The Midgie Ghost Walk
- Anna Docherty
- 1 October 2008
Perhaps it’s the winding closes and shadowy alleyways that furrow through the Old Town, or maybe it’s the penetrating coastal mists that can descend at a moment’s notice. Whatever it is, there’s no denying that in certain lights Edinburgh can seem decidedly eerie. And while not intending to freak you out further, Anna Docherty urges you towards some unsettling areas of the city that might just have you running for home.
1 . WITCHES AT EDINBURGH CASTLE
Perched at the top of the cobbled streets of the Royal Mile, Edinburgh Castle sits like a cinematic haunted house on the hill. But this grand stone structure is steeped in real haunted history. In the sixteenth century it is thought that more witch burnings were carried out on Castlehill than anywhere else in the country. Witches Well sits at the perimeter of the castle grounds and is a memorial to Edinburgh’s gory history of burning innocent females. The well is delicately spun in cast iron and often planted with flowers, above which there is a commemorative plaque paying homage to the hundreds of lives that were cindered. The plaque reads ‘some used their exceptional knowledge for evil purposes while others were misunderstood and wished their kind nothing but good.’ Clearly the idea of ‘evil’ witches hadn’t quite disappeared when the well was put in place. In this sceptical modern age, however, the enduring impression is that of barbarity and burning human flesh; a mental image that is obstinately hard to shift and leaves you thankful that things have moved on.
2. COVENANTERS TOMBS
From the castle you can take a wander down the wobbly cobbled streets, towards the grand looking St. Giles Cathedral. It is outside here that Marquesses James Graham and Archibald Campbell were executed for deigning to voice objections to the King’s religious and political
reforms. Graham was hung in 1650 and his head was placed upon a spike outside the church, Campbell was hung in 1661. Step inside the Cathedral and you can find the tombs of the two men; stone effigies of them are laid upon ornate stone slabs, engraved and embossed with patterns of mind-boggling intricacy. A copy of the Covenant sits above them. It’s a tranquil place, as most churches are, and for a moment you can forget about the gore and reflect upon why the deaths of these two men came about; because of strong beliefs, honourable struggles and commitment to a cause. It’s a reminder that Edinburgh has deep principles woven through its often blood-splattered past.
3. GRASSMARKET HANGINGS
Down in the Grassmarket today you’ll find plenty of drinkers, diners and general merrimakers, but back in the 1800s it had a quite different feel, being the spot on which hundreds of public hangings took place. One specific pub sits unsettlingly close to where many lives ended and is so named The Last Drop (and painted blood red of course). Directly opposite the pub is a stone-walled area that marks where the gallows once stood, accompanied by a plaque that lists the names of the many souls executed there. Have a look and see if John Porteous is on the list - he was a city execution guard who fired his musket at a baying gallows mob to hold them back. He was found guilty of killing six people but his execution was later overruled - at which point a frenzied mob stormed the jail and seized him. He was stripped, beaten, burnt and hung to death from a pole. It’s all a bit grim, but thankfully the Grassmarket has moved past such scenes of death and gore and is now privy to a different kind of social carnage, mostly late on a Saturday night.
4. GREYFRIARS KIRKYARD
Any list of ghostly haunts would be incomplete without a cemetery. Greyfriars is probably most famous for the tale of Greyfriars Bobby, that faithful canine who sat vigil at his master’s grave for some 14 years. Stroll around the grounds and you will find something touching and decidedly beatific about the hundreds of intricate old gravestones and tree-dotted lawns. However, you will eventually happen upon the big black cast iron gates of Covenanter’s Prison. As you stare through the vertical bars into this roofless, grim looking holding ground,
remember that it is here that the poltergeist of prison judge ‘Bloody’ George Mackenzie is said to reside - nicknamed ‘Bloody’ as he somewhat overzealously sent people to the gallows. But the prison is now kept securely locked, which apparently makes him a little cheerier and
stops him harassing visitors. On which comparatively positive note we end this foray into the dark corners of Edinburgh’s history and leave you to indulge all your macabre imaginings to the full.