A restless cemetery: Greyfriars Kirkyard


, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Coming from a country of Catholic tradition, the 1st November has always had a transcendent significance for me. All Saints’ Day is the feast of the departed ones, and thus, cemeteries are full of flowers, and people visit the graveyards of the loved ones who are no longer with them.

Last week, I wrote about haunted pubs in Edinburgh, and there is also a post about Burke and Hare, and the resurrectionists of the nineteenth century, who stole corpses from the cemeteries in order to sell them to unscrupulous scientists. I think All Saints’ Day, with its sacred connotations after Halloween, might be the perfect occasion to talk about what has been dubbed as “the scariest place on Earth” thanks to its paranormal activity: Greyfriars Kirkyard, in Edinburgh.

When the visitor enters here for the first time, Greyfriars Kirkyard seems like another cemetery that looks like a park thanks to the grass that covers the tombstones -a city for the dead that is enclosed and surrounded by the city of the living. In Mediterranean countries, cemeteries tend to be far from the city centre, and they’re all cement, cypresses and garlands. In the UK, however, graveyards are part of the urban landscape, and a perfect place to go for a walk.

As a matter of fact, the Comission for Architecture and Built Environment states that:

It is often argued that the Victorian cemetery was part of the wider public park family, with many being designed and laid out by established park designers. As well as functioning as burial sites, they were also regarded as places for visiting and promenading of a more dignified and morally uplifting kind. The nineteenth-century legislation that provided for new burial grounds seemed to have envisaged that they would in due course become public open spaces“.


Greyfriars Kirkyard, as I said, looks like one of these peaceful lawn cemeteries, and it probably was until 1998. It takes its name from the Franciscan friary that built a church there. The word “kirkyard” derives from “kirk”, which means church in Scots. Founded in 1561, the churchyards is sadly known for the history of the Covenanters. Nowadays, we can find a sign at the entrance that commemorates the death of those imprisoned by fearsome advocate Mackenzie.


Sir George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh, aka Bluidy Mackenzie, was a Scottish lawyer and Lord Advocate, who imprisoned 400 Covenanters in 1679, many of whom died before being condemned to execution, due to the terrible conditions in which they were held.

(c) National Library of Scotland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Sir George Mackenzie, by Godfrey Kneller. Copyright: National Library of Scotland.

But who were the Covenanters? They were members of a Scottish Presbyterian movement, who took their name from the Covenant made in the Bible between God and the Israelites. They signed the National Covenant in 1638, a document that affirmed their opposition to the interference by the Stuart kings in the affairs of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

After King Charles I introduced the Book of Common Prayer, much to the dissatisfaction of the Scottish population, a time of repression and executions ensued, which meant that opposition to the new lithurgy would be considered treason against the Crown itself.


Covenanters were forced to leave their parishes and preach at ‘conventicles’, facing the possibility of being executed if they were discovered. After the Battle of Bothwell Bridge, 400 Covenanters were imprisoned in Greyfriars Churchyard, facing the winter cold and barely eating four onces of bread per day. Many died in these five months of starvation and illness, and the others were executed.

Interestingly enough, Mackenzie himself was buried at this cemetery.

mackenzie mausoleum

The Mackenzie Mausoleum, Jonathan Oldenbuck

In 1998, a homeless man broke into the Mackenzie Mausoleum, trying to find shelter from a stormy night. After finding four wooden coffins, he began to smash one of them, and fell through a hole that suddenly opened under his feet. Apparently, he found himself in a pit which had been used to dump illegaly those who died of the plague. The tramp fled in terror, and told the story to a nearby security guard.

It could have all been the testimony of an alcoholic and terrified man, but some time after two women claimed they had been attacked by an unknown force next to the mausoleum -one of them had her neck ringed with bruises, as if someone had tried to strangle her.

