Do you like to visit haunted attractions when you travel? Edinburgh is a city that’s no stranger to dark and ghostly tourism, and a fascination with its ghoulish side is apparent in many attractions across the city. Learning about the spookier side of Edinburgh can give you a larger picture of the history of the city, and help you to understand how far Edinburgh has stepped from the shadow of the past. As well as send you away with a few shivers running down your spine…
What is dark tourism?
It’s probably fitting that the term “dark tourism” was coined in Scotland in the 1990s by Glasgow Caledonian University professor John Lennon, given how many pages of Scotland’s history are marred by bloodstains and spine-chilling tales, and mysterious and scary mythical legends (think Kelpies, ghostly horses who lead people to a watery grave).
Dark tourism covers the concept of travelling to places that are historically associated with death or tragedy. Overt examples would include visiting concentration camps across Europe, the Catacombs of Paris, or Ground Zero in New York City. There is an element of controversy about tourism in places like these because of the commercialisation of tragedy. However, there are also less obvious examples of dark tourism in most places we visit, like ghost tours or museums displaying gruesome torture instruments and telling stories from the more distant past.
So what are some of these “lighter” dark tourism or paranormal attractions in Edinburgh that might draw you in for a spooky visit? Here’s my guide to the dark side of the city…
Touring Edinburgh’s Vaults
The Edinburgh vaults are a series of underground chambers in the space beneath South Bridge in the city centre. They are sometimes confused for underground streets but they are actually just a series of rooms. The South Bridge vaults have been used in the past as drinking dens, a space for illicit trade, and as shelter by the poorest of Edinburgh’s society, who may have been targeted by murders and body snatchers in times past (more on that later!). The Edinburgh vaults are said to be haunted and you can take a ghost tour through the chambers to see what you think for yourself. Be prepared, they turn the lights out…
The unexplainable Gilmerton Cove
Gilmerton Cove is one of Edinburgh’s lesser known gems. It’s a series of hand-carved caves found beneath an innocuous neighbourhood to the south of the city centre. No one really knows what Gilmerton Cove is, which adds to its allure and cements its place on the list of Edinburgh’s darker attractions. Could it have been a den of iniquity or something more innocent like an escape tunnel or secret passageway from nearby Craigmillar Castle?
Haunted Edinburgh Castle
Of course, there are an abundance of spooky tales and ghost stories associated with Edinburgh Castle and it’s rumored that several parts of it are haunted. The Castle has seen its fair share of battles, torture, and executions after all. One story involves a young bagpiper who was sent down a tunnel playing the bagpipes so they could see where it went, but he then disappeared, never to be seen again.
Edinburgh Castle’s vaults have been no stranger to prisoners throughout history and have at times held pirates, witches, and Jacobites. In the prisoner of war exhibition at Edinburgh Castle, you can find one of the doors to the vaults that housed French, American, and Spanish prisoners during the American War of Independence (1775-1783). It’s heavily scarred with graffiti, including a carving of the American flag that’s thought to be one of its earliest representations. Incidentally, this is number 94 on the Edinburgh 101 list of the cities most treasured objects, which includes an On the Dark Side Trail that outlines some of Edinburgh’s more dark and twisted objects.
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Edinburgh Ghost Tours
There are all sorts of ghost tours in Edinburgh, from a spooky ghost tour bus ride to walking through graveyards or underground chambers. There are plenty of Edinburgh ghost stories to be told, and the guides on such a tour will be more than happy to have you shaking in your boots. You can choose from a free ghost tour starting on the Royal Mile every day, or more elaborate night tours through possibly haunted graveyards and the vaults. Many people have claimed to see ghosts around Edinburgh, and TV shows have even tried filming in the vaults and cemeteries. Who knows, could the next ghost sighting be by you…?
The story of Burke & Hare
Edinburgh has always been known for its work to advance medical science, and that was also true in the 17th century. However, bodies that could be used for medical research were few and far between, which led to an underground trade of corpses and a culture of body snatching and grave robbing. Grieving relatives would construct iron cages over the graves of loved ones, and keep watch for 24 hours a day until the body would be decomposed enough to be of no use to “resurrectionists” as they became known.
The most famous body snatchers in Edinburgh became acquainted when William Burke moved into William Hare’s lodging house. They claim they sold a deceased resident to the Edinburgh Medical College to recoup money owed, but when they realised how lucrative the body snatching trade could be, they ceased waiting for their victims to die and instead began suffocating them instead. They were eventually caught and Hare was granted immunity for testifying against Burke, who was subsequently hanged and publicly dissected at the Edinburgh Medical College. You can still view his skeleton at the museum today, and more morbidly, a book that was made from his skin (which is also Object 98 on the Edinburgh 101 trail).
