Saturday, June 04, 2005

Edinburgh – Some Geology and History, Some Ghosts and Hauntings

I decided to head to Edinburgh for a few days during my half-term break. I visited there a couple months ago (just after Easter) but I was only there for the day. (Just a side note: visiting Edinburgh ‘just for the day’ is only a good plan if you live someplace close, like, say, Glasgow.)

Anyway, on Tuesday morning, I caught the early train (7:19) and headed north, arriving at Edinburgh Waverley Station before noon. I followed my directions (printed from the new map section of Google – try to the Kenneth Mackenzie Suite where I had reservations for the next two nights. Sunday, my mother asked how I chose the place to stay. The answer was, ‘it was the cheapest place on the list that was also within walking distance of the train station.’ Yes, not the absolute best way to choose a hotel, but it worked out just fine this time. Despite being an all up-hill walk (but in Edinburgh, everything is either uphill or downhill the entire way…in fact, at one point, I had to climb up a flight of stairs from street level in order to go underground, but now I’m getting ahead of myself), it wasn’t too far. It turns out that the Kenneth Mackenzie Suite is part of the University of Edinburgh, which runs this set of rooms for visitors to the school. It is also open to outside visitors (like me). As part of my room fee, a full Scottish breakfast was included.

So, after checking in and lugging my stuff up four flights of stairs (top floor room, no lift), I decided to get some lunch. While walking about, I was going to head towards the centre part of town, but a nearby restaurant caught my eye. I figured that anyplace called ‘Elephants and Bagels’ was worth a try; plus I haven’t had a decent, proper bagel since I left Roanoke. Well, after lunch, I still hadn’t had a decent, proper bagel, but it wasn’t bad.

Before I left Stevenage, I made sure to download all the digital pictures from my camera’s memory card onto the computer. Well, I thought I had. Seized with a bout of conflusteration (Did I write-protect the pictures on the computer or just, accidentally, the ones on the card? Could I have clicked the wrong key and NOT saved the pictures?), I decided to play it safe and not delete my already-full memory cards just yet. Instead, I found a nice little photo place on the Royal Mile that was able to copy both of my cards onto a CD. While I waited for the copying process to take place, I walked around the Royal Mile to see what trouble I could get into…I mean, to see what I might find to occupy my afternoon.

Ah, the Royal Mile. It’s one of those relatively rare street names that actually describes the street. I mean, streets called Oak Street often commemorate the trees that were there BEFORE they were cut down to build the road. And, despite the utmost commonality (it must be a word, it’s in the computer’s thesaurus) of High Streets in the UK, they generally aren’t much higher that the other streets. The Royal Mile, however, is both. Stretching almost exactly one mile, it begins at the top of the hill at the entrance of Edinburgh Castle and runs downhill where it finally ends at the gate of the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

After picking up my CD and my memory cards, I decided to join a tour of some of Edinburgh’s underground vaults. I mentioned earlier that most places in Edinburgh are either all uphill or downhill from where you are (and it’s usually uphill, it seems). Here’s where a brief geology lesson comes in. Edinburgh Castle is built on the core of an extinct volcano. Three sides of the castle overlook steep, nearly vertical drops (making the site ideal for defence purposes) while the fourth side slopes somewhat steeply down what is now the Royal Mile. In fact, the Royal Mile is the spine of the hill, which slopes downhill on both sides. (Sound confusing? Picture this…you’re standing at the gate to Edinburgh Castle. The Castle is behind you, and in front of you is the Royal Mile, sloping downhill the entire way. Then, both the left and right sides of the Royal Mile slope downhill.)

In olden times (a technical term which means ‘a long time ago’), Edinburgh was a walled city measuring one mile by one-quarter of a mile. (The first decent wall was built in about 1450.) Since the residents of the city were supposedly terrified to leave the confines of the city walls (fearing an invasion by the British), the city inside the walls became rather crowded. As a result, buildings grew taller and taller. By 1500, the average building height was ten or eleven stories. The tallest building was fourteen stories tall. (Keep in mind that this was the year 1500, only eight years after Columbus voyaged to North America, nearly three hundred years before the American colonies declared independence from England.)

