Tales from Beyond the Grave in Edinburgh

14 October 2021

Greyfriars City Of Dead

(Image Credit: City of Dead)

From malevolent spirits and graverobbers, to the inspiration behind some of the names found in Harry Potter, Edinburgh’s graveyards certainly have one or two tales lurking between the headstones.

So, join us as we explore some of the stories that haunt Edinburgh to this day. We promise, we’ll try not to scare you too much…….!

Greyfriars Kirkyard

Greyfriars Kirkyard

Built on the site of a pre-Reformation Franciscan monastery, Greyfriars Kirk was founded in 1620, the first church to be built in post-Reformation Scotland.

Today, the Kirkyard is famous in its own right as every year thousands of visitors come to visit two memorials in particular. The first being the grave of Tom Riddell, who as all well-versed Muggles know, is the name of "He who must not be named", aka Lord Voldemort. Come rain or shine devoted Potter fans flock to the Kirkyard to pay homage to the graves that many believe inspired the names of the series' key characters. 

Tom Riddell

Discover more about all-thing Potter in our guide to The Ultimate Harry Potter Guide to Edinburgh>

The second highly-visited memorial belongs not to a human, but to a dog – specifically, that of Greyfriars Bobby. A Skye Terrier who was looked after by local policeman John Gray, after John’s death, Bobby reportedly guarded his master’s grave in the Kirkyard for 14 years. Bobby was a familiar figure around Greyfriars Kirkyard, where he was fed and given shelter by local residents. Sergeant Scott of the Royal Engineers trained Bobby to associate the one o'clock gun with dinner time and from 1862 his appearances at Traill's Restaurant rooms at 6 Greyfriars Place became a daily spectacle!

Bobby And His Grave

A granite memorial to Bobby is sited opposite the main gate of the Kirkyard and it’s not uncommon to see sticks, dog toys and treats here, placed by doting dog lovers.

Read more about Greyfriars Bobby, Edinburgh's favourite dog> 

But Greyfriars Kirkyard also has some more grisly tales that it is known for. And these ones are guaranteed to send a shiver down your spine……!

The MacKenzie Poltergeist

A lawyer and the Lord Advocate during the rule of Charles II, George Mackenzie was a ruthless man who quickly earned a reputation as one of the most vicious persecutors of the Covenanters, the people who rose up and signed the National Covenant in 1638. On his orders several hundred men were imprisoned in the Covenanters Prison in Greyfriars Kirkyard, where the brutal treatment they received quickly earned Mackenzie the nickname “Bluidy” or “Bloody” Mackenzie.

Some were executed and their heads displayed around the prison walls. The rest were beaten and left without food or water, where they eventually succumbed to death.

On his death in 1691, Mackenzie was laid to rest in a grand mausoleum in Greyfriars Kirkyard, ironically only yards from the Covenanters’ Prison, where so many suffered at his orders.

But it is believed Mackenzie did not pass quietly into the afterlife.

In 1999, a homeless man sought shelter in Mackenzie’s mausoleum and fell through the floor, and in in 2003 two teenagers broke into the tomb and stole Mackenzie’s head! (they were since caught and charged with ancient legislation last used to prosecute the capital's infamous body snatchers from the 18th and 19th century). But both acts supposedly woke the ghost of “Bluidy Mackenzie”.

Monument In Greyfriars Churchyard Credit Capital Collection Gregg Magee

(Image Credit: City of Edinburgh Council - Libraries - Capital Collection, Gregg Magee)

Since then, visitors to the Kirkyard have reported ghostly activity around the tomb, including scratches and bruises. Could “Bluidy Mackenzie” still be intent of causing horror in death as he was in life?

If you want to find out for yourself, why not book a tour on The City of the Dead Haunted Graveyard Tour  …….

The Grave-robbers

Bobbys Bothy

In the early 1800’s Edinburgh became was at the centre of the Scottish Enlightenment, and in the field of medical science great advances were being made - Sir James Young Simpson discovered chloroform anaesthesia, and Dr Joseph Lister pioneered the use of antiseptic during surgery. As medicine became an esteemed occupation, the numbers of students at the University of Edinburgh grew.

