The story of this reportedly vicious poltergeist begins nearly four hundred years into Edinburgh, Scotland’s dark history.
In 1637, King Charles I attempted to introduce the English Book of Common Prayer into Scottish church services. This was not acceptable to the Scottish people who were determined to keep Presbyterianism as the sole religion of Scotland. They refused to see the King as the head of the Church, insisting that only God or Jesus could command that position.
In 1638, all who opposed Charles’ idea signed a National Covenant at Greyfriar’s Kirkyard proclaiming their loyalty to God above King. This was ultimately their downfall. Over the next 40 or so years, there were many battles over this one issue with the Covenanters alternately siding with the English Parliament and then against the English Parliament.
In 1679, the Covenanters faced King Charles II on the battlefield, outnumbered and easily defeated. A thousand or so men were taken prisoner. Since all of the prisons were full, they were placed into an area right outside Greyfriar’s Cemetery with no shelter and little food. Many men hung for their crimes after refusing to sign an agreement to never raise up arms agains the King again. George MacKenzie, a Scottish lawyer, was put in charge of the proceedings and was said to relish every hanging that he ordered. He was truly a “hanging judge”. This earned him the nickname ‘Bloody MacKenzie’ and after his own eventual death, he was unable to escape his deeds in life and find rest. It is said that children were often dared to approach the door to the mausoleum where he was interred and yell: ‘Bluidy Mackinzie, come oot if ye daur, lift the sneck and draw the bar!’
Now we must fast forward our story to 1998 when a vagrant broke into that same mausoleum of George MacKenzie. This is the tale that has been related as the start of the hauntings:
Theoretically, a homeless man looking for shelter came into the graveyard looking for shelter on a rainy December night. The gate had been left unlocked by mistake. In The Ghost That Haunted Itself, the BBC gets the blame for driving a truck into the east gates. And leaving it.
This homeless man then decided to try to get into Mackenzie’s tomb, as it was one of the most sheltered ones in the whole graveyard.
He looked through the grille at the front and must have seen a small crack of light. Intrigued by the light, he climbed over some railings and saw a small opening at the back of the tomb where it nearly connects with the graveyard wall- the railings run between the mausoleums near the wall. (In recent years the railings have managed to come down one way or another, probably vandalism, but now anyone can get to the back of Mackenzie’s tomb. There is a very tiny aperture and it’s possible a small person could squeeze through. Only just, but stranger things have happened and were just about to.)
The homeless man found he could fit through and, once inside, saw there was a stairway down to a vault below where the bodies actually went. He found several coffins and attempted to open one, as there may have been something valuable buried with the bodies- they were nobility, after all.
Meanwhile, a man was walking his dog in the graveyard. It’s about midnight, raining heavily, and there is a graveyard with open gates. That you know are meant to be closed, so what do you do? Walk straight in, of course. The dog walker heard the homeless man trying to get into the coffin, and wandered towards the tomb wondering what was making the noise.
Then the homeless man fell through a hole in the floor into a pit full of mouldy skeletons. As you would be, he was terrified, and ran into the tomb.
The dog walking man thought he was Mackenzie’s ghost and ran away. The homeless man thought he was running away from a zombie behind him and ran after the dog-walking guy. Who thought the zombie was chasing him.
We can only assume the dog walker informed the police about this because apparently they investigated the tomb. They didn’t know why there was a hole in the floor leading to a pit full of corpses either. Well, why should they? Burial methods were always just plain random in that graveyard.
A little while after this disturbance the Mackenzie Poltergeist became active.
Not long after the activity began, the Edinburgh City Council locked up the Covenanter’s Prison area of Greyfriar’s Cemetery. Soon after, Edinburgh historian Jan-Andrew Henderson obtained permission from the Council to set up tours which would take people into the Mausoleum. His tour company is still the only one in Edinburgh which concludes at the Covenanter’s Prison and then will take any willing tourists inside. During the first five years of the tour, nearly 500 incidents were documented involving people being scratched or bruised in some way and around 140 flat out losing conciousness.
I encourage you to read Henderson’s book The Ghost That Haunted Itself to learn more about the history of his tour company and read of first-hand accounts provided by tourists who have taken his tour. This tour is high on my agenda for my next trip to the UK!