Visiting the world's most haunted cemetery: a complete guide to Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh.
It's October! The nights are drawing in, the leaves are turning and there's a definite chill in the air. It's also Halloween month, which has got us thinking about a particularly spooky location we visited recently: Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh.
While vibrant and beautiful, Edinburgh has a decidedly dark past. Some 4000 Scots were falsely accused of witchcraft in the 16th and 17th centuries - to put this into context, less than 200 people were put on trial during the Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts. King James VI was particularly obsessed with witches (it's pretty safe to say that Shakespeare's Macbeth was written for him after he became King of England in 1603) and this led to hundreds of Scottish people, mainly women, being tortured and executed.
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From the Old Town's eerie narrow closes and alleys where the height of the buildings either side block out the light, to the chilling paranormal occupants of the world famous South Bridge vaults, Edinburgh has been described as Europe's most haunted capital city. Chock full of ghost stories, one of the most famous locations in the city is Greyfriars Kirkyard, said to be the most haunted cemetery in the world. Established during the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, within a few years the cemetery had already been used for thousands victims of the Black Plague of 1568.
As soon as you enter the Kirkyard (the old Scottish word for churchyard), you will come face to face with a statue of one of the grave yard's least intimating residents: Greyfriars Bobby. This little terrier is famous for faithfully guarding his owner's grave for 14 years until his own death in 1872, and he is buried right inside the church yard, close to a commemorative flowerbed featuring a statue of him. marked by a statue and gravestone. The grave of his owner, John Gray, where Bobby spent so much of his time is just down a path to the right - sadly they couldn't be reunited as animals are not allowed to be buried in the consecrated ground. To this day, people reportedly heard disembodied barking and some swear they have seen a small ghostly dog running through the church yard.
Many of the tombs and gravestones of Greyfriars Kirkyard feature skulls and dancing skeletons - this sort of morbid imagery is known as Memento Mori (Latin for "remember you will die"). You might also notice hour glasses or wilting flowers. While the art style seems spooky to the modern eye, the intention was more philosophical: to remind those left behind that life is fleeting and that worldly vanities are not important.
Continuing around the left side of the church yard, look out for mortsafes: bars or cages built over graves to discourage body snatchers. Two of Edinburgh's most notorious notables, Burke and Hare, made a living out of selling fresh corpses to Robert Knox to use in his anatomy classes. While they turned to murder rather than grave robbing to keep up with supply and demand, others raided the churchyards for recent burials.
Memento Mori and mortsafes
Against the wall of the left hand side of the church yard is the burial place with reportedly the highest level of supernatural activity: the Black Tomb of "Bloody Mackenzie", said to be haunted by a vicious poltergeist. In 1677, King Charles II appointed his Lord Advocate, George Mackenzie, to persecute the Presbyterian Covenanters: supporters of the Church of Scotland who refused to subscribe to the Anglican church. Over 1000 men were imprisoned Greyfriars Kirkyard, where hundreds died of exposure and malnutrition. Others were executed, and it was this cruelty that led to "Bloody" Mackenzie's nickname. You can still see where the Covenantors' Prison was, in the top left corner of the cemetery, not far from Mackenzie's grand domed mausoleum.
Since the 1990s, around 350 people have claimed to have been attacked by Mackenzie's furious spirit. The poltergeist activity massively increased in 1998 after a homeless man, taking cover from bad weather, meddled with one of the coffins in the tomb and got a real fright when the floor suddenly collapsed beneath him, sending him tumbling into the ancient plague pit below! Paranormal experts suspect that this is what disturbed the ghost of Mackenzie, leading to a spate of ghostly attacks.
After some 350 people claimed to have been scratched, bruised, pushed and even bitten while viewing the tomb, an exorcist called Colin Grant was brought in to deal with the poltergeist. The bad vibes proved too much even for him and he left the site almost immediately, only to die of a heart attack 2 weeks later! In 2004, two teenagers broke into the Black Tomb and stole Mackenzie's skull. They were caught by a ghost tour walking past, the skull was returned and the mausoleum has been locked up ever since. You can still peek through a grate in the front if you dare...
Before you leave the churchyard, pay a visit into the bothy (watchtower) next to the main entrance to check out its creepy collection of cursed dolls!
If you'd like a more in depth insight into the ghost stories of Greyfriars Kirkyard, book a tour with City of the Dead Tours. They also have sole access to actually going inside the Covenenter's Prison - be warned that there have been a large number of paranormal interactions on this tour (maybe that's what you're hoping for!), and so you are advised to attend at your own risk, and pregnant women, under 12s and people with heart conditions are not able to join the tour.
While you're visiting Greyfriars Kirkyard, you might also enjoy two other non ghost related points of interest:
The 'Harry Potter' graves
Scattered around the right hand side and rear of the cemetery are several grave stones with names that some literary fans might recognise - Potter, McGonagall, Scrymgeour, Cruikshanks, Moodie and one of the most photographed burial sites in Greyfriars Kirkyard: Thomas Riddle.
While JK Rowling has never confirmed that she took her characters' names from the cemetery, seeing as how she wrote much of her Harry Potter novels in various cafes in the vicinity, it doesn't seem too farfetched to assume that she took a wander through the graveyard for inspiration...
Handily, several of the Harry Potter graves have been added to Google maps.
Historic Stars and Stripes
Inside the church itself you'll spot a USA flag in the corner at the eastern end. The original church was opened on Christmas Day 1620, the same day that the first American pilgrims landed in the United States. In 1970, to celebrate the 350th anniversary of both occurrences, the American consul in Edinburgh presented this flag to the church. It has previously flown at the White House!
While you're inside, be sure to visit the small museum displaying an original copy of the National Covenant - the document, effectively a Scottish Bill of Rights, was signed in this very church in 1638.
Getting to Greyfriars Kirkyard:
Greyfriars Kirkyard is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and is free to enter.
The main entrance is next to the Greyfriars Bobby pub on Candlemaker Row, opposite the National Museum of Scotland. From the Old Town/Royal Mile, walk down George IV Bridge until you see the pub with Bobby's statue outside.
If you're on the City Sightseeing hop on hop off bus, use stop 7. We have a full blog about exploring Edinburgh by bus here.
The kirk and museum are usually open Monday – Friday (10.30-16.30) and Saturday (12.00-16.00), April – October, but check online before visiting as special events can cause this to change.
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