Now, when you are building structures in the 1500s, there is eventually going to be a limit to how tall you can build (evidently the limit was about 130 feet)…particularly if you are building them out of wood. (Besides the risk of fire, wood warps when it gets wet.) So, with the population of Edinburgh still increasing, and the population still terrified to venture outside the walls (for almost 250 years, nearly no houses were built outside the walls), people resorted to digging underground. There are several other hills in Edinburgh, most of which are fairly steep. One of the benefits to having such steep hills was that people could dig into the sides of the hills, digging horizontally rather than vertically.

Okay, so far we have hugely tall buildings as well as tunnels dug into the hill, all of this is inside a walled area about one-fourth of a square mile, which lead to some of the worst sanitary conditions in Europe. Yet people still arrived in Edinburgh. Between 1800 and 1830, the city’s population doubled, due mostly to the famine in Ireland. The Lonely Planet guidebook I have here says that during the 19th century, the population of Edinburgh quadrupled to 400,000 (yep, that’s four hundred thousand, I double checked). Needless to say, the city was facing a major space crisis.

Remember those steep hills I mentioned? Well, between 1765 and 1833, five bridges were built between those hills. And rather than just having roads across them, the bridges soon had buildings on top and surrounding the bridges. One bridge, the South Bridge, is over 1000 feet long. In fact, walking across the bridge, I didn’t even realize it was a bridge until I looked through a gap between buildings and saw a road beneath. Built into these bridges were a number of vaults. Intended for use as storage places by the buildings above, the vaults were soon abandoned when shopkeepers found out that the vaults weren’t watertight.

So, to sum up things so far, we have a huge housing crisis and a bunch of empty bridge vaults. It wasn’t long before people began using the vaults for purposes other than those originally intended. Unfortunately, the vaults became home to those too poor to afford anything else. In fact, one tour guide said that if you could afford candles to light up the vault, you could afford to live elsewhere. Basically, the vaults soon housed the poor, the sick, the orphaned, and the forgotten. The vaults also attracted quite a bit of illegal activity. In short, they were a sad, terrible place very few people would choose to go.

Today, however, several tour companies do a brisk business taking tourists down into these vaults. On Tuesday after lunch (remember, I mentioned this an entire page ago…) I decided to tour some of the vaults. The tour I took was basically just an excursion into some of the vaults beneath the South Bridge. We saw a few of the rough rooms and heard some of the stories of life below ground (including how the University of Edinburgh’s anatomy department was able to become the world’s finest). We finished by seeing some of the artefacts discovered when the vaults were recently excavated (and by recent, I’m referring to the European sense of the word rather than the American…where ‘recent’ means within the last fifty years or so ago rather than the last six months or so).

Another note on the vaults: Since the underground vaults were built over a period of several hundred years, there is no plan or diagram that shows them all. It is completely realistic that some of the vaults go unknown for a hundred years or more until someone happens to knock through a wall or a floor. In fact, one account I read told about the University of Edinburgh knocking through a wall only to found a vault that had been sealed up for fourteen years…with a working electricity meter inside. Needless to say, there is no map to these vaults and passages and you shouldn’t go wandering about all alone, particularly as some are haunted. Ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself again… One final note: In the 1960s, an athlete from Communist Hungary used the South Bridge vaults to escape his security agents and defect to the West.

After returning to the Royal Mile, I decided to head up to The Real Mary King’s Close. But this requires another (brief) history lesson. In 1645 the plague came to Edinburgh. When it passed, out of the original 40,000 inhabitants of the city, only sixty were deemed fit to defend the city. During the infection, the area of Mary King’s Close (a particular street and block of buildings named for one of the major inhabitants) was walled up with its inhabitants still inside. Two months later, the City Council decided it was safe enough to send people in to remove the bodies. Despite the difficulty finding housing, most people avoided the area of Mary King’s Close…something about the sinister lingering feelings of death and the disembodied heads people said they saw floating about.

