Edinburgh not only is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe; It’s also one of the most atmospheric. The old town is filled to the brim with stories and legends. You’ll hear them all on various entertaining ghost tours. Trot Op! listed the spookiest places in the Scottish capital, while visiting the rest of Edinburgh’s main sights at the same time.
Call me biased as a fellow ginger, but Edinburgh is one of my favorite European cities. I’m also a fan of the Scots themselves. This not only because they’re redheads who like to wear the occasional skirt, but also because of their unique mix of depression and hilarity. They’re the masters of self-depreciation. While Flanders keeps whining about that one medieval battle we once won 700 years ago, people in Scotland heartily mock their 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.
Ghost tours in Edinburgh: 8 spooky spots for a Scottish city trip
Historically, Edinburgh is a city of two faces. A whole bunch of great writers and thinkers learned their craft here, but for the majority of the population it wasn’t exactly the most pleasant place to be at the time. 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 of course didn’t exactly work wonders for their general health. Because of the horrendous living conditions, the black plague took ninety more years to get rid of in Edinburgh compared to the rest of Europe. And if there’s one thing worse than dying of the bubonic plague, it’s dying of it while you’re drowning in someone else’s poop.
“There are great stories to be found behind almost every corner of Edinburgh. You’ll discover them all on one of many exciting ghost tours the city has on offer.”
Edinburgh has obviously been meticulously cleaned up in recent times, and the historic centre in particular is a pleasure to wander through. The term Old Town can be taken quite literally here: everything feels ancient and heavy, but also incredibly moody and organically built – a whole network of dark alleys or closes runs down from High Street. Princes Street on the other hand, is the dividing line between the old and the New Town, and the contrast could not have been greater. Everything was carefully planned in the 18th and 19th century in this newer part of town: large neoclassical buildings in Georgian style, lots of green space and broad, straight streets. Edinburgh’s present is much neater than its past, but history still haunts the streets. Behind every corner lurks some dark legend. We’ll discover them all together. Off we go, laddies!
1. City of the Dead Tours: a ghost tour through Damnation Alley
Several organizations in Edinburgh offer ghost tours, but I had most fun on the City of the Dead Tours. Their walks were carefully researched and written out by J. A. Henderson: an author who wrote more than ten books about the city and its history. On the first of their two tours, you’ll head underground into the South Bridge Vaults to explore Damnation Alley. These are the dark poop vaults I talked about in my intro. Originally, they served as warehouses for the shops on top of the bridge, but because the limestone they used in construction was far too porous, it was far too humid in the vaults for actual storage. They were soon abandoned, but this didn’t last long. After a while they were reclaimed by a variety of illegal distilleries, drug dens and makeshift brothels, who all moved in together with a whole army of hungry homeless people. Absolute, shocking misery was the main result. Life expectancy of the average new “tenant”: apparently barely a year.
“The City of the Dead tour guides are such natural storytellers, you eventually start wondering whether or not all the epic stories they bombard you with could actually hold a grain of truth after all.”
Today, the South Bridge Vaults are considered one of the most haunted places in the world – and several people are said to have had paranormal encounters down there. This is of course nonsense, but because the guides are such natural storytellers, you start to wonder whether it all might not be true after all. During my first visit, I was accompanied on the walk by a group of English rugby players boldly laughing about what was to come. When we were in the vaults listening to a story about an entity they call the Watcher – he apparently blows people in the ear occasionally – the last candle suddenly blew out leaving us in pitch darkness. Everyone immediately turned a lot quieter – well, well.
2. Greyfriars Kirkyard: taunt a poltergeist in Covenanters Prison
The original City of the Dead Tour is not the underground one, but the one to Greyfriars Kirkyard. This is a very old cemetery in the centre of town, where people come to eat their sandwiches during the day. At the entrance you’ll see the famous statue of Greyfriars Bobby: a terrier who kept guarding his owner’s grave for 14 years after he died, and eventually was buried here himself. Greyfriars Kirkyard has another, much darker past. In the 17th century, more than 1,000 protestants were tortured and executed in Covenanters Prison – an enclosed part of the cemetery – by Lord Advocate George Mackenzie. When he died some years later, he was merrily buried in the same cemetery. 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 tours – Bluidy Mackenzie’s spirit rose again. He’s been harassing visitors ever since, breathing down their necks like some dirty uncle or scratching them as they pass by. Of course, such things never happen when I book a tour myself – such bad luck I have – but the nightly walk is still a unique experience in itself. The story is told in a fantastic way, and the moonlit cemetery gives everything an eery vibe. You’ll soon start doubting your own senses. Was that the wind? Did I feel that just now? Wonderfully spooky. Did I have to sleep with the night light on as a grown-ass man afterwards? Of course not! I just wanted to quickly read something before bed, that’s all.
