Even before I travelled to Edinburgh I had an image of the city as somewhat spooky and mysterious. As I visited in winter, the weather certainly helped that image along, with early dusks that meant the city was blanketed in darkness by late afternoon and cold temperatures that left the air with a slight hint of fog.
In the city centre, there are several landmarks that do not exactly argue with this spooky image, such as the Grassmarket, a traditional spot for public executions by hanging; Greyfriars Kirk, which was most notable to me as the place J.K. Rowling found inspiration, on a gravestone, for the name Tom Riddle (Edinburgh is also a great destination for Harry Potter nerds); and the Underground Vaults, where people actually lived once upon a time.
During the day we enjoyed sunny weather and a pleasant ambience, but at night I felt the morbid parts of the city’s history palpable in the air – and therefore decided it was the perfect place to try a ghost tour. As a bonus, many of the tours include visits to the Underground City, which we decided was best to include with a ghost tour rather than as a single activity.
At 8pm, after a pub dinner where I tried Haggis (absolutely delicious and a perfect winter comfort food), we made our way to the meeting point. Our guide included in her introduction the fact that they are storytellers, hinting that some of what we would hear would be fact – but there would also be some dramatic effect. The tour was to last roughly 90 minutes.
We set off first for the Vaults, where I again conducted an internal debate as to exactly how claustrophobic I am. Our guide was full of information, imparted in a smooth Scottish accent that made it all the more interesting. The Underground Vaults were small, low-ceilinged, and decidedly creepy with little idea of who or what lurked beyond the light of the one flashlight that lit our path.
Naturally our guide included some creepy stories of hauntings, and that the Vaults were reportedly used by serial killers Burke and Hare to store the bodies of their victims before selling said corpses for medical experiments. Quite suddenly, after we were sufficiently spooked, she switched off the flashlight and plunged us into darkness. I gripped my friend’s arm, as that would naturally protect me from all manner of underground ghosts, and attempted to calmly wait as the guide built suspense then turned the flashlight back on.
I was quite pleased when we exited the Vaults into a narrow alleyway through an iron-barred door, then continued on our path toward Greyfriars Kirk. We walked through the churchyard hearing different stories of gruesome deaths and unreasonable public executions, and the ghosts born as a result of those events. You may think that something like this cannot scare you, but there is no denying I was on edge as we listened to these stories in the seemingly deserted, dark cemetery.
We then proceeded to a section that was accessible only through a large wrought-iron gate, which our guide opened, leading us to the above-ground tombs beyond. We walked right inside one, which was essentially a very small room, where bodies had laid within the walls for centuries.
I cannot remember the precise story we heard while inside this tomb, not only because time has passed, but also as I knew that we were reaching the climax of the tour and there was surely a big scare coming. I was rather on edge and watching for sudden movements out of the corner of my eye, so I was a tiny bit prepared – though I still jumped – when the man in a mask jumped out with a yell.
Soon after the guide wrapped up the tour, and we exited the tomb, made our way out of the graveyard, and returned to the warmly-lit cobblestoned streets in need of a drink to settle our nerves.
Falling for the tricks was all in the fun, you can experience a ghost tour in Edinburgh while on tour – check out your options here!
Courtney Gahan is a serial expat, traveller and freelance writer who has bartered with Moroccan marketeers, seen the sun rise at Angkor Wat and elbowed her way through crowds on NYE in NYC