Edinburgh’s Most Haunted: Johnny One-Arm

Ahead of Halloween we take a look at some of Edinburgh’s infamous ghost stories and speak to the people who work in some of the Capital’s most haunted locations.

Monday, 27th October 2014, 3:01 pm
Advocates Close, Edinburgh.

Advocate’s Close and the ghost of Johnny One-Arm.

The Royal Mile is the beating heart of the ancient Capital, an artery built up and over ancient streets now clogged with the tourist trade.

And a quick glance around the cobbled streets and towering stone tenements will quickly reveal that the spirits of the city are one of the most popular draws.

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Advocates Close, Edinburgh.

Signs for ghost tours and trails litter the Lawnmarket, leaving those curious about Edinburgh’s haunted history in no doubt what awaits them.

From the foot of the mile, where the spirit of a kitchen boy roasted alive by the mad earl of Drumlanrig roams Queensbery House, past the Canongate where a murderers shade is still seen looking for a way into the holy kirkyard, past the site of murders by the notorious “body snatchers” Burke and Hare and up to the Castle where a ghostly piper can sometimes be seen wandering the battlements, Auld Reekie is brimming with the shades of horrors past.

Anyone who has walked at night through one of the ancient narrow closes which dot the mile, hemmed in on all sides by towering tenements staring down at you, the wind howling through the tight space - it’s not hard to imagine ghosts and nightmares fit to make you pull your coat a little closer or make your step a little faster.

Ghosts are big business here, and as Halloween approaches business is booming. At Mercat Tours, one of the many companies who keep the ghost stories of Edinburgh alive, extra shifts are already being organised for guides done up and additional tours arranged to cope with the demand.

As the dark nights close in they will take parties of eager visitors through the winding back-alleys and narrow closes regaling them with tales of torture, murder and the enduring presence of the restless dead.

One of the many legends to haunt the mile is the screaming figure of Johnny One-arm, a grisly tale once used as a local legend by parents to terrify their children with notions of a tortured soul grasping at those who disturb him with a spectral severed limb.

Leading us into Advocate’s Close, guide Craig Methven is unconcerned about any ghostly disturbances – after two years working the ghost trail he says he’s yet to have any serious supernatural encounters.

“I’ve never really experienced anything that strange despite doing the ghost tours, “ he admits, though the same cannot be said of the tour groups he leads.

“We get tales of people saying something grabbed at their leg or tugged on their cloak, even now.”

Like the best ghost stories, the tale of Johnny One-Arm is based on historical fact, mixed with more than a dash of local superstition and whispered tales of strange sightings that have helped it endure.

It concerns John Chiesly, a relatively wealthy man trapped in an unhappy marriage who in 1688 finally sought a divorce, only to find himself ordered to pay a substantial sum of money to his former spouse by Sir George Lockhart, then Lord President of the Court of Session.

Chiesly was enraged and one morning, after following Lockhart back from Church he shot him dead. While the tours now say Lockhart was murdered in Advocate’s Close, accounts vary, with many records suggesting it was in fact the nearby site of Old Bank Close where they had their fateful encounter.

What is not in doubt is Chiesly’s fate – he was captured almost immediately, with some accounts suggesting he was actually found with the gun over the body confessing to the murder, and he was said to have told officers: “I have taught the President how to do justice.”

Chiesly was subsequently tortured in order to determine why the murder had been committed.

His right arm, which had fired the fatal shot, was severed from his body and he was hanged at the Grassmarket Gallows, his broken body left dangling as a warning to others of the penalty for murder.

A few weeks after his death however, his body was stolen by an unknown perpetrator, and after that strange stories began to surface of a one-armed figure stalking the Royal Mile, laughing and screaming at terrified people before disappearing. The ghost was also said to haunt the streets of Dalry, and local parents used the tale to terrify their children – no doubt it made for a good Halloween yarn.

Then 1965, accounts say, workmen carrying out renovation on an old cottage in Dalry made a grisly discovery – a skeleton, walled up, and missing one arm. It was soon determined that this was in fact the body of John Chiesly, uncovered after almost 300 years, and the bones were laid to rest in a city cemetery, bringing to and end the ghost of Johnny One-Arm.

Well, not quite. The severed arm that had been taken from his body was never accounted for – some reports suggest it was destroyed but others suggest the arm still haunts Advocate’s Close, waiting to grab at those who disturb it.

Got a ghost story? Why not share some of your favourite scary stories from Edinburgh and the Lothians in the comments, on our Facebook page or by email, to: [email protected]