But in order to hone their skills, a steady supply of cadavers was required. The main legal source of obtaining bodies for dissection at that time was that of convicted and executed criminals, but as the number of students grew, the demand for bodies for dissection far outstripped the supply.

The shortfall was increasingly met by the activities of a group of unsavoury characters known as grave-robbers. In the middle of the night, they would venture into Edinburgh’s graveyards, spade in hand, and dig up the fresh graves. The corpses would then be sold to the medical school.

In a bid to stop this happening, desperate relatives of the deceased rallied into action. They set up watch groups which patrolled the graveyards, deterring any potential graverobbers from going about their business. The wealthier residents built mortsafes, elaborate cage-like tombs over their relative’s graves – two of which can still be seen today in Greyfriars Kirkyard - and watch houses or towers were built. Bobby’s Bothy in the Kirkyard is an example of this – dating from around 1830, it served as somewhere where relatives of a recently deceased loved one could keep a watchful eye over the Kirkyard at night, sometimes up to a month at a time, or until the body would be useless for medical use.

Grave-robbing continued to be a problem until 1832 when The Anatomy Act was introduced and gave physicians and students legal access to corpses that were unclaimed after death, in particular those who died in prison or the workhouse.

Although somewhat unusual, a wander round Edinburgh’s historic graveyards is a great way to uncover more about the city’s past and its people. Our top recommendations include:

View From Old Calton Burial Ground Towards Old Town Edinburgh Kevin Maclean

(Image Credit: City of Edinburgh Council - Libraries - Capital Collection, Kevin Maclean)

Old Calton Burial Ground – dating from the early 18th century, several notable people of Edinburgh’s history rest here, including philosopher David Hume, publisher William Blackwood and artist David Allan. It’s also home to the only monument to the American Civil War outside of the States.

97 Watchtower

New Calton Graveyard – built in 1820 when Old Calton Burial Ground became full, a watchtower built to deter potential grave-robbers can still be seen at the entrance.

The Parish Church Of St Cuthbert  - believed to be the oldest Christian site in Edinburgh, a wander round this ancient graveyard reveals many breath-taking monuments.

Canongate Kirk  - built between 1688 and 1690 and still an active church, this is the last resting place of many interesting people from Edinburgh’s past, including town planner George Drummond, philosopher Dugald Stewart and poet Robert Fergusson.

Cannongate Kirkyard

Burke and Hare

 The Burke And Hare Murder Tour Credit

(Image credit: The Burke and Hare Murder Tour)

If you lived in Edinburgh between 1827 and 1828, two characters you most certainly would not want to bump into were William Burke and William Hare.

At a time when grave-robbing was at its peak, Burke and Hare decided a more efficient of obtaining a ready supply of bodies would be to lure potential victims into their lodgings, kill them and sell the bodies to Dr Knox, a prominent anatomy lecturer, who gladly accepted them on a no-questions-asked basis.

The ghastly duo murdered at least 16 people in just under a year, although it has been speculated that this figure could be as high as 30.

Their crimes eventually caught up with him when another lodger became suspicious and found the body of Mary Docherty, the 16th and final victim, hidden under a bed. Despite being offered a bribe of £10 per week to keep quiet, they refused and went to the police.

Burke and Hare were arrested, along with their wives. Both men gave conflicting accounts of what had happened and blamed each other. Seeing an opportunity, Hare agreed to testify against his partner in crime in return for his own immunity.

Burke was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging on 29 January 1829 – a public event that reportedly attracted as many as 25,000 people. Apparently, residents in tenements overlooking the scaffold cashed-in on the event – hiring out their rooms to spectators in order to get a real birds eye view of the execution!  

