my way to the Royal Mile. I take a leisurely walk through an area known as the Lawnmarket, which is teeming with various shops selling woollens, knits, kilts, and any other imaginable object in tartan print.
The principal street in the Old Town of Edinburgh is lined with towering stone tenements on both sides. Following the Battle of Sark in 1450, the Scots built a defensive wall around Edinburgh. As a result, there wasn’t enough space to build new houses, and overcrowding became a major problem. The only solution was to erect more floors on the existing tenements. In recent years, the once shabby first floors of these tenements have been transformed into souvenir shops, museums and pubs.
I stop at Tron Kirk, a former seventeenth century parish church, and my eyes immediately land on three poster boards, each exhibiting a tempting invitation to experience the horror of Edinburgh’s most haunted places. A young woman clad in a Victorian frock looms into my personal space to inform me that the next underground tour is about to start. Torn between hesitance and curiousity, I eventually surrender to the latter.
Modern witches and a poltergeist
Edinburgh’s overcrowding problem persisted well into the seventeenth century. The homeless took refuge in the underground vaults which were once used by local merchants as storehouses before sewage started to leak through the ceiling. Edinburgh’s underground city quickly turned into a slum. Many of these slum dwellers perished during a massive outbreak of the plague in 1645.
Our tour guide takes us into the first vault. Adorned with colourful tapestries and silver pentacles, the chamber is used as a temple by a local Wiccan coven.
“This is the safest vault in the underground city,” the guide reassures us.
There’s a reason why the witches refused to locate in any other vault, which the guide isn’t yet willing to disclose. We follow her into the next vault and we are asked to stand around a stone circle that has been set up at the centre.
“A poltergeist haunts this vault.”
At this point, I start to feel a bit uneasy. Water (or at least I hope it is) drips from the ceiling onto my face.
“The good news is,” the guide resumes, “the poltergeist is trapped inside this circle.”
Visitors who have stepped inside the stone circle have experienced strong paranormal activity. Many even passed out. The guide wants to know if anyone was gutsy enough to join the poltergeist in the circle, but not even the skeptics take her up on the offer.
Murdered in cold blood
In the early nineteenth century, the slums were hit by an increase in criminal activity. In 1828, two dangerous serial killers were on the loose. Burke and Hare murdered their victims in cold blood, with the sole purpose of selling their corpses to medical schools. The slum dwellers were also targeted by rapists, robbers and kidnappers.
We step inside the last vault. Paranormal investigators, including the crew of the British TV series Most Haunted, have reported that the chamber we are now standing in is one of the most haunted places in Scotland.
An unsettling hush falls upon us. I think of all the horrible things that have taken place on the very same spot where I now stand, and I am hit by a sudden urge to get out of there.
The guide breaks the silence with a shaky voice, “When I applied for this job, I had to sit for a test.”
She proceeds quietly, “My boss told me that I had to spend a night in one of these vaults. Alone.”
The ghost tour ends with a complimentary shot of whiskey and some shortbread. It is just what I need to get over the disturbing stories of the past ninety minutes. They say whiskey calms the nerves, and after a few minutes, my sense of adventure is restored.
I head back out into the Royal Mile. The fog has started to lift, but Edinburgh’s dark past will remain forever etched in the city’s damp old walls.
Have you been on a spooky Edinburgh ghost tour?
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