There is one part of Greyfriars cemetery that is locked to the public, and there’s only one way to get inside: take a walking tour called City of the Dead. The Covenanter’s graveyard has been locked for years, because of the activity of one particular poltergeist, that of Bloody George Mackenzie.
The Covenanter’s prison held around 1,200 prisoners in 1679 who rebelled against the national covenant, and the place became the very first ever concentration camp. The prisoners were held there for months with no shelter through Scottish winter and very little food; many died, and the ones that didn’t were boarded on a ship that was supposed to be bound for Barbados or somewhere where they would end up slaves. Some people say their ship encountered bad weather and sunk before it got there – others say George Mackenzie had the ships anchored and sank.
During the walking tour we learn just how many people are buried in Greyfriars. Not the exact amount, of course, but the fact that what used to be a valley is now a hill gives some indication. It was the only graveyard during the years when the city was grossly overcrowded and also plague-ridden, and the place was pretty much a mass grave.
Inside the Covenanter’s prison the guide leads you right into Mackenzie’s crypt, where we wait for something creepy to happen. Nothing does. Apparently though over 350 people have been attacked or have passed out inside the graveyard – some report being strangled by disembodied hands, and develop burn marks around their necks. Others feel very cold and collapse, or wake up the next morning with scratches on their bodies.
So I won’t be going back to Greyfriar’s at night. But I still like it during the day for other reasons. The place has inspired many a writer: Mary Shelley conceived of Frankenstein after visiting Greyfriars during a period when grave robbers stole bodies to donate to scientists who were working to cure diseases, but whom people thought were trying to raise the dead. Charles Dickens apparently encountered a gravestone with the name ‘Ebenezer Scrooge’.
On the other side of Greyfriars, visible through the gates, is a school: Heriot’s School. And because I’m a huge nerd, I’m abnormally impressed with the fact that it was on this school that J.K. Rowling based Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Nerd.