Execution Of The Notorious William Burke The Murderer Capital Collection

(Image Credit: City of Edinburgh Council - Libraries - Capital Collection)

In an ironic twist of fate, the judge also ordered that Burke's body should also be given to the University for dissection – the punishment most certainly fitting the crime. The public dissection proved to be the best-attended lecture in the history of Edinburgh’s medical school, so much so that a minor riot broke out when hundreds of students turned up to witness the spectacle!

Afterwards, Burke's skeleton was given to the University of Edinburgh’s Anatomical Museum, where it remains to this day. His death mask and a book which is bound with his skin can be found at the Surgeons' Hall Museum.

What became of Hare though remains a mystery. Spared punishment for testifying against his former accomplice, it’s fare to say he wasn’t popular within the city. Disguised by the authorities, he was whisked out of Edinburgh to Dumfries. However, a waiting mob was ready to greet him and the police managed to help him escape, again. He was instructed to walk south towards the English border, however from there he disappeared, never to be heard of again…...

For his part, Dr Knox was never prosecuted as it could not be proven that he knew the corpses he bought were murder victims. However, his reputation in the city was tarnished and he eventually moved to London.

White Hart Inn

Today, if you fancy frequenting one of the city’s watering holes supposedly visited by this gruesome pair, then the White Hart Inn in the Grassmarket is said to be the pub the pair used as a hunting ground for some of their unsuspecting victims. The clientele is much better these days though!

Deacon Brodie

Mr Brodie Capital Collection John Kay

(Image Credit: City of Edinburgh Council - Libraries - Capital Collection, John Kay)

Sometimes appearances can be deceptive, and this is defiantly true in the case of William Brodie, most commonly known as Deacon Brodie.

Born in Edinburgh in 1741, William Brodie was a successful cabinet maker, Deacon of the Guild of Wrights and Masons and an Edinburgh City Councillor. But hiding under this respected façade, Brodie hid a dark secret.

With a serious gambling habit who needed to maintain not just his family, but also his two mistresses and five illegitimate children, Brodie quickly ran up serious debts.

A talented craftsman, specialising in furniture such a cupboards and cabinets - crucially, he was also a talented locksmith and it was this knowledge that he used to his advantage to pursue his clandestine activities. While working within the houses of Edinburgh’s high society during the day, he would copy their keys using wax impressions, allowing him to return under cover of darkness and rob them!

In 1768 he copied keys to a bank door and stole £800. By 1786, getting a taste for the criminal life, he joined forces with locksmith George Smith and they soon become embroiled in a crime wave across the city, targeting businesses and private homes across the city.

The pair were soon joined by two other criminals, John Brown and Andrew Ainslie and in 1788 they planned their most daring crime yet, a raid on Edinburgh’s Excise Office. Armed with pistols, they broke in, but were disturbed and fled with just £16. Two of Brodie’s accomplices were caught and quickly turned King's Evidence on their co-conspirators to avoid the gallows.

Spooked, Brodie escaped to the Netherlands, but was arrested in Amsterdam and returned to Edinburgh for trial where he was found guilty and sentenced to execution.

Execution Of Brodie And Smith Capital Collection

(Image Credit: City of Edinburgh Council - Libraries - Capital Collection)

Ever the conman, it’s said that Brodie wore a steel collar and silver tube to prevent the hanging from being fatal. He tried to bribe the hangman to ignore it and arrange for his body to be removed quickly in the hope that he could later be revived. But his plan failed and he was buried in an unmarked grave at St. Cuthbert's Chapel of Ease in Chapel Street.

Ironically the gallows used was one for which Brodie, were the ones which he himself had only recently redesigned!

Brodies Close

But Brodie did not disappear completely into the history books. It is said Edinburgh author Robert Louis Stevenson, whose father owned furniture made by Brodie, used the infamous criminal’s double life as the inspiration for his character Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which was published a century later.  Today, you can see that very cabinet in The Writers’ Museum, one of only two remaining pieces thought to have been built by Brodie; while a lantern and 25 lock picks used in evidence against him in his trial are now part of the collection at The National Museum of Scotland. Or the next time you’re on the Royal Mile, keep an eye open for Brodie's Close, the former family residence and workshop of this two-faced figure.