Edinburgh. Who doesn’t like a little visit to Scotland’s gorgeous capital? With its historic buildings, cultural attractions and electric art scene. But do you know? At the heart of the old town of Edinburgh, there is a different kind of attraction. A darker kind. Its name, Greyfriars Kirkyard.
Greyfriars Kirk is a graveyard made famous by the author J.K Rowling after she reportedly used the graveyard for inspiration for her triumphant novel: Harry Potter. However, in the latter years of the nineties, Greyfriers Kirk began to become famous for a different reason, as reports of paranormal activity at the graveyard began to pour in. Today the graveyard is reportedly the home of the world’s most documented poltergeist. George Mackenzie. Sit back and relax as I take you on a journey into the dark and mysterious world of Greyfriars Kirk.
I knew then. That this day wasn’t going to be like any other day.
As I made my way towards Greyfriars the sky was getting darker and darker, like the shadow of advancing death. I peered through the gates and stared at the graveyard. I knew then that this day wasn’t going to be like any other day.
As I walked around the graveyard I could see the place had a lustful eye for tourists, as legions of Harry Potter fans from across the globe had descended upon the grave of Thomas Riddell. A name made famous by the author J.K Rowling, in the Harry Potter series.
I wanted to know more about the place that inspired some of the names of the most loved characters in cinematic history. A place that is rich in history and mystic that has captivated the imaginations of some of the greatest writers of the modern age. What is it about this graveyard that caught J.K Rowling’s eye? And why has it been named “one of the most haunted locations on earth?”
“We are dealing with not one very active ghost…but hundreds of them”
“I for one do not believe that if there is a ghost, energy, a presence, a consciousness here, that it is that of George Mackenzie. I think it’s much more likely that we are dealing with not one very active ghost…but hundreds of them. “
The tour guide told me as he proceeded to lead the way towards the Covenanters prison. I stood for a moment or so, staring at the prison. Curiosity was pulling me closer, but fear was keeping me still. Oh come on Michelle; I thought to myself, there’s no such thing as ghosts. That was the day: on the 23rd of April 2019, that my journey into the dark and unsavory past of Greyfriars Kirk truly began.
The year is 1562 and Mary Queen of Scots has just granted the lands of Greyfriars Kirk over to the town council to be used for a burial ground. With Charles the 1st becoming king of Scotland in 1625, the religious peace that had existed for some time was about to be shattered. Charles, the 1st, believed in the divine right of kings and began to make unpopular decisions that were to bring about a change to the Scottish church so that it was more in line with the Church of England.
In 1637 religious dissidence had reached a deadly peak, when the king introduced a common prayer book that was to be used throughout Scotland, abandoning legal agreements previously made by King James the v1/1 to uphold the beliefs of Presbyterians and the religious laws of the land.
“The years 1680 to 1688 would eventually become known as the Killing Time”
To defy King Charles was considered treason, and so the covenanters: a protestant sect of the Scottish church began to have meetings discussing how they were going to prevail against this religious threat. In 1638 the Covenanters met at Greyfriars Kirk to sign the National Covenant, a declaration to uphold the religious laws previously agreed by King James the 1st. The declaration was signed and then sent throughout the country for people to sign. This act of defiance against the crown would lead to decades of religious turmoil throughout the kingdom. The years 1680 to 1688 would eventually become known as “The Killing Time” due to the amount of religious persecution that happened between that time period.
As I sat down with Jamie: manager of the City of the Dead, I was eager to find out more about the unruly past of Greyfriars Kirk, why has it got a reputation for being haunted, and who is George Mackenzie? The alleged poltergeist who haunts these grounds.
Who was George Mackenzie? And does he haunt these grounds?
“Sir George Mackenzie was the king’s advocate, he worked his whole life in law, and he was given the job to cleanse these people, make them see the error of their ways. Some of the things that were done in his name got him the nickname bloody Mackenzie and in the sixteen hundred that was no easy feat to get. He was renowned for getting the orders to capture the Covenanters. He would get them in their house, and he would disembowel them and have them hanged from the door frames, that would be a warning.
“After the battle of Bothwell Bridge, the movement was falling apart. After the battle, there were 1,200 Covenants left alive and they were brought to Greyfriars. They were held in the Covenanters prison in extreme weather exposed to the elements. They were forced to lie face down on the ground. Out of 1,200, only 200 were left alive.