“Of course, all these paranormal things never happen when I book a tour myself – such bad luck I have – but the nightly walk through the moonlit cemetery is a unique experience nonetheless.”
Edinburgh has two other spooky locations that are more than worth seeing:
–The Real Mary King’s Close: this is a historic alley now underground because the Royal Exchange was built on top of it. You’ll be led through all kinds of episodes from the city’s history by a guide in a medieval costume. Highlight: the room where a Japanese medium once made everyone believe she’d talked to the ghost of a child named Annie. Since then, guests have been leaving toys behind, so there is now a creepy mountain of empty-eyed dolls staring at you from the dark.
–The Edinburgh Dungeon: this is more like a real haunted house. You get to see a myriad of historical horror stories, told by actors and amazingly decent special effects in different rooms. Don’t take any children under the age of ten or so with you. They will cry, guaranteed.
3. Museums in Edinburgh: body snatching at the Surgeons’ Hall Museum
In Greyfriars Kirkyard, steel cages were put over many of the old tombstones. They were meant to keep the bodies in the actual coffin. Not because they were plagued by zombies or vampires but rather because the University of Edinburgh had a popular medical faculty at the time. They needed a regular supply of cadavers for public dissections. Since the demand was greater than the supply, the so-called Resurrection Men came into being: grave robbers digging up fresh corpses to secretly sell to the university. Two of them took it a horrible step further. William Burke and William Hare (Willie & Willie for friends and family) went on a killing spree in the poorest neighbourhoods to get some extra bodies – preferably young, blond and voluptuous: the crowd needed to be entertained. When their vile scheme was finally discovered, Hare testified against Burke who was promptly hanged. His body – bet he didn’t see that coming – was donated to the university. His death mask, skeleton and a notebook made from his skin (yes this is legit) can still be marvelled at in the Surgeon’s Hall Museum. This interesting place also offers a virtual autopsy as they were performed back in the day. You’ll find a number of sinister but fascination medical collections as well: from old surgical torture instruments to organs in formaldehyde and all kinds of cadavers showcasing some of the more grotesque known abnormalities. Perfect for a day out with the kids, right?
“In Greyfriars Kirkyard, steel cages were put over many of the old tombstones. They were meant to keep the bodies in the actual coffin. The University of Edinburgh had a popular medical faculty at the time, so fresh cadavers for public autopsies quickly became a valuable resource.”
Edinburgh is a treasure trove for people who love museums. I’ll list the main ones I won’t discuss further down: the National Museum of Scotland (where the taxidermized remains of Dolly the sheep are displayed), the National Gallery, the Royal Yacht Britannia (the Queen’s former yacht), the Scotch Whisky Experience, Dynamic Earth (science museum), the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, the Museum of Edinburgh and the Museum of Childhood (toy museum). These are sure to keep you busy for a good while.
4. Princes Street Gardens: have your picknick on a boneyard
Princes Street Gardens is a beautifully landscaped park in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle, connecting the Old Town with the New Town across the street. On the ten sunny days of the year, it’s full of cheerful picnickers and joggers, desperately looking for some colour after another year of dreadful weather left them with translucent skin A couple of hundred years ago, they’d have to go look for another place to hang out in. 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. In addition, the lake was also used for executions by drowning and for so-called witch-ducking: a practice straight out of Monty Python which was used to determine whether someone was a witch. The poor women were yeeted into the water tied to a millstone. If they were innocent, they would drown and all was fine and dandy; if they floated, they were obviously witches and were promptly killed. Waterproof methodology indeed. In short: if you decided to enjoy a sandwich here, you’ll do so upon the decayed remains of several generations of the poorest wretches. Bon appetit!