Anyway, in 1750, the city council decided to build the Royal Exchange market area. The area on which they chose to build was Mary King’s Close (and two or three adjoining closes). Remember how I said the hill sloped down from the Royal Mile? Rather than totally knock down the existing buildings, the builders simply knocked them down to the level of the Royal Mile, which in turn left the foundations several stories high at the rear of the building site. (I know it sounds confusing. Think of it this way…ever been in a house that was built on a hill? The front door is at street level but the back window on the same floor might be ten or fifteen feet off the ground. Now, imagine a huge building built on a really, really steep hill.)

Okay, so the Royal Exchange was built on the foundations of the tenement houses that used to be part of Mary King’s Close. What was left was simply blocked up and forgotten for years. (This is Edinburgh…they seem rather fond of burying things and forgetting them until years and years later…then they make money by taking tourists there.) But, now tourists can take tours of what is left. It’s rather creepy to descend the stairs and walk along an alley, looking in windows and doors and then to look up and see a building above you. Incidentally, after the Royal Exchange was built, merchants refused to use it due to the lingering hauntedness of the area. Today, the building houses the city council offices.

I had Mexican food for dinner. (Considering how I spent most of my time here, it was probably the most normal thing I did in Scotland. Of course, the cheese and haggis quesadillas sounded rather scary.)

And, just in case you thought you might possibly get away with anything less than a geology or history lesson in that paragraph, you’re probably right.

After dinner, I couldn’t help myself. I headed towards the City of the Dead Haunted Cemetery Tour. I went on the 8:30 tour and was a bit worried since, in Edinburgh, at 8:30 in the summer it’s still quite light outside. As it turned out, the tour was scary enough without it being pitch dark outside. First, though, let me stress that I’m not one of those ‘oh look, it’s a ghost, I’m so scared’ people. I just thought that it would be interesting, after seeing the underground parts of the city, to see some aboveground parts, particularly since old graveyards are pretty cool.

So, a guide dressed in all black, including a black leather trench coat, met us. The tour started off on the Royal Mile. We learned about some of the things that happened nearby, including some of the witch trials. Eventually, though, we ended up at Greyfriar’s Cemetery. We started on the ‘good side’ by hearing about some of the ‘good people’ buried there. (We also saw the back of the Elephant House – the coffee shop where JK Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter novel…but more on that later.) Moving to the ‘bad side’ of the cemetery, we heard about some of the ‘bad people’ buried there. Then, though, we moved slowly towards the Covenanters’ Prison and another history lesson.

In 1625, King James VI and I (he was the sixth Scottish King James and the first English King James) died leaving his son, Charles I, to become the next king of England and Scotland. Unfortunately, Charles I decided that he wanted all of his subjects to worship the same way. Despite his Scottish roots, he was not Presbyterian but was Episcopal instead (or Catholic as one book says, but I believe that refers to the Episcopal Church of England being a reformed Catholic Church). Anyway, in1638, the National Covenant was signed in Greyfriars Church in Edinburgh. In the Covenant, the signers agreed that Presbyterianism would be the religion of Scotland. After a series of battles, Charles I agreed to allow them to worship as they chose.

Unfortunately, in 1642, the English Civil War broke out. Sensing an opportunity, the Covenanters negotiated a treaty, called the Solemn League and Covenant, with Oliver Cromwell and the English Parliament in which the Covenanters offered military help to Cromwell in exchange for Scottish Presbyterianism being established in all of Britain. In 1650, Cromwell executed Charles I in a move that upset the Scottish (despite their covenant with Cromwell, the Scottish felt he couldn’t just go about lopping of the head of a Scottish king, no matter what he had done). In retaliation, the Covenanter’s leader, Argyll, crowned the son of Charles I the new king, Charles II. Until Cromwell’s death in 1660, Argyll kept Charles II hidden and made sure he was moulded into a proper Presbyterian.