“Sir George Mackenzie died in 1661; he was buried here. It is believed that there was a curse put upon him: saying his soul would never rest as long as it was at Greyfriars, because of the atrocities that he governed over.”
I questioned him some more eager to find out more about the ghostly activity. “A homeless man broke into George Mackenzie’s tomb, he got in through a gate at the back. He fell through to a chamber below. You have to remember at Greyfriars the bodies have been stacked up over and over again, that is what he fell into.” He then showed me a picture of a pile of skeletons that had been recovered from the grounds.
“The homeless man got out he was very shaken… Not long after: that is when the first incident happened. This is why it’s been attributed to George Mackenzie. Ever since then people have had scratches, knockouts. Jan has been documenting every case since 1999 of assaults and attacks. “
Author and owner of the City of the Dead: Jan Henderson would later confirm this for me when he told me: “there have been stories about the place being haunted as far back as the early 18th century. However modern sightings began in 1999. I’ve been collecting them ever since. I have hundreds of eyewitness accounts and dozens of photographs.”
“In January of the year, 2000 things came to a tragic climax”
Walking towards the Covenanters prison my tour guide Grant began to tell me more about the graveyard “the council locked the gate because the ghost was attracting unsavory attention. In January of the year, 2000 things came to a tragic climax. The media recruited a spiritualist minister named Colin Grant to perform an exorcism in front of the world’s assembled press. He performed a ritual for an hour before emerging looking very pale and shaky. He said he would have to come back another time and finish the job afraid that whatever was here might kill him. He got very sick in the days that followed and then he died.”
Jan Henderson would also later confirm this story when he told me “the minister who tried to exorcise the poltergeist. He told me and a reporter he had never experienced anything like it and feared the fight might kill him. He died a few weeks later.”
Dr. Neil Dagnall, a professor in cognitive psychology would later tell me about Context Effects and how they can influence a person’s perception. “Places have a history of being haunted; they look, smell and feel like a haunted house should. Or in more modern settings there is a narrative to support the assertion that the building/place is haunted. In such environments, believers will be primed to experience the paranormal. This is also true if there is a continuous flow of ambiguous stimuli.” He also told me how physical factors such as electromagnetic energy, disorientation can also “influence people’s behaviour and motivation to act.”
As I continued walking through the graveyard with my tour guide by my side a familiar name jumped out at me. Thomas Riddell. A name that inspired one of the most notorious characters in modern-day literature. A character that encapsulates the very essence of evil. Not much is known about the real Thomas Riddell: other than he died in Edinburgh on the 24th of November, 1806: aged 72.
One thing we do know for sure is that the spell blinding, captivating dog Greyfriars Bobby did exist. “The family who lived across the graveyard… They would let their kids play with the dog” he looked up and pointed to a picture on the wall” that’s a life drawing. “I looked up and was shocked to see a picture of Bobby with the date on it.
Greyfriars Kirk is a disturbingly fascinating place: I thought to myself as I continued walking towards the prison. I felt a feeling of sadness and desolation, imagining the pain and suffering the Covenanters experienced here. Tortured and executed: for wanting to be free of religious suppression. My heart felt heavy as I looked through the gates to the prison. As I approached the prison, I stood for a moment or so. Staring at it. My head was awash with all the gory details of George Mackenzie and his ghostly, mischievous ways. Curiosity was pulling me closer… But fear was keeping me still. Oh come on Michelle: I thought to myself, there’s no such thing as ghosts.
“Sudden sense of fear ran through me like the chill of an icy wind”
So there I was, in the Covenanters Prison. A sudden sense of fear ran through me like the chill of an icy wind. The darkness only adding to the feeling of mystique and mystery. I stood waiting. Waiting for a sound, waiting for a touch, waiting for something to convince me of the unbelievable. I felt nothing other than a deep dark well of sorrow as I looked around me and imagined the horrors that happened here. As I walked towards the gates I suddenly noticed at the corner of my eye a Latin inscription. So beautifully carved. The inscription read: Non-Omnis Moriah, not everything dies. I looked up at the sky and reflected on everything I learned about Greyfriars Kirk. Maybe not everything dies, after all, I thought to myself as I faded away into the darkness.
Today the Covenanters prison remains a historic site. A reminder of a harrowing religious struggle that once took place here. Whatever may or may not be at Greyfriars, we can only leave to our imagination. But in the meantime… do you believe in ghosts?