Edinburgh is a city of graveyards. Up here we love our dead. We like to keep them present among us, so it shouldn’t be any wonder that Edinburgh is also a city of ghosts. Greyfriars Churchyard is a pleasant looking place, tucked away behind a pub and a statue of the famous dog, Greyfriars’ Bobby – a Highland Terrier who, once his owner was buried there, spent the rest of his life sitting on his grave. It’s the subject of a Disney movie, which is ironic, because it is also the location of the most violent haunting in Scotland.
Scotland’s history is one of violent revolutions, witch hunts and religious persecutions. Religion and politics intertwine like co-morbid medical disorders and when King Charles II demanded that everyone recognise him as head of the church in a nasty piece of political posturing, a group known as the Covenanters objected. For them it was obvious that Jesus Christ was the head of the church and they would brook no blasphemy. This went about as well for them as could be expected and, tiring of torture and death in the face of their religious convictions, they went to war over it only to lose, badly.
It was in this churchyard where they first signed their covenant. In it they swore to uphold their own faith and accept no changes to it, while at the same time maintaining a loyalty to the king which would not save them. Perhaps this is why Bluidy George Mackenzie, Lord Advocate and man responsible for their fate, had them imprisoned there after the war was done.
The odd thing about Mackenzie is that previously he’d been a moderate. While he hadn’t come out and said witch burnings were nonsense (because that would have been heresy) he had defended the accused when he was supposed to be prosecuting, and went on record saying that he thought real witches were uncommon and most confessions a result of torture. Whether it was religious feeling or outrage outrage over the war, something in Mackenzie seems to have snapped. His treatment of them was obscenely cruel, and while apparently he kept strictly to the letter of the law in his treatment of them this did not stop the people from hating him for it.
Standing in Greyfriar’s Churchyard it is impossible to imagine that 1200 people even fit into that tiny corner of the graveyard it where he fenced them in, let alone lived there for months on end. The conditions alone killed literally hundreds of them, and of the survivors hundreds more were executed or sent to the colonies, only to drown when their boat was wrecked off the coast of Orkney. Those who died were buried right there in the churchyard, in the section reserved for criminals.
Mackenzie eventually retired from public life and spent his final days in Oxford, England, perhaps because by then everyone in Scotland despised him. Despite the spiritual dubiousness of burying him beside his victims and the many days long journey to get his body back to Edinburgh, Mackenzie was buried in that same churchyard. Unlike his victims, however, he got to be laid to rest in the respectable section, his body placed in a fine mausoleum. Is it any wonder then, that there is a ghost there? Or that that the ghost is angry?
The final ingredient to this horror movie, some centuries later, was a small boy who chose to shelter in Mackenzie’s mausoleum while running away from school to escape a beating. Adding a child and fresh violence to that environment was the classic poltergeist final straw, and the spirit that haunts Greyfriars’ churchyard did not disappoint. Most people think it is the spirit of Mackenzie himself, but personally the spirits of angry Covenanters seem more likely to me. Afterall, unless it’s the guilt of being near his victims that keeps him here, what does he have to be angry about? Maybe its psychic energy, activated by the fresh young mind of the child and his terror. People do say that suffering leaves its mark on a place and that children and their emotions are what causes poltergeists.
One thing is certain: whatever it is, the Mackenzie Poltergeist is vicious and it is angry.
While our tourism tends to focus more on the dog, and the tombstone that inspired J. K. Rowling to name Lord Voldemort we are far too canny not to cash in on people’s appetite for the macabre. Ghost tours cross Edinburgh like fungus with every other student putting on a cape and mimicking a dead person for beer money. The Mackenzie Poltergeist was no exception, even having its very own tour built around it by Jan Andrew Henderson, who also actually lived in a house in the graveyard and dedicated himself to studying the entity, whatever it is. What makes the Mackenzie Poltergeist so unique is the frequency of its attacks and the sheer violence. Where other such entities are content to scratch and throw things the Mackenzie Poltergeist burns its victims, dutifully photographed by Henderson, even following them home sometimes to continue the harassment. Henderson collected his evidence scientifically, taking photographs and developing methods to weed out hysterical accounts from the real ones. While he can’t prove the nature of the beast he certainly seems to have proved that something is happening.
Henderson’s house eventually burned down, taking the original copies of all of his research with it, though a digital backup remains. We can’t say for sure that it was the work of the ghost, of course. But it’s a hell of a coincidence.
Image By Kim Traynor – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,