In the last of our look at Edinburgh’s Most haunted we explore the story of the ghostly grave dubbed ‘the scariest place on Earth’.
It is a secluded spot in heart of the Old Town that acts as a resting place for the great and good of the Capital past.
To thousands of tourists who flock through its imposing gates every year, Greyfriars Kirk is the place where a little Skye terrier showed a heartbreaking loyalty to its owner, staying by his grave every night.
To thousands more it is the home of the master of evil – but while many flock to see the grave of Thomas Ridell, who gave his name to the Dark Lord Voldemort in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books, the Kirkyard is also the spot where a phantom described as “the world’s most recorded poltergeist” resides.
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Situated at the back of the Kirkyard, the Black Mausoleum is an imposing sight, even on a clear sunny day. Its weathered stone arches are scratched by withered stems, the faces of its ornate decorations partly worn away to create an unsettling picture. And the solid steel chain, held in place with a large padlock, seems very out of place
The chain, however, is not to keep in the dead, but to keep out the living – and the story of how it came to be there is one almost as terrifying as the force it supposedly unleashed.
The Mausoleum is the grave of Sir George Mackenzie, a former Lord Advocate whose persecution of the Covenanters in the 17th century earned him the nickname Bluidy Mackenzie.
An educated man, Mackenzie was also ruthless in his treatment of the Covenanters and hundreds of them were tortured and killed, their bodies laid to rest in the site of the Covenanter’s prison – a stone’s throw from the Mausoleum where Mackenzie himself was later buried.
And in 1998 something happened which is said to have disturbed Mackenzie from his eternal slumber and unleashed him on the unwary souls who venture into the Kirkyard.
It was, the story goes, a stormy night when a homeless man looking for shelter found himself outside the Black Mausoleum, and seeing nowhere else to go, broke the simple lock on the door and went inside.
There he found coffins, belonging to some of Mackenzie’s relatives, and he supposedly broke one open out of boredom or a morbid curiosity. Then, suddenly, the floor beneath him gave way and he fell down into a pit. The space beneath the mausoleum contained bodies as well - plague victims who had been dumped and covered over as a quick means of disposal.
Despite their age, due to their having been sealed up the bodies were still in a state of decomposition. It’s hard to imagine the kind of terror he would have felt as he tried to clamber out of that hole, away from the grasping skeletal arms and rotted flesh of the dead. And when finally he emerged, he fled from the scene, barging past a man out walking his dog and leaving him terrified.
There was outrage at the news that a grace had been desecrated - but then people started to get hurt.
A few days later a woman looking at the Mausoleum was said to have been “blasted back by a cold force”. Another woman was found unconscious next to the Mausoleum, her neck covered with bruises suggesting someone had tried to strangle her. Amid the growing unease, the City Council took action, sealing up the Mausoleum, and it remains locked to this day.
But locks are not enough to keep the undead at bay.
“There have been hundreds of incidents,” admits volunteer guide Willie Telford. “People have been bitten, scratched, kicked, pushed, they get burn marks, they feel sick, they feel cold. It’s George Mackenzie.”
Coming to the end of his 13th year working at Greyfriars, Willie started not long after the incident with the homeless man, and so has heard more stories than most about the poltergeist supposedly roaming the grounds.
“The reason why he haunts this kirkyard is, I think, his conscience for the way he treated the Covenanters,” says Willie. “It’s a terrible thing to persecute people for their religion, yet it still goes on today. Mackenzie was Lord Advocate who presided over five being hung in the Grassmarket, and there were so many others during what’s now called ‘The Killing Time’.
“The homeless man was just looking for shelter but he couldn’t have picked a worse spot, and I think when he awoke Mackenzie the ghost decided to torment the Covenanter’s prison.”
The prison now is another part of the cemetery, sealed off from the public though opened for certain tour groups. A narrow path, surrounded on all sides by graves, it is known as ‘The Street of Death’ and as Willie admits there is a certain strangeness to being there. It is almost too still, too quiet, and yet there is a sense that you are not alone.
“Being a coward I won’t come down here at night,” laughs Willie. “It’s a different place at night. The people I do bring down here often feel anxious, they feel a need to get out again.”
It is perhaps not so surprising. There have been more than 500 recorded incidents of the poltergeist attacking people since it was disturbed, while others have blamed it for suspicious fires in nearby buildings. In 2000, a priest named Colin Grant was asked to perform an exorcism in the Kirkyard, to try and stem the reported attacks. He reported feeling overwhelmed by the tormented souls of the dead, and eventually had to leave. Not long after, Willie admits, he sadly died.
Despite the stories however, the Kirkyard still gives shelter to the desperate homeless with nowhere else to go at night.
“They still come in,” admits Willie. “Hard to imagine but they’ve nowhere else to go.”