When a scientist tried to prove Edinburgh Castle was haunted

Edinburgh is thought to be one of the most haunted cities in the world. It should come as no surprise, then, that one of the city's oldest buildings, Edinburgh Castle, has plenty of spooky stories to tell.
Edinburgh CastleEdinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle

Paranormal experiences

There have been hundreds of reports (from both staff members and visitors) of paranormal activity in Edinburgh Castle over the years.

First used as a settlement around 850 AD, then becoming a royal residence in the 12th century, and a military barracks in the 17th century, the castle has seen its fair share of death, battles, torture and executions over the years.

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To this day, people report witnessing apparitions, feeling unwelcome presences, seeing shadowy figures, being touched by non-human forces, and experiencing sudden temperature changes in and around the structure.

The ghostly bagpiper boy

One of Edinburgh Castle’s most famous ghost stories concerns a young bagpiper who disappeared without a trace.

Several hundred years ago, some secret tunnels were found beneath Edinburgh Castle, leading towards Holyrood House at the bottom of the Royal Mile.

As the opening to the tunnel was so small, a young boy was sent down with his bagpipes to investigate.

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He played the pipes loudly as he walked through the tunnel, so people above ground could work out where the tunnel went.

The pipes stopped abruptly when they reached the Tron Kirk and, although search parties were sent to find the boy, he was never seen again.

With the piper presumed dead, the tunnel was blocked up – but many people still report hearing the faint, ghostly sound of underground bagpipes to this day.

Others have allegedly heard the sound of drums around Edinburgh Castle, with a few visitors even claiming they caught a glimpse of a headless drummer boy.

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Legend has it that whenever the drummer boy’s ghost is spotted, the castle is about to come under attack – he was first seen in 1650, shortly before Oliver Cromwell attacked Edinburgh Castle.

Witch trials at Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle was a key location when witchcraft hysteria swept across Scotland in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Around 300 alleged witches were imprisoned and tortured in the Tolbooth and at Edinburgh Castle, before being executed on Castlehill.

One of the most famous ‘witches’ was Lady Janet Douglas of Glamis, who was accused of witchcraft and conspiring to kill King James V.

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Her servants had been tortured into confessing her guilt, and in 1537 she was burnt alive at the stake – with her young son forced to watch.

Visitors to the castle have reported seeing the ghostly figure of Lady Janet roaming the halls and weeping.

There have also been stories of a hollow knocking sound heard at night, attributed to ghostly workmen building the platform on which she was burnt.

People have even claimed to see shadowy figures and ghostly orbs in the dungeon where people like Lady Janet’s servants (as well as prisoners of war and enemy spies) were tortured and left to die.

A scientific explanation?

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But is there any truth behind these spooky stories, or are they just tall tales?

In 2001, as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival, Dr Richard Wiseman conducted an experiment with 240 volunteers over a 10 day period.

The volunteers were visitors from around the world, carefully chosen so they had no prior knowledge of Edinburgh Castle’s alleged hauntings.

They were led through the castle vaults, cellars and dungeons in small groups – some rooms had previous reports of ghostly goings on, while others were red herrings which were not associated with legendary tales.

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Scientific ghostbusting equipment (such as thermal imagers, geomagnetic sensors and temperature probes) was used to record the conditions in each room, and participants were also asked to record their experiences.

By the end of the experiment, almost half of the participants reported phenomena they couldn’t explain, and the highest number of paranormal experiences were recorded in the vaults, which had a haunted reputation.

Volunteers reported sudden drops in temperature, seeing shadowy figures, a feeling of being watched, a burning sensation on the skin, an unseen presence touching the face, and a feeling of someone tugging at their clothes.

Wiseman, a sceptic, argued that many of the experiences could be attributed to common psychological reactions to being left in an unfamiliar, unnerving environment.

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He did, however, admit that it was very intriguing that most people reported paranormal experiences in the rooms which had reputations for being haunted, despite none of the volunteers having any prior knowledge of this.

Although the results of the study were inconclusive, they seem to suggest that Edinburgh Castle’s ghostly stories could be more than just fiction.

This article first appeared in our sister-title, iNews