Mary King’s Ghost Fest
Who ya gonna call?
As the Mary King’s Ghost Fest comes to town, Kirstin Innes spends some quality time in the Blair Street vaults, one of the most haunted locations in Britain
I didn’t see dead people. I should make that very clear. No dead people were actually seen in the process of writing this article. Whether or not they were there, my friends, I’ll leave up to your judgement.
Underneath Edinburgh’s South Bridge, opposite the City Café and next door to Cabaret Voltaire, there’s a series of vaults which were used as a subterranean village in the 17th century. It was a high crime, high poverty area - a lot of murders. Over the past few decades, the vaults have attracted swarms of parapsychologists and psychics, and there’s a regular tour which capitalises on the vaults’ reputation as one of the most haunted places in the country. Nobody dresses up like a wacky Elizabethan jester and no mad monks jump out at you. They don’t need to: the tour guides lead you down there and around the cold, candlelit rooms armed with little more than a book full of purportedly true accounts from sceptics and believers alike, and somehow manage to create one of the most frightening experiences of your life.
The trick, I told myself, is just to think everything through rationally, and ignore that strange, cold, creeping feeling tightening around your waist. That plan was working very well until our guide, Robert, mentioned the Watcher, a particularly malevolent spirit who tends to follow the tour parties round: ‘He’s often seen right behind that doorway there, and has possessed people on the tours.’ He paused, then went into great graphic detail about twisted faces and women being flung across the rooms. Just a story. Ignore that coldness spreading across your back. . . ‘And - oh Kirstin, I’m so sorry, you’re on the hot - or rather, the cold spot. The most common point for possession is right there, in the doorway.’ I moved. Nobody laughed. Later on, when he gave us electro-magnetic field measuring devices and told us to go and explore, we hung back, huddled together, even the bright sceptics who’d asked scientific questions at the start of the tour.
In the third room we visited, the panic set in. The atmosphere changed, suddenly: the temperature dropped, the woman beside me started shaking, and I got a very tangible feeling that something just wasn’t right. Robert noticed it too, ushering us out and seeming to curtail the tour. I’m glad he did, because I was about to run for it.
Back in the sunshine, it was very easy to rationalise the whole experience away. Mass hysteria, clever insinuation, manipulation of the atmosphere. I just haven’t quite convinced myself of it yet.
The Mary King’s Ghost Fest has been finding novel ways to scare the bejesus out of people since 2005, and this year’s programme, bigger than ever before, encompasses paranormal experiments with Most Haunted’s Dr Ciaran O’Keeffe and screenings of cult horror films. You can also, should you want to, conduct an overnight vigil in the Blair Street vaults. Whatever. You and the Watcher can paint each other’s toenails and tell ghost stories. I won’t be joining you.
The Mary King’s Ghost Fest runs from Fri 11-Sun 20 May. See www.edinburghghostfest.co.uk for full event listings. Tours and vigils in the Blair Street vaults are run by Mercat Tours: www.mercattours.com.