The Grim, Ghostly History of Scotland's 'Most Haunted' Graveyard

Ghostly legends surround the mausoleum of George Mackenzie.
Ghostly legends surround the mausoleum of George Mackenzie. / N Chadwick, Geograph // CC BY-SA 2.0

Within Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh, Scotland, looms a grimly baroque mausoleum covered in centuries' worth of dirt and grime. It's a stark contrast to the otherwise well-maintained grounds, which include a tombstone that inspired a Harry Potter villain and the statue of a dog who was said to have sat by his deceased master's grave for 14 years. That decay is by design: The structure has been allowed to lapse into neglect out of respect for the victims of the man buried inside. Centuries after his death, it’s said that his restless paranormal presence terrorizes those who visit the graveyard. It's this ghost—and not the extensive grave robbing and body snatching that occurred there in the 19th century—that earned the kirkyard a reputation as the most haunted cemetery in Scotland.

A "Bluidy" History

George "Bluidy" Mackenzie.
George "Bluidy" Mackenzie. / A Biographical History of England: from Egbert the Great to the Revolution, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Scotland in the 1600s was riven by religious conflict. In addition to the Catholic-Protestant divide that was tearing its way through Europe, Covenanters, protestants who resisted the King's control of the church, were subjected to vicious persecution. Their failed uprising of 1679 was met with an act of retribution so brutal that the man responsible for it, Lord Advocate George "Bluidy" Mackenzie, was widely held to be damned as a result.

After the Covenanters suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Bosworth Bridge, Mackenzie herded the 1200 survivors Covenanters into a small section of Greyfriars Kirkyard now known as the Covenanters Prison. Trapped in the makeshift jail, with no shelter and insufficient food for months, many of the Covenanters were dead before winter's end. The majority of those who survived were hanged or sentenced to indentured servitude in America, only to drown when their ship went down in a storm (just 47 of the nearly 260 imprisoned people aboard the vessel managed to survive). All but the shipwrecked were buried in a mass grave in the kirkyard.

Mackenzie, meanwhile, continued to serve in public office. He published books on religion, philosophy, and the monarchy, and founded the Advocates Library in 1689. He died 1691 and was interred in a stately mausoleum in Greyfriars Kirkyard—the very same cemetery where the imprisoned Covenanters had once suffered.

A Spirit Disturbed

Despite the graveyard's gruesome past, there are no known reports of paranormal activity until nearly the end of the 20th century, when claims of a violent, unseen presence proliferated after someone broke into Mackenzie’s mausoleum. Reports on the event that disturbed the spirit vary; some say it was children avoiding punishment, while others maintain it was an unhoused man seeking shelter.

Whoever disturbed the tomb unleashed a vengeful spirit. As of 2006, there were more than 450 recorded attacks attributed to the Mackenzie poltergeist. According to the lore, those who encounter the ghost in the Covenanters Prison or mausoleum suffer not just pushing and scratching, but bruises, burns, and even a broken finger. Mackenzie's malevolent presence is said to have the ability to leave the graveyard and attach itself to visitors, following them home and continuing its attacks. There have even been two reported cases of psychiatric hospitalization following alleged encounters with the ghost, who the victims and their partners blame for the episodes.

The Hauntings Continue

You'll need to join an official tour to get behind these gates.
You'll need to join an official tour to get behind these gates. / duncan c, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

City of the Dead Tours, which specializes in taking people around the poltergeist’s stomping grounds, keeps a record of many of these reported injuries by sharing them on their Twitter account. The company’s founder, Jan-Andrew Henderson, is himself allegedly a victim of the Mackenzie poltergeist. In one of the more extreme cases attributed to the being, Henderson's apartment burned down while he was living next to the graveyard and working on a book about the entity. Though he said at the time that he was keeping an open mind as to whether the ghost even existed, Henderson has since stopped leading tours and moved to Australia.

Henderson may have gotten off lightly. The worst act attributed to Mackenzie’s ghost so far is the death of spiritualist medium Colin Grant in 2000. The medium died of a heart attack during a séance just weeks after attempting to exorcise the poltergeist. Before he passed, Grant said he feared his attempts to get rid of the spirit would kill him.

Those looking to tempt their own fate and catch a glimpse of the ghost will have to plan their excursions in advance. To deter vandals, the Covenanters Prison and Mackenzie’s mausoleum remain locked up, only accessible via brief visits as part of official tours.