Regrettably for Argyll, his moulding of Charles II did not work. In 1660, Charles II had Argyll executed and immediately began to destroy what was left of the Covenanters. Jump forward to 1672 when 1,200 Covenanters were finally rounded up, bound two by two and dragged across Scotland to Edinburgh where they were herded into the Greyfriars churchyard and locked into the south-west section. Now, having been there, I can tell you that the south-west section is not large, certainly not large enough for 1,200 people. Nonetheless, they were kept there, outside with no roof, for five months. They were forced to sleep on the cold ground and snipers were posted to shoot anyone who was heard moving around at night. By mid-November there were just 257 prisoners left. Those prisoners were rounded up and crammed into a boat bound for Australia. Unfortunately, the boat hit rocks off the shore of Orkney and sunk, killing more than 200 people. In a move to ruthlessly intimidate anyone who clung to the remnants of the Covenanters’ movement, the next 18 years saw the slaughter of an estimated 18,000 men, women, and children during what became known as the ‘Killing Times.’ The man responsible for this slaying was the King’s Advocate in Scotland, George Mackenzie.

Four paragraphs ago, I mentioned that we were heading towards the Covenanters’ Prison. This is the area where nearly all of the 1,200 Covenanters were killed during the five months in 1672. Just outside this walled section is a rather large, domed mausoleum…the burial site of George Mackenzie. So, within about 50 feet we have the place where nearly 1000 people were killed and the tomb of the man responsible for their death. In anyone’s book, this is a rather poor idea. For specialists in the paranormal, this is a very, very poor idea.
Stopping just outside the locked gates of the Covenanters’ Prison, our guide told us that the area was known for its strange happenings. We were told of people who had felt terrible cold spots, tourists who has felt deep feelings of doom, those who were knocked unconscious by mysterious unseen forces, and individuals who left the area with strange scratches on their faces and arms. Needless to say, we were all eager to get inside.

Before stepping in, however, he showed us one of the odd things that sometimes happens in this area. The guide asked if anyone was a doctor or a nurse or perhaps trained in first aid. Since we had nobody willing to admit to being a doctor or a nurse, I had to admit to being trained in first aid. He asked if I could take a pulse. I can. It’s fairly simple, really. I mean, he head out his left wrist, I put two fingers on his artery and felt the pulse. But then, as he brought his right hand closer to his left, the pulse disappeared. Really. It was gone. Totally. As he moved his right hand away, the pulse returned. Really.

After that, we couldn’t wait to go inside. I mean, the sooner we got inside, the sooner we could leave, right?

Unlocking the gate, the guide explained that people on the tours were the only people allowed inside the Covanenters’ Prison. Several years ago, after the strange happenings increased, the City Council decided to lock the gates. It is only by being part of the tour that people are able to go inside. We walked slowly into the walled area. On each side are large stone tombs. Large, dark, scary, stone tombs. Stopping in front of a tomb known as the Black Mausoleum, we heard more about the haunting believed to be responsible for the mysterious scratches and other happenings.

You know how I’m always getting into things without enough research? Yeah, well, evidently, I had stumbled across something that just happened to be the world’s best-documented poltergeist, the Mackenzie Poltergeist. Really. I mean, evidently this wasn’t just some guy who decided to walk people around a graveyard at night and scare them. It was only after all the scary happenings (including people being mysteriously being knocked unconscious) that the city decided to lock the gate. And it was only after that happened that the tour company was formed. And it seems that there are quite a few well-documented cases of mysterious things happening. And television companies have come from around the world to film stories about this place. About this pitch dark Black Mausoleum in which I was now standing.

Well, fortunately (or unfortunately, depending…), none of us was knocked unconscious by the Mackenzie Poltergeist. We all got out safely. And leaving the cemetery, even though it was nearly 10:00, it was still not totally dark yet. Oh, that, and the tour guide showed me how he could drive a nail up his nose.

Well, since I’m on page six of this entry, that’s probably enough for now. There’s more, much more, to write about my trip to Edinburgh. I realize that this entry is fairly heavy on the history. It’s not just to show off that I learned something on my trip, but it’s because I think you really need to know the context for these things. It wasn’t just me climbing around in underground and creeping about in cemeteries at night. Well, it was at first, but I did end up learning a few things.


Okay, evidently I picked up a bit of history on this trip. And a touch of geology and science, too. I also picked up a couple of great books about the area:

The Town Below Ground, by Jan-Andrew Henderson has a great description of the underground areas of the city as well as an introduction to the local hauntings.

The Ghost That Haunted Itself, also by Jan-Andrew Henderson tell all about the Mackenzie poltergeist and the City of the Dead tour company.


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