The Edinburgh City Council decided to close the mausoleum, until Jan-Andrew Henderson asked to council for permission to do some tours there. Since then, there has been at least 450 documented attacks, and 180 people have lost consciousness, with many others feeling nausea, numbness and cold spots. Some of them have even reported finding bruises, scratches and burns the next day after doing the tour, with no explanation at all, and a few ones had their fingers broken while being inside the mausoleum.

Besides the terrible effects the mausoleum seems to have on many people, owners of four houses that border the graveyard have reported poltergeist phenomena, and a big fire swept through Jan-Andrew’s home and the Black Hart Entertainment Offices in 2003.

Despite this amount of frightening phenomena, the number of people who want to visit Mackenzie’s Black Mausoleum and the Covenanters Prison grows every year.

As for myself, curiosity cannot counteract fear, and all I can think about, when I am wandering through this beautiful graveyard, so full of sadness and terror, is the last sentence of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, which seems to be very fitting for the place:

I lingered round them […] and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth“.

memento mori


Cemeteries, Churhyards and Burial Grounds, A Briefing. CABE. http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20110118095356/http:/www.cabe.org.uk/files/cemeteries-churchyards-and-burial-grounds.pdf

Unexplained Mysteries: The Mackenzie Poltergeist: http://www.unexplained-mysteries.com/column.php?id=220743


Haunted Pub Crawl in Edinburgh


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Edinburgh has the reputation of being one of the most haunted places in the world. It doesn’t strike me as odd or unusual, given its bloody past. Here, there are even haunted pubs, each of them with its own ghost, much to the delight of paranormal investigators and tourists. After all, what would a Scottish building be without a lost soul?

Here is the route you might want to follow if you love both poltergeist stories and good beer.


The Last Drop. 74-78 Grassmarket

Let’s start with one of the most famous pubs in Edinburgh, The Last Drop. Located in Grassmarket, which used to be yet another spot for public executions (one can but wonder if there was a corner in this city which wasn’t used for that purpose), The Last Drop was, according to the stories, the place where a condemned person could take a last drink before being hanged.


Being located in front of the gallows (where nowadays we can see a silhouette of its menacing shadow on the floor), The Last Drop adopted much of the hanging paraphernalia for decorative purposes. When we first enter the pub we can be bewildered by the nooses and pictures that depict executed criminals. The feeling will disappear once we get a pint, and soon we will forget about gibbets and broken necks.


The thing is, maybe we won’t for a long time. It is said that the spirit of a young lass, dressed in medieval clothes, haunts both the bar and the cellar, and that she has been seen by the staff who works there. She does not seem evil, though, just a little mischievous: bartenders have heard their names when they were completely alone, but nothing serious has ever happened.


The White Hart Inn. 34 Grassmarket

It seems that Grassmarket has some haunted buildings, as this is the second pub we can find there with paranormal activity. The White Hart Inn is the oldest pub in central Edinburgh -the cellar dates back to 1516, although it is thought that there was already an inn at this place by the 12th century. The rest of the the building dates to 1740.

Its name comes from the legend of King David I and the stag. It is said that King David was hunting upon the Feast Day of the Holy Rood in the 12th century, much to the dismay of his priest. He stumbled upon a magnificent white stag and tried to hunt it, but when he fell from a horse the tables were turned, for he became the prey. Terrified, he prayed to God, and a cross appeared between the stag´s antlers, before the animal disappeared.


The White Hart Inn used to be populated by prostitutes and criminals. Infamous murderers Burke and Hare liked to get their victims drunk with grog and whisky here, just before asphyxiating them.

Given the fact that this pub is 600 years old, it comes as no surprise that people can see several spooky ghosts there. There is a little girl playing around, and a pair of disembodied legs or boots in the cellar. Apparently, some lights turn on and off on their own, there are unexplained cold spots, and some bartenders have reported to feel like somebody is watching over their shoulder.


