Unregulated ghost hunting and Harry Potter tour groups 'using and abusing' Edinburgh's cemeteries with 'bones coming out of the ground,' sparking council action

Given he has been organising ghost tours in some of Edinburgh’s spookiest graveyards for more than 20 years, you would not expect Jamie Corstorphine to be frightened of anything.

By Chris Green
Saturday, 31st October 2020, 7:00 am
Updated Saturday, 31st October 2020, 10:31 am

But in recent years he has faced an issue that has filled him with a growing sense of unease: the slow but steady destruction of the historic grounds he walks through every day.

An explosion in the popularity of Halloween, ghost hunting TV shows and the arrival of Harry Potter tours to the capital’s graveyards have contributed to the phenomenon.

The increased footfall might not be loud enough to wake the dead, but Corstorphine says it has led to the distressing spectacle of bones literally coming out of the softened earth.

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Old Calton Cemetery

The council is now taking action, proposing a new registration scheme and a formalised code of conduct for tour operators who take groups to visit the city’s cemeteries.

If it is approved at a vote next month. It will see tour operators charged an annual registration fee of £175 and obliged to make an extra donation of 50p per paying customer.

Tour groups visiting a cemetery will also be capped at 36 people, while contactless donation boxes will also be installed at Greyfriars Kirkyard.

Five of the graveyards owned by the council are within Edinburgh’s Unesco World Heritage site, with Canongate, Greyfriars and Old Calton all Category A listed.

Greyfriars Kirkyard

They have grown massively in popularity in recent years, with a survey taken in lockdown suggesting that up to 700,000 people will visit Greyfriars this year alone, despite the Covid restrictions.

Previously, visitors tended to come for the traditional ghost tours or to see the grave of Greyfriars Bobby, the dog who famously refused to leave his owner’s side even in death.

But in recent years the graveyard has also attracted Harry Potter fans, as some of its headstones bear the names of characters including Riddell, McGonagall and Moodie.

Corstorphine, who runs City of the Dead Tours, is backing the planned scheme which he hopes will stop some unscrupulous firms “using and abusing” the graveyards.

“You’ve got these unregulated tour guides standing on graves, leaning against them, leaving their crap everywhere, having no respect for the grounds they’re walking on,” he says.

“It does become a movie set. I once personally stopped a Harry Potter tour coming in that had 120 people on the tour, with one guide.

“Guides cannot control that amount of people in a graveyard to stay on paths. Paths are getting worn away, the grass is getting churned up.

“Of course, with the amount of people who were laid to rest in Greyfriars, the bones do come out of the ground when people start walking across soft ground.

“You end up getting bones handed in, and that’s people’s remains. That’s not on.”

Corstorphine says his tour guides also have to contend with ghost hunting groups taking videos and livestreams, taking inspiration from TV shows such as Most Haunted, which he says have turned the graveyards into a night time “circus”.

Councillor Amy McNeese-Mechan says the aim of the scheme is to ensure that the city’s cemeteries are maintained properly and are not lost as a “space for contemplation”.

She says she has heard of visitors climbing onto monuments and headstones to get a better view.

“I think with some of these larger groups, people think ‘I’ve paid money and I can’t hear this bloke, so I’m going to crawl up on this stone’, which is pretty unfortunate,” she adds.

“It’s just one of the downsides of popularity.”

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