Edinburgh, Scotland on a blashy, dribbling (gusty, rainy) Saturday night. I am at the bar of Sandy Bell's traditional music pub, paying for two bottles of brew.
"Dearie," says the barmaid, "ye'd want tae pour yer drinks intae a glass. Ye dinnae ken what grotty creatures and slimy things 'ave been crawling o'er the tops of them bottles."
Slimy? Grotty? Aye, well. One mustn't forget that Auld Reekie, the smelly nickname for old Edinburgh, is a town of eerily juxtaposed layers. The topmost layer that my musical friends and I are presently occupying is a fetching swirl of gauzy blue smoke and chandelier light glinting off fiddle strings.
Players are tearing from strathspey to reel with reckless speed. But in the cellar below our tapping feet, Scottish worms and millipedes and medieval vermin, fattened by accretions of four millennia of dirt, dung and decomposed bodies, writhe and crawl over bottles of Beck's ale and Strongbow cider. Aye, surely.
We pour our drinks into clean glasses and turn to face the music.The gale of notes has been blowing hard for six hours. The players have attained warp speeds of fiddling and bódhran beating. Arriving late into the fray, I get out my tin whistle and settle into a wee table at the back.
Edinburgh's oldest traditional music pub, on Forest Road in the medieval Old Town, has been the watering hole of Scottish trad music icons like Dick Gaughin, Aly Bain, Cathal McConnell and Hamish Henderson the bard. And now the pawky white-haired lady whose tobacco-thickened voice brags to me that she is 78 years old, has been coming to Sandy's for 40 years, and is on her sixth bodhran. It's all patched with tape, and every thump on it threatens to burst the old goatskin entirely, until she grabs my arm for a rumbustious Scottish jig.
What feels like hours later, I fall winded back into my chair. I gaze up at colorful gig posters for bands like Silly Wizard, The Battlefield Band and The Boys of the Lough. Amidst all this Celtic gaiety is a black and white poster reminding me that Edinburgh, with its lurid body-snatching and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde history, holds layers of epochs, beauties and horrors all happening at once.
Ho-ho, the haunted graveyard tour. Every town with a few hoary tombstones to its name has this sort of tourist thing now. Guides in period dress. Flickering candles. Tales unearthed from the crypt of local archives. But the words "Black Mausoleum" and "poltergeist" screamed out from the black ink of the CITY OF THE DEAD haunted graveyard tour poster. And the blurbs: "The most haunted place on the planet"... "The most conclusive poltergeist case in history" raised the hairs on my head.
Auld Reekie could be spooky, all right. Even the merriest of jigs took on a ghostly Scottish pallor as musicians keened over bent modal notes with the deathgrip of a banshee. Or so my imagination was wandering...
Over the past few days I'd seen so much of old Edinburgh that it was hard to keep my mind in the 21st century. I'd climbed the wild craggy slopes of Arthur's Seat for a wizard's view of the Firth of Forth. Such a hunk of earth in London would be done up with flowers and gazebos and wrought iron love seats, but in Scotland it was left to nature's tumultuous forces, which were always firing the Scottish imagination.
In wandering The Royal Mile, the spine of the medieval Old Town, I had peered into dark wynds and savored names like Fleshmarket Close, Coffin Lane, Blackadder... and Blackfriars.
Right across the road from Sandy Bell's pub, I'd passed captivated hours in the National Museum of Scotland, transfixed by the ancient Pictish stone carvings of magical beasts, which seemed to move. I'd roamed through Edinburgh Castle, the 11th century fortress built on the towering Castle Rock a gathering place for stone-age hunters, Bronze Age peoples, and the Gododdin of 4,000 years ago. I'd been awed by The Stone of Destiny. Was this sacred stone, upon which all Scottish kings had been crowned really returned to Scotland in 1996 - after 700 years of being held hostage in London? Or was the original sacred stone—boldly heisted from Westminster Abbey in 1950 by a group of Scottish Nationalist students, and then hidden in Arbroath—really kept in Scotland, and a skillfully-faked of the original returned to London? If you’ve seen the 2008 film Stone of Destiny, you might wonder.