The Banshee Labyrinth. 29-35 Niddry Street

This pub, formerly known as Nicol Edwards Pub, advertises itself as “the most haunted one in Edinburgh”, although The White Hart Inn also claims the title. Located in Niddry Street, not far from Grassmarket, The Banshee Labyrinth is decorated as any other rock or metal bar would be, with skeletons, cobwebs and B-movies posters.


Part of this pub is located within South Bridge´s underground vaults, the slums where gamblers, criminals, and poor people used to live, in harsh conditions. There are some interesting ghosts in the vaults as well, but we’ll leave those stories for another post.


Regarding this club, which is cool enough to have a cinema, the story goes that the workers who were renovating it heard a bloodcurdling scream coming from the other side of a wall. Some minutes laters, one of them received a phone call in which he was informed that somebody closely related to him had died.

Banshees are female spirits or fairies in Irish mythology, related to some families of Celtic origin, that scream and wail whenever a member of the family is about to die.

So, if you happen to be there enjoying a drink, and suddenly you are startled by a cry, you can be sure of two things: your family has Celtic roots, and a beloved one of yours has passed away, sadly.


Enjoy your haunted pub crawl this Halloween, and visit these pubs if you have the opportunity to do so. Who knows, you might even see a ghost -or it might just be the effect of too many whiskies. Either way, you can always proclaim: “I ain’t afraid of no ghost“, and see what happens next!

Burke and Hare: Murderers at the Service of Science


, , , , , , , , , ,

Nowadays, we can boast about the fact that Edinburgh is one of the safest cities in the UK -and we’re not making up things, that is the perception of 91% of its residents, according to a recent survey (http://www.edinburghnews.scotsman.com/news/crime/edinburgh-wins-title-of-uk-s-safest-destination-1-3536909).

However, it wasn’t the same for the people who lived here 200 years ago, in a city so polluted that it was familiarly known as Auld Reekie (“The Old Chimney”). Crime ran rampant, and everybody was looking for opportunities to get money -even if they had to resort to murder to earn it.

In this grim atmosphere, two men appeared like characters taken from a penny dreadful magazine, that would shake a tough city like Edinburgh to its core.

Ladies and gentlemen, hold on to your seats, and enjoy the real story of Burke and Hare in five acts.

Act 1: A Cry in the Night

October, 1828. It is another night at the Hare’s lodging house, located in Tanner’s Close, Edinburgh. Except that this very night everything will change at the capital, who will be taken aback  by the headlines some days later.

William Burke and William Hare, tenant and owner respectively of the lodging house, are killing Marjorie Campbell Docherty, using the technique known as “burking” in their honor: one of them sits on the victim’s chest, while the other suffocates him (or her) with his hand. It leaves no signs of a violent death, and it allows them to live confortably enough to not work.


Burke and Hare in action. Unknown author.

But this night, neighbours could hear Mary Campbell’s cry for help: “Murder!”, and became suspicious. The other tenants at the lodging house, the Grays, had the chance to look under Burke’s bed the next day, where they found her corpse. Thanks to them, the police arrested these serial killers, who were terrorising the population of Edinburgh.

But who were these gentlemen, and what was the purpose of their crimes?

Act 2: A Doctor named Robert Knox

doctor knox

Dr Robert Knox, unknown author. Circa 1830.

Ten months ago.

Robert Knox, a former army surgeon at Waterloo and a local anatomist who works at the Edinburgh University, is in serious need of corpses to study. Until 1832, it was difficult to find enough cadavers to dissect. The only legal way to get them was to wait for the executions, for criminals’ bodies weren´t given the benefit of a proper burial. Unfortunately for Dr. Knox, executions have dropped drastically (pardon the pun) in the nineteenth century. This means that Dr. Knox and their students can only get 2 or 3 corpses per year.

But where there’s a problem, there’s always a solution, and Dr. Knox soon gets the help of two gently Irishmen who are able to provide him with more corpses than he could have ever imagined. He pays them £7.10 for each, and doesn’t ask questions, just in case they are stealing them from the cemeteries.