The truth about Edinburgh’s Witches
In the 16th century on a spot on Castlehill, more witch burnings were carried out than anywhere else in Scotland. James VI, King of Scotland at the time, was afraid of witches and even wrote a book about them. His paranoia spread and a huge number of innocent women were persecuted and many were burned at the stake on Castlehill. It could be for a reason as simple as having a mole, red hair, or being accused by a vengeful neighbour.
In 1912 a memorial called the Witches Well was erected at that spot where over 300 women were killed. So many people walk past it on their way up to the Castle without even knowing it’s there. The Witches Well was named as the 91st object in the 101 treasured objects around the city.
Robert Louis Stevenson and the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde
Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson lived in Edinburgh and owned a cabinet made by William Brodie, a cabinet-maker, the deacon of a trades guild, and Edinburgh city councillor. However, it transpired that Deacon Brodie was living a double life in which he copied the keys of the grand houses he was allowed access to and burgled them in the night. He used the proceeds to fund his gambling, and mistresses and illegitimate children until he was caught one night when he fell asleep on guard.
Brodie managed to escape to Amsterdam but was caught when he boarded a boat bound for America and was subsequently brought back to Edinburgh and hung at the Tolbooth Gallows. William Brodie then became the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson to write the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. You can view the actual cabinet made by William Brodie in the Writers Museum.
The dark past of the Grassmarket
The Grassmarket is located just below Edinburgh Castle, and it was one of the main entrance points to the city. From 1477 it was one of Edinburgh’s main marketplaces, housing places of trade, livestock pens, taverns and temporary lodgings. And it was also where public executions took place before they were moved to the Old Tollbooth jail.
One of the most well-known stories of the Grassmarket is that of Maggie Dickson, a fishwife who was hung in 1724 for killing her recently born illegitimate baby. After she was hung her body was being taken back to Musselburgh on a cart when she woke up, and because her sentence had been carried out she was allowed to live. There’s now a pub in the Grassmarket named after her, with a plaque telling her story outside, as well as another pub called The Last Drop.
Terror at Edinburgh Dungeon
Like many other Dungeon attractions in other cities, Edinburgh Dungeon tells ghost stories through a range of characters who aim to scare, but with a dose of fun interaction. The Dungeon sees a distinct increase in visitors during Halloween in Edinburgh when apparently many more people are willing to subject themselves to being spooked, and learning about stories like the (possibly true) cannibal family lead by Sawney Bean.
The Real Mary Kings Close
It’s not technically an Edinburgh ghost tour, but some of it might as well be. Touring the Real Mary Kings Close teaches you about the history of Edinburgh but also brings in aspects of murder, and the ghost of Little Annie said to be constantly looking for her family after they abandoned her to the plague.
The Old Town of Edinburgh was a dark and dingy place of multi-story buildings with tiny lanes between them. Little light infiltrated into these alleyways that were also used to dispose of the city’s waste which ran down into the Noor Loch, which is now Princes Street Gardens. But I’ll let you discover more on the tour itself…
Murder at Holyrood Palace
Thousands flock to Holyrood Palace every year and visit the rooms that were once the home of Mary Queen of Scots. However, they were not a happy place for her, as in 1566 when she was heavily pregnant, her husband Lord Darnley and his men burst into her private room where she was with her secretary David Rizzio, and stabbed him 56 times in front of Mary, before putting his body in the next room. It singled the beginning of the end for Mary, who was later executed on the orders of her cousin, Queens Elizabeth I.
Now in the rooms at Holyrood, you can see a commemorative plaque for David Rizzio, another Edinburgh 101 object. The floorboards below the plaque are said to be stained with blood, despite being replaced at least twice…
Even royalty couldn’t escape Edinburgh’s chilling and violent past.
Ghostly sightings at Greyfriars Kirkyard
Greyfriars Kirkyard has long been the focus of supposed hauntings and therefore Edinburgh ghost tours. It’s said that George Mackenzie, a former jailer, wanders the graveyard at night, tortured by his own ill-treatment of prisoners nearby.
It has always been well-known for being the burial ground of Greyfriars Bobby, a loyal dog who stayed with his master after his death, and it’s more recently renowned as a Harry Potter location in Edinburgh, where JK Rowling used the names on headstones as inspirations for her characters.
Mystery on Arthur’s Seat
You might wonder how Arthur’s Seat, the highest hill in Edinburgh, could feature on a list of spooky or haunted Edinburgh attractions. In 1836 a group of schoolboys playing on Arthur’s Seat found a collection of 17 tiny wooden coffins with carved dolls inside each one.
No one quite knows what they were for, although they’re said to be made of materials used in shoemaking and therefore could relate to the victims of Burke (who was a cobbler) and Hare from less than a decade earlier. Other theories say they are the land burials of those lost at sea, or that they’re part of some sort of voodoo spell. You can view them at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and make up your own mind…
These are just a few of the dark and haunted attractions and stories of Edinburgh! Let’s just say if you had Halloween in Edinburgh you wouldn’t be disappointed…
Do you visit paranormal or dark attractions when you travel?
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