At Castlehill I'd gaped at the spot where over 4,000 witches—mostly women— were put to flames between 1479-1722, when Edinburgh was the witch-burning capital of Europe. A popular test for proving witchcraft was to “dook” -dunk a person in a lake. They would be bound, so they could not swim. If they did not drown, they were surely guilty, and therefore tied to the stake to be die in flames. So an accusation of witchcraft usually meant one or the other: die by drowning or by burning.
I'd ventured into Edinburgh's dank netherworldly maze of chambers and vaults. This subterranean city wasn't exactly like Montreal's Underground, with its snazzy metro stations and bijou boutiques. Edinburgh's underground dripped with fetid water. It smelled of earth and caked blood. It was miserably sunless. In his book The Town Below the Ground, Jan-Andrew Henderson, who runs the City of the Dead Tours, describes life in this crypt-like slum into which Edinburgh's poor crammed for 350 years. The Mercat tour of the hidden underground vaults reveals the cave-like conditions in which thousands had lived below the horribly crowded city. Today brightly painted double-decker tourist buses rumble back and forth on the streets above it all.
My Edinburgh explorations had not taken me to the most haunted site in all of Christendom, nay, the whole planet!!! - The Greyfriars Kirkyard. I simply could not leave Edinburgh without seeing the graveyard that inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein and claims to harbour the world's best-documented poltergeist in history.
Say "Greyfriars" and most people think of "Greyfriars Bobby," the wee Skye terrier immortalized in Walt Disney films. Bobby followed his master, police officer Jock Gray, on his daily beat through the dark narrow swarming streets of the Cowgate, the poorest part of Edinburgh. When Jock suddenly took ill and died in 1858, the faithful dog spent the next 13 years sleeping on his master's grave in Greyfriar's Churchyard. The bronze sculpture of Bobby at the top of Candlemaker Row is the most photographed statue in Scotland.
Greyfriar's creepy graveyard is just around the corner from Bobby's Bar. The graveyard's velvety grass was once the lush garden of a Franciscan friary. But in 1562 Mary Queen of Scots made it a cemetery to contain the piles of corpses heaped onto the soil of St. Giles' graveyard.
Today the soft grass in Greyfriars only thinly shrouds the "corpse mountains" of plague victims and Covenanters dumped to rot in unmarked graves. On February 28, 1638 Edinburgh's Presbyterians gathered in Greyfriars to draw up the National Covenant to demand a free Scottish Parliament and to oppose Roman Catholicism in Scotland. The Covenanters signed it in blood. But it would be the chilled blood of 1200 Covenanters imprisoned here for five months in a freezing open field, and then coldly executed by the King's Advocate George Mackenzie—known as “Bluidy Mackenzie”—that would stain this Edinburgh soil forever.
Lured by the Black Hart Storytellers poster, the following evening I make my way through the clinging mist to the steps of St. Giles Church for the 10 p.m. rendezvous with our graveyard guide. David McPhail projects a bouncy enthusiasm for the murky side of Edinburgh. He gloats over how messy, stinky, filthy and scary medieval Edinburgh was in those days, with slimy rivers of garbage, offal and night soil flowing over the cobbles of wynds and closes.
He regales us with tales of witch burnings and the nightly escapades of the Resurrection Men who snatched bodies from fresh graves to sell to Edinburgh's medical dissection rooms. And ghoulish tales of Burke and Hare, who smothered their own boarding house lodgers and then sold their freshly dead bodies to local anatomy professors.
As we enter Greyfriars Kirkyard - "a black maw with headstones for teeth"- David's joking stops. From here on we are at our own risk. The poltergeist associated with Bluidy Mackenzie buried in the same graveyard with the Covenanters he massacred, is a mean poltergeist. There were putrefying smells, strange searingly cold spots, loud rappings and visitors suffering deep scratches, black eyes, bleeding gouges, claw marks and severe bruises.