5. The Royal Mile: from Edinburgh Castle to Holyroodhouse
Enough spooky stuff for now: time to take a look at the rest of the city. The Royal Mile is by far the busiest pedestrian street in Edinburgh. Actually, the Mile consists of five separate streets merged into each other, connecting Edinburgh Castle to Holyroodhouse exactly one Scottish mile away. Edinburgh Castle is a magnificent fortress perched on a high rock and one of the world’s most iconic castles. It’s the most popular attraction in Scotland and inside is a museum with rooms full of plate mail armours and the UK’s oldest crown jewels (no, these are not King Charles’ junk, but funny joke bro). Holyroodhouse Palace on the other hand, serves as the official residence of the British monarch when he resides in Scotland. Think beautiful gardens, grand halls full of portraits and outside the ruins of an old abbey. Between those two locations, you’ll walk almost two kilometers past stately buildings full of shops and restaurants, tour groups and street performers. Along the way, you’ll also pass St. Giles’ Cathedral. This is an impressive Gothic church with a crown on the tower. Most ghost tours depart from here, and the Heart of Midlothian lies facing it. These are a bunch of cobblestones in the shape of a heart, and having a good spit on them apparently brings good fortune. Don’t get too romantic about it by the way: in past times, this was a public execution spot. If you’re looking for a beautiful view of the entire city and you’re willing to put some serious effort into it, you can make the four kilometre climb to Arthur’s Seat from the Holyroodhouse gardens. This is an extinct volcano more than 200m in height.
6. Calton Hill: a postcard view on Edinburgh for lazier climbers
If you prefer a less intensive climb, you can also waddle up to Calton Hill at the end of Princes Street. This is a lower hill on which an entire UNESCO World Heritage Site was built. The National Monument that stands here is based on the Athens Parthenon. Edinburgh was seen as the Athens of the North in the 19th century, after all. Unfortunately it was never finished, so I wouldn’t go too far with that comparison. Just twelve separate columns can be nice too, I guess. Apart from this Scottish laziness, you do get the best postcard view of Edinburgh from Calton Hill. In the foreground is the Dugalt Stewart Monument; the famous Balmoral Hotel clock tower and the Scott Monument spire stand a little further away, and in the far background the imposing battlements of Edinburgh Castle overlook the surrounding area. It doesn’t get any better than this. Edinburgh truly is a gorgeous looking city.
7. Camera Obscura: fool all of your senses at once
*All pictures by: Camera Obscura & World of Illusions.
Camera Obscura is an atypical museum near Edinburgh Castle. I randomly walked in a couple of years ago, to shelter from a sudden rain shower, and I for sure did not regret this decision. On the top of the building’s little tower is a real camera obscura that uses a bunch of mirrors and lenses to project live images of the city onto a round table. However, it’s the collection of fantastic illusions on the other floors that I found most entertaining. From a whole barrage of strange visual tests and a collection of moving celebrity holograms to a mirror maze and a psychedelic tunnel that makes you lose your balance as if you were drunk. This will keep you busy for a good couple of hours on any rainy day. Not everything has to be spooky in Edinburgh, although a holographic green Boy George suddenly winking at you is not for the faint of mind either.
8. Edinburgh fast food: try a fried Mars bar
A few years ago, I read on Facebook the Scots had outsmarted the Americans in their search for the greasiest fast food snack on the planet. Someone had come up with the deranged idea of covering a Mars bar in batter, frying it and then shoving it into their own face. A legend – and a new wave of diabetes – was born. I should try this, I thought when I saw the kebab shop next to my hostel offered them. Slightly embarrassed ordered one and five minutes later I’d snuck the loot into my room so that I could indulge my appetite in total isolation. It looked like one bite could cost me years of my life, but after a few seconds the naked truth became clear to me. The idiot who invented this is an unsung genius. Honestly one of the best desserts I ever had the privilege to taste. Buy it and try it. You’re going to shake your head in disgust wondering where it all went wrong in that life of yours, but it’ll be just as tasty nonetheless.
Well, that’s about all I have to say about Edinburgh. Did I forget your favorite haunted spot? Do you have any other questions? Let yourself go in the comments below. Fancy some other city trips? Read my articles about Singapore, Oslo, Lodz, Porto or Warsaw.