‘Someone broke into the tomb and took Mackenzie’s head’: We catch up with the creator of Edinburgh’s new history podcast, Unearthed

The stories of Edinburgh’s past are the topic of a brand new podcast

Tuesday, 2nd June 2020, 5:13 pm
Updated Tuesday, 2nd June 2020, 6:02 pm
Mackenzie's tomb

The leafy and peaceful Greyfriars Kirkyard nestled into a pocket of the Capital's centre is a place of pilgrimage for many.

Some seek the peace and contemplation, some seek the tombs that inspired their favourite Harry Potter characters, and some, like podcaster Ryan Latto, are drawn to the history, and sometimes the ghosts.

Ryan is the creator of the new Edinburgh history podcast, Unearthed, which delves into the capital’s inspiring, often dark and usually bloody past.

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Ryan Latto outside Mackenzie's tomb in Greyfriars Kirkyard

“I’ve always been interested in stories about people,” Ryan explained: “I used to come to Edinburgh with my dad, and we would go to all the museums and make up stories about all the manikins there that were dressed up.”

“The city always fascinated me.

“You walk up the Royal Mile and the closes are named after loads of famous people and you don’t know who they are, and so you go and find out and find these amazing characters.”

The podcast will explore the life and legacy of many famous Edinburgh residents, with one of the episodes looking at someone eerily familiar to any frequenters of Greyfriars - Bloody George Mackenzie.

Engraving at Greyfriars Kirkyard

George Mackenzie was Lord Advocate in Scotland in 1677, but is now most famous for his poltergeist haunting the kirkyard at Greyfriars, scratching thousands of visitors and filling them with a sense of dread and fear.

Ryan continues: “In the year 2000, a homeless man broke into Mackenzie’s tomb, crashed through the weak floor, grabbed the coffin and ends up dragging that with him.

“It’s said that's what woke Mackenzie up, but there are loads of reports of people being attacked and scratched in this area for years and years, way before the coffin incident.

“Robert Louis Stevenson writes about it, talking about local children who would knock on the tomb door and ask him to appear.”

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about the restless soul of George Mackenzie, saying: “When a man’s soul is certainly in hell, his body will scarce lie quiet in a tomb…sometime or other the door must open.”

Arguably the worst case connected with the Mackenzie tomb happened in 2004.

Ryan said: “Someone broke into the tomb and took Mackenzie’s head.”

Sonny Devlin, 17-years-old at the time, avoided jail time after being charged and tried with grave robbing and beheading a corpse, thought the first person to be charged with “violation of a sepulchre” in over a hundred years.

Ryan continued: “The head wasn’t fully decomposed.

“It’s back where it belongs now, and the base of the tomb has now been welded shut so that no one can get to the coffin.”

There are specific reasons that one man has such legacy and chaos around his tomb.

“He was responsible for some pretty bleak history,” said Ryan.

“The camp he created for a group of Presbyterians were thought to have been the Guantanamo Bay of its time - mass torture and death, horrible conditions.

“In Unearthed we really try and take a look at who he was in life, and what his legacy was, as well of course, about who he is in death, and all of the stories around that.

“The history of these people is so important, and the messages they send us are important.

“Not listening to history or not remembering these people we can forget these core messages.”

Ryan is a journalist and became an Edinburgh tour guide to help pay his way through university, and because of his love for the history of the city, has struggled to let it go, still giving tours most days before the pandemic.

“People love the stories you can tell of Edinburgh,” he said.

When asked whether he believed in ghosts, Ryan smiles: “Not really, but I love hearing about people’s experiences, they are fascinating.

“I don’t think people should be laughed at, I don’t have cynicism when it comes to other people believing in ghosts, I just happen not to.”

Ryan does believe that Edinburgh, and Scotland has an interesting relationship with its own history.

“Scotland is one of the most important countries in the world historically speaking, and yet so many people don’t know this, or know how we fit into the world.

“This is something I want to explore with the podcast.”

The podcast launches on Wednesday and is free to subscribe.

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