Between December 19, 1998 and Feb 3, 2002 alone there were 180 victims, and 50 people have collapsed inside the Black Mausoleum, in the gated and padlocked Covenanters Prison. Reverend Colin Grant, a spiritualist minister, performed a 20-minute exorcism to rid Greyfriars of its poltergeist and tormented spirits. Nine weeks later the poor man dropped dead. If we feel a cold spot, David advises us not run, but to slowly step out of it.
We plod over the strangely spongy earth. Beyond the graveyard wall I can see a sickish light trickling from Edinburgh Castle and the medieval skyscrapers of The Royal Mile. Reassuringly close, yet another reality away. I hang on to the amusing thought that somewhere in this boneyard are the uncelebrated remains of William Topaz McGonagall, the famous Scottish drivel-monger whom the Scottish call the "worst poet who ever lived." I vow to get to one of those McGonagall Nights, a parody of a Robbie Burns Supper, where every course of the meal is served backwards, and the speakers are pelted with leftover food.
When David unlocks the creaking iron gate to the Covenanters Prison, I'm gripped by a fear of being knocked out inside a cold tomb. "If we link arms, nothing can get us," we say, forming a human circle against the snarling wind. Gripping each other we move crablike into the Black Mausoleum.
In the rotten suffocating chamber, the minutes drip like hours. I try to stay near the opening but am forced back against the slimy wall, into the drum of loud pounding hearts. And then...YEOW!!!!
WHAT WAS THAT BANG? We flap out like startled ravens, quothing "Nevermore!!!!!"
A few days later I meet up with the mastermind of these graveyard tours, Jan-Andrew Henderson. He works in St. Giles Church and lives nearby in a little tower overlooking the graveyard, where he reports hearing bumping and crying noises. Over coffee, we discuss his strange biz and his book documenting the MacKenzie Poltergeist THE GHOST THAT HAUNTED ITSELF.
"It's not like any other kind of tourist business, Jan-Andrew says. "If I were taking a group of hikers up a mountain and said to them there's a real chance you could fall, some might say, 'Well, I'm not going then.' But if you say there's a chance that the poltergeist will attack you, they say, 'Yeah, ok' and they go. But if something happens they are really upset. We carry lots of insurance."
"How can these guides go in there night after night?"
"Many started out thinking the job would be silly and fun, but do it now because we've got something that seems to defy conventional science. So many ghost and poltergeist stories have been debunked and exposed as hoaxes. It's not often that you get to be involved with something that really does defy explanation."
"What about subjecting yourself to that negative energy every night?"
"I've had three guides leave in two years. One guide quit right away after he got scratched."
This business is very twisted, I think, but Jan-Andrew is like a jovial amusement park owner. He invites me to take the tour again tonight with a different guide, and hands me a sheaf of press releases and testimonies from "victims." I laugh. Edgily.
That evening I'm back at Sandy Bell's pub, killing time until I leave for the 8:30 tour. While sipping a glass of Strongbow cider, I'm reading through press releases on the City of the Dead tour:
Siobhan Reuse from Australia complains of feeling very cold just outside the Black Mausoleum. She calls to say that the next day she woke up with severe bruising to her face. Her doctor confirmed the marks were consistent with a physical attack.
Mandy Burgen from Cornwall sees scratches rise on her chest in the car after the tour. The same thing happens to Carol Weir from Edinburgh.
Kate Luskin from the US feels something 'touching her ankle.'. The spot on her leg stayed cold for two days. Lines resembling claw marks remain on her leg and will not tan.
Imagining claw marks on my own ankle, messing up my cool anklet tattoo, I dig my tin whistle out of my music bag.
[8:15] I'm really not afraid of going on the tour again..
[8:39] Am I?
[8:54] Oh! They're playing The Lilting Banshee jig. I simply must join in!