The other day my boss and I were talking about how to deal with jetlag, particularly that first day of a trip. My best tip: be outside as much as possible, somewhere you can walk around. You know, so you won’t be tempted to sit down (or lay down) and rest. Let’s just say that my boss may now think I’m a bit of a freak, because I told her my favorite places to walk around are old graveyards.
In Edinburgh, graveyards were not just a convenient jetlag fighter for me; they were a highlight of the trip. More specifically, one was: Greyfriars Kirkyard.
There are a million things that are interesting about Greyfriars. It’s quite old, having been established in the mid sixteenth century, and its existence is wrapped up in the very history of Edinburgh, from the Great Plague of 1645 to the body snatching epidemic to Covenanting movement. It also plays a role in well-known literature–including the Harry Potter series; several stones within the kirkyard inspired J.K. Rowling’s choice of names.
While all of that is fascinating, it is the Kirkyard’s reputation as one of the most haunted places in the world that ensured I spent a great deal of time there on my visit to Edinburgh. Mr. Pretty and I visited during the day several times, and we also took a special nighttime tour (the City of the Dead Haunted Graveyard Tour).
There are so many things I will remember about Greyfriars that are connected to its supposed haunting; however, before I get to those, here’s a story that isn’t. Mr. Pretty and I visited the Kirk–the small church–that now functions as a Visitor’s Center that stands on the grounds. We were welcomed by a wizened old man who vaguely resembled Reverend Kane from Poltergeist II, except the guy was very sweet and incredibly keen to share the history of the building with everyone who walked through the doors. He asked where we were from and then immediately pointed out the American flag tucked into a corner of the Kirk. The story goes that the flag once hung in the White House and was given to the Kirk to commemorate that the Kirk opened on the same day the Pilgrims allegedly landed in the U.S.: Christmas Day 1620. “And so we’ve always felt a real kinship with America,” the man said.
Given how much the world (rightfully) feels about the current U.S. President, it was one of the nicest things he could have said to put us at ease.
But the Kirkyard is about making people uncomfortable. The topsoil is quite thin there, so it’s not completely uncommon for bones to just pop up through the soil. A ton of people are buried here, but it’s not the folks in pine boxes that are the issue–it’s the thousands of plague victims (500,000, in point of fact) who were randomly and haphazardly interred. You might notice that the kirkyard is a bit higher than the street outside; that’s to do with the number of bodies beneath the ground. And then there are the mortsafes–essentially corpse prisons that prevented body snatching/gravesite desecration.
There are three things about Greyfriars Kirk that make it so scary.
- Covenanter’s Prison. The short and dirty: the Covenanters were Presbyterians who went up against the Scottish monarchy so they could practice their religion; it didn’t go well, and so about 1,200 of the survivors from the final battle were imprisoned at Greyfriars–they were either executed or died of starvation/exposure. What is called the Covenanter’s Prison is off limits to visitors; however, this is only a small section of where the Covenanters were held. When City of the Dead tours started in 1999, the nightly strolls through the kirkyard and the Covenanter’s Prison section began–and so did folks fainting on the tours, as well as people getting scratched and bruised. Tour groups reported smelling something gross and sweet, as well. Eventually the the City opted to close off access to the prison section–except by special guided tour. Point of fact: while I didn’t come away with scratches and bruises, and no one on my tour fainted, I did smell something gross in that section, and I’m the only person who did. So there you go.
Black Mausoleum. Related to alleged haunting/attacks at Covenanter’s Prison is the Black Mausoleum, the final resting place of George Mackenzie–also known as Bluidy Mackenzie, the very brutal judge who presided over the trials of the Covenanters. The mausoleum is just twenty or thirty feet away from the Covenanter’s Prison section. Right around the time the attacks started in the Covenanter’s Prison (and this may be the catalyst), a homeless man broke into the mausoleum on a stormy night, seeking shelter. Unfortunately, he fell through the floor and ran screaming for his life–and since that time there’s been poltergeist activity reported.
- Many of the graves in the kirkyard butt up directly against the houses and buildings that surround it. Let’s just say that I would dearly love to live in one of them, and I would simultaneously be scared to death. What’s interesting is that those stories are not part of the tour stories–which makes a certain amount of sense. Neighbors have been complaining for years that the nighttime tours bring unwelcome noise to the neighborhood, and I’m sure they don’t want random strangers knocking on their doors, asking them questions and begging to do paranormal investigations on their homes. Or, perhaps there are no stories. Perhaps there are no hauntings at all. One never knows, eh?
What is certain is that the kirkyard is gorgeous and interesting–and Mr. Pretty and I would have visited, regardless of whether there were ghost stories associated with it. And not just because it makes a good jetlag cure.