Call me biased redhead bastard, but Edinburgh is one of my favourite cities. I’m a fan of the Scots as well. Mainly because they’re big skirt wearing gingers, but also because they display a unique mixture of depression and comedic genius. They’re the absolute masters of self-mockery. While Flanders keeps on yapping about that one battle it won 700 years ago, Scotland happily ridicules its own miserable past. The country lends itself perfectly to tall tales, and Edinburgh isn’t an exception. Let your imagination run wild in the old town and you’ll find yourself back in the dark ages in no time.
“Call me biased redhead bastard, but Edinburgh is one of my favourite cities. I’m a fan of the Scots as well. Mainly because they’re big skirt wearing gingers, but also because they display a unique mixture of depression and comedic genius.”
The Scottish capital was home to a whole range of great minds throughout the centuries, but for the majority of people this wasn’t exactly the place to be in the good old days. Due to a severe lack of space, layer upon layer of housing was built on top of each other. This caused the elite to live right on top the heads of the poor in some places, who had to find shelter in damp vaults where they slept in an endless river of rich guy turds. This is probably why it took ninety more years to get rid of the plague in Edinburgh compared to the rest of Europe (or so they’ve told me, I’m not a historian). I can’t think of many things more depressing than dying of the bubonic plague while floating in someone else’s shit. In short, Edinburgh’s history is a gloomy one, and behind every other corner there’s a incredible story to be found. Which makes it – all past sorrow aside – the perfect destination for my blog! Off we go, laddie!
1. Get molested by a poltergeist
Edinburgh is a great setting for ghost stories. Black Hart Entertainment has been organising ghost tours through the old town for years now. They’ll take you to the South Bridge Vaults – the dark, shit-stained spaces mentioned above – and to Greyfriars Kirkyard: an old cemetery in the city centre. In the 17th century, more than 1,000 protestants were tortured and killed here by Lord Advocate George Mackenzie. When this man died a while later, he of course went straight to hell, after which they happily buried him in the same graveyard as his victims. Since a drunken hobo fell through his tomb in the nineties and some punks took off with his skull – or since they found out there was money to be made with ghost stories – Bluidy Mackenzie’s spirit rose again. He’s been bothering visitors ever since, breathing down their necks like a dirty uncle or scratching them as they pass.
“The guides are born storytellers and create the perfect atmosphere to suck you right into their story. Soon you start doubting your senses. Would there be some truth in the legends after all?”
Obviously these things never happen when you book a tour yourself – such a weird coincidence isn’t it – but the nightly walk is an experience nonetheless. The guides are born storytellers and create the perfect atmosphere to suck you right into the story. Soon you start doubting your senses. Some dude will start making stupid jokes because he’s nervous, and another will stay suspiciously close to the guide. Would there be some truth in the legends after all? Who knows. Does this mean a grown-ass man should go to bed with the nightlight on afterwards? Of course not! I just wanted to read something before dozing off. Don’t judge me. www.blackhart.uk.com
2. Learn about body snatching
The more observant visitor will notice there are steel cages over some of the older graves in Greyfriars. They were not used to keep the zombies in their coffins, but to keep the grave robbers out of them. Edinburgh had a popular medical faculty back in the day, and it needed cadavers for public dissections. Since the demand for them far outweighed the supply, the so called Resurrection Men came into existence: grave robbers digging up fresh corpses to secretly sell to the university.
