Is Greyfriars Cemetery the world’s most haunted graveyard?

Michelle Woods


Edinburgh. Who doesn’t like a visit to Scotland’s gorgeous capital? With its historic attractions and exciting art scene. But beyond the gothic buildings and daily bustle of everyday life, there are the quiet rumours that fill the streets with stories of witches, curses and poltergeists. The kind of old wives’ tales that could seduce the imagination and leave you scared to go to bed at night. In recent years there has been one story that has captivated the imaginations of people from all over the world, as reports of paranormal activity at Greyfriars Cemetery began to pour in. Today the graveyard is allegedly the home of the world’s most documented poltergeist: Sir George Mackenzie. Who was George Mackenzie? And what events have taken place at Greyfriars for it to be named one of the world’s most haunted locations? And more importantly, do you believe in ghosts? 

The chattering whispers of ghostly events and unexplained activity at Greyfriars finds its roots in the tragic and unsavoury past of the cemetery. Back in 1637, it became the centre-ground in a religious struggle that took place after King Charles the 1st introduced a standard prayer book, that abandoned legal agreements previously made by King James the 1st 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 Church of Scotland began to have meetings discussing how they were going to prevail against this religious threat. In 1638 the Covenanters met at Greyfriars Cemetery to sign the National Covenant, a declaration to uphold the religious laws previously agreed by King James the 1st. 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 period. 

Jamie Corstorphine, manager of the City of the Dead Tours, spoke of the turbulent past of Greyfriars Cemetery and its connection to the alleged poltergeist Sir George Mackenzie. “Mackenzie was the King’s advocate. He worked his whole life in law, and he was given the job to cleanse the Covenanters, 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 hung from the door frames, that would be a warning.

“Sir George Mackenzie died in 1661; he was buried here. It is believed there was a curse put upon him”

“After the battle of Bothwell Bridge, the movement was falling apart. 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.”

Jamie began to explain how reports of paranormal activity began to pour-in after a homeless man broke into the tomb of George Mackenzie. “He got in through a gate at the back. He fell through to a chamber below. At Greyfriars, the bodies have been stacked up, and the man fell into a pit of corpses.

“The homeless man got out. He was very shaken. Not long after the incident, we had our first report of paranormal activity. This is why it’s been attributed to George Mackenzie. Ever since then, people have had scratches and knockouts, people have collapsed, left the graveyard with burn marks that have appeared on their arms and back. A few tourists have left screaming, claiming that they saw the ghost of a man. Jan Henderson has documented every case since 1999 of assaults and attacks.”

 Jan Henderson, the owner of the tours, who has recorded the claims of paranormal activity in the cemetery, said: “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”

“The council locked the gate because the ghost was attracting unsavoury 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 died a few weeks later.”

Dr Neil Dagnall, a professor of cognitive psychology, explains how Context Effects can influence a person’s perception and can lead to a person believing they have experienced something paranormal. “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 goes on to explain how most accounts of ghost-related experiences can typically be dismissed and explained by looking at psychological and physical factors. “Attributions is the idea that people observe ambiguous phenomena and then label them in accordance with their prevailing worldview/belief system. In this context, believing in ghosts facilitates the search for confirmatory evidence and the dismissal of conflicting information.

“Social Contagion is the view that people are influenced by others to believe something paranormal has occurred. For instance, Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures will feed off each other’s experience to confirm the belief that something unusual has happened. Of course, programmes such as these are for entertainment purposes and hype up occurrences for the sake of spectacle – but they illustrate the potential dynamics well. One person notices something, this heightens awareness and triggers experiences in another person.”

“We are dealing with not one very active ghost… But hundreds of them”

 It was a frosty April night as the tour guide, Grant proceeded to lead the way towards the Covenanters Prison. “I for one do not believe that if there is a ghost, an 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,” said the guide.

As the tour guide approached the gates to the prison, he turned around to stare at the crowd, a look of excitement crept across his face as he began to tell them about the reports of paranormal activity. “Since records started there have been over a 1000 violent poltergeist attacks inside the prison. To qualify as a violent poltergeist attack, the incident must have been one or two things; the first is to leave a mark on your skin that you feel being put there at the time, scratching and hitting sensations are the most common. The second is to have rendered you completely unconscious.” 


The tourists stood for a moment, their faces a mixture between fear and curiosity as they whispered amongst themselves. The darkness and the shadows of the trees hitting the ground like a dark ray of sunshine only added to the atmosphere of awe and mystery. As the tourists walked through the gates of the prison, it was evident by the hesitant steps they took that the gory details of George Mackenzie and his ghostly, mischievous ways had made them nervous about entering.

“They listened intently to the tour guide as he began to tell them about the gruesome persecution that once took place at the prison”

Inside the Covenanters Prison, some of the tourists were eager to explore their surroundings, while others stood as if they were waiting for something to happen, waiting for a sound? A touch maybe? A spooky event to occur that might convince them of the paranormal? As the night went on, it was clear that any trepidation the visitors had earlier in the evening, had melted away to a pleasant calm. They listened intently to the tour guide as he began to tell them about the gruesome persecution that once took place at the prison. As the visitors began to leave the cemetery and pour into the dark, cold streets of Edinburgh, the unforgiving silence that encompassed the night, was the perfect soundtrack to a frightfully compelling night.

Beyond the quiet rumours that fill the streets of Edinburgh with stories of witches, curses and poltergeists, is the tragic true story of a harrowing religious struggle that once took place at Greyfriars. Today the Covenanters Prison remains a historic site, a reminder of the past that continues to breathe life in the imaginations of people today. Whatever may or may not be at Greyfriars; we can only leave to our imagination. But in the meantime, do you believe in ghosts? 



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