Their names are Burke and Hare.

Act 3: Two Irish Gentlemen

William Burke and William Hare have a thriving business, but they’re not famous -although they will be soon.

It all started when Joseph the Miller, a sick tenant living at Margaret and William Hare’s house, proved to be a very easy victim. All they needed to reduce him was whisky and a strong hand. Nobody suspected a thing, because Joseph’s health was delicate.

When William Burke (1792 – 28 January 1829) and William Hare (1792-?) left Ireland, neither of them would imagine their future life in Edinburgh. The Hare’s house was the place were they met and became friends and partners in crime.

burke and hare

Hare and Burke, unknown author. Circa 1850.

Joseph the Miller owed Hare £4 rent, so when they murdered him they decided to steal his corpse and sell it to the University, following the steps of the body-snatchers, also known as resurrectionists, that plagued the cemeteries of Edinburgh in search of a corpse, desecrating the tombs. The only difference was that they weren’t stealing the corpses -they were creating them.

When they saw the money they could make, there was no way back. They ended up killing three men, twelve women, and one child, without remorse. The victims were given whisky and a good conversation at the lodging house, but since it was very difficult to find sick ones, they had to be forceful on them.

Act 4: Crime and Punishment

Nobody seemed to notice the dissapereances, until they chose James Wilson, “Daft Jamie”.

Jamie, an eighteen-year-old mentally disabled man, was very well-known in Edinburgh, to the point that several students of Robert Knox recognized him at the dissection table. Knox denied that the corpse belonged to the boy, and dissected it himself, so nobody could claim it was Jamie.

daft jamie

Daft Jamie, unknown author. Circa 1828.

While Hare disposed of the victim’s clothes, Burke gave Jamie’s ones to his nephews, a fact that later would become an evidence against him.

The last victim, in October, is Mary Campbell. The lodgers, James and Ann Gray, have left that night, so Burke and Hare are sure that they can get away with murder one more time.

However, the next day, the Grays frustrate their chance to get more money, when they find Mary Campbell’s corpse under Burke’s bed and denounce the pair to the police.

What follows is a treason: Lord Advocate Sir William Rae offers Hare immunity if he confesses and agrees to testify against Burke. It is Hare´s testimony which leads Burke to the gallows, where he will be executed in January 1829.

execution of burke

The execution of Burke, as depicted on a contemporary newspaper.

Act 5: The Remains of the Day

After being hanged, in an ironic twist of events, Burke’s body served the anatomists, who used it to make a dissection at the Edinburgh Medical College, as it had happened with the corpses of his victims. Alexander Monro, the dissecting professor, dipped his quill in the blood and wrote: “This is written with the blood of Wm Burke, who was hanged at Edinburgh. This blood was taken from his head.” Burke’s skeleton was preserved and displayed at the college´s museum, where it can be seen nowadays.

burke's skeleton

Burke’s skeleton. Source: http://www.natural-history-conservation.com 

What is more interesting and disturbing, perhaps, is the wallet made from his own skin, which is displayed at The Cadies and Witchery Tours, a shop in Victoria Street, Edinburgh.

burke wallet

Wallet made with Burke’s left hand skin, at The Cadies and Witchery Tours, Edinburgh

As for Hare, he suffered a reversal of fortune: after being released in February 1829, he fled to London, where he ended his days as a blind beggar.

Hare´s wife, Margaret, and Burke’s mistress, Helen M´Dougal, couldn’t be accused, as there was no evidence against them, but they were forced to leave Edinburgh as well. Both of them were mobbed wherever they went.

As for the unscrupulous Dr Robert Knox, he continued to make deals with body-snatchers. After being rejected at the Edinburgh Medical School, he moved to the Cancer Hospital in London, where he died in 1862.