Two among them took it one step further. William Burke and William Hare (Willie & Willie for friends and family) started murdering poor people to get their hands on some extra fresh bodies. When their little scheme was discovered, Hare turned crown witness against Burke, who was promptly hanged. His body – I bet he didn’t see that one coming – was subsequently gifted to the university. The man’s death mask, skeleton and a notebook made out of his skin (yup) are still on display in the Surgeon’s Hall Museum. You can attend an authentic virtual autopsy here as well, and you can visit a number of macabre but interesting medical collections: from old surgical torture tools to diseased organs in formaldehyde and weird, grotesquely deformed poor bastards from a long time ago. Perfect for a day out with the kids. www.museum.rcsed.ac.uk
3. Have lunch on a boneyard
Princes Street Gardens is a beautiful park in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle, connecting the old city with the New Town on the other side. On the ten sunny days of the year it is full of happy picnickers and joggers, desperately looking for some colour after another year of dreary weather left them with translucent skin. A couple of hundred years ago, they’d be hanging out elsewhere. This whole park used to be Nor Loch: a smelly, dirty pond filled with a whole city’s waste. The Loch was one of the most popular places to kill yourself and the plague, poverty and the ever present stench made for plenty of candidates.
“On the ten sunny days of the year Princes Street Gardens is full of happy picnickers, desperately looking for some colour after another year of dreary weather left them with translucent skin.”
It was also used for executions by drowning and for so called witch-ducking: a practice straight out of Monty Python meant to find out whether or not someone was a witch. Some poor girl was hurled into the lake with a millstone round her neck, and if she stayed afloat she was a witch and was immediately killed. Waterproof system indeed. Everyone eating a sandwich in this park is basically doing so on top off the moldy bones of several generations of unlucky dead people. Have another one, they’re tasty!
4. Fool your stupid senses
Camera Obscura is a small museum close to the castle gates. When I first visited Edinburgh I ignored it – didn’t expect it to be very interesting – but last year a sudden rainstorm chased me in. I was pleasantly surprised. There’s an actual camera obscura hidden in the top of the tower, projecting a live image of the city onto a round table via a system of lenses and mirrors. It’s the assortment of illusions on the other floors where the real fun is to be had though. You can go through a whole bunch of weird visual tests and you can check out a collection of moving holograms – Boy George is on there, next to Dracula and the Wolfman. On another floor there’s a whole mirror maze to enjoy, as well as a psychedelic tunnel that will make you lose your balance as if on a late night bender. This place will easily keep you entertained for a couple of hours on a rainy day. Not everything has to be spooky in Edinburgh. Although an ethereal Boy George winking at you isn’t for the faint hearted either. www.camera-obscura.co.uk
5. Eat a deep-fried Mars bar
A couple of years ago, Facebook told me the Scots had beaten their chubby American brethren in the never ending race to find the greasiest, most unhealthy fast food snack imaginable. Someone in Aberdeen had had the godless idea of covering a Mars bar in batter and deep-frying it. A legend – and a new wave of diabetes – was born. “I just have to try it”, I told myself when I found out the kebab place next to my hostel had some on offer. “Yeeees?” the friendly Indian dude behind the counter asked when he saw me loitering near the entrance. “Well… I guess I’m going to try… the deep-fried Mars bar…maybe?” I replied as if I didn’t really want one. Five minutes later the deal was done and I had already taken my prize back to the hostel room, where I could eat it in private and without shame. It looked like it would give me an instant heart attack, but after one bite I knew the terrible truth: the idiot who invented this is an unsung genius. It’s literally one of the best desserts I ever had. Buy it, try it, and end up broken and ashamed because you liked it so much. Five stars!
“The idiot who invented this is an unsung genius. It’s literally one of the best desserts I ever had.”
There, that’s everything I have to say about Edinburgh. Did I forget your favourite haunted spot? Have any further suggestions or inappropriate questions? Scottish and want to beat my face in for insulting your glorious city? Please go nuts in the comments below.
If you’re looking for some slightly more family friendly spooky stuff, I recommend the Edinburgh Dungeon. This is a high-tech haunted house full of actors and special effects, close to the train station. Don’t take anyone under ten years of age with you though, unless you want to spend weeks sleeping in the same bed as your traumatized toddler. www.thedungeons.com
I stayed in the Edinburgh Backpackers Hostel in Cockburn Street, right next to the Royal Mile. They gave me a separate room at Fleshmarket Close, a tiny alleyway branching off from the main road. Perfect for anyone traveling on a budget. www.edinburghbackpackershostel.com