The Worlds of Burke and Hare: http://burkeandhare.com/

Edinburgh History: http://www.edinburgh-history.co.uk/burke-hare.html

Toil and Trouble: a History of Witchery in Scotland


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

                                                                                                     «DOUBLE, DOUBLE TOIL AND TROUBLE;
                                                                                                     FIRE BURN, AND CAULDRON BUBBLE
                                                                                                       COOL IT WITH A BABOON´S BLOOD,
                                                                                                      THEN THE CHARM IS FIRM AND GOOD».
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         W. SHAKESPEARE, MACBETH                                                          

October has started, and it will be Halloween soon, the modern interpretation of an ancient Gaelic festival which commemorated the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter. Jack-o’-lanterns, black cats, ghosts and, specially, witches, will fill Edinburgh and other cities on that festivity.

We have already been talking about magical aspects regarding this city and its surroundings, but this month we will focuse on the darkest side of it: witchcraft, old cemeteries and serial killers.

I have always felt fascinated by the figure of the witch. Although the image we all have in our minds is that of an old and ugly woman dressed in black clothes, with a long nose and a wart on her face, there have been all kinds of witches in literature and arts, some of them young, spoilt and seductive, like Robert Burns’ Nannie Dee (aka “Cuttie-sark”), the merry sorcerer of the poem Tam o’Shanter. In it, Tam o’Shanter, the drunken protagonist, stumbles upon a witches’ Sabbath, where the lovely Nannie Dee is dancing erotically with devils and warlocks in a very short shirt (a “cutty-sark”). Tam can only scream in admiration: “Weel done, Cutty-sark!”, which earns him the wrath of the sorcerers.


Nannie Dee, aka “Cuttie-sark” (Short Shirt), the young and merry witch from Robert Burns’ poem Tam o’Shanter. John Faed, 1892.

In reality, sadly, the belief in witchery led to thousands of unfortunate women to the stake, where they were burnt alive. Most of them were widows or otherwise vulnerable females who happened to live alone. That means they were used as scapegoats to release social tensions between neighbours, in a time were superstition ran rampant and everybody depended on the year’s harvest to survive. Since women embodied sin since the Fall of Man, it was easy to blame them for ruining the crops and poisoning the cattle with the aid of the Devil.

Scotland is, without a doubt, a land of witchcraft. Shakespeare gave us the best example in Macbeth, through the figure of the Three Wyrd Sisters.

The Three Wyrd Sisters prophetise that Macbeth will be King, initiating a chain of events which result in murder, treason and suicide. These witches, whom many authors have identified with the Nordic Norns, have a female appearance, but wear beards as a symbol of subversion of the laws of men and Nature. These agents of chaos, however, cannot change the natural order of the world: Macbeth dies as a traitor, and the true heir of the throne reigns as an agent of God on Earth, reestablishing harmony and justice.

The moral of the story might be: don’t mess with a king. Although, if you lived in the sixteenth century, chances were that, being a woman, you might find yourself in trouble without a valid reason. The king could find an excuse for a trial, if he found you responsible of storms and bad weather. This is exactly what happened in the North Berwick Witch Trials.


 The Weird Sisters, depicted by Henry Fuseli, 1783.

The North Berwick Witch Trials

Although many modern authors have proposed a pagan origin for witchery, as a belief related to the crops and Nature, in the Judeo-Christian mentality it was identified with Evil and heresy, and therefore, it was related to treason when it was directed toward the king. Apart from the fictional story of Macbeth, created as a moral for those who tried to rebel against their legitimate sovereign (identified with God), and the established order in both Nature and the human society, we have a real account of a witch trial that involved a very historical King, James VI of Scotland.

north berwick witcj

The North Berwick Witch Trials, from Newes of Scotland, a contemporary pamphlet. 1591

In 1590, James VI became personally involved in which was the first major witchcraft persecution in Scotland. He had sailed to Copenhagen to marry Princess Anne, sister of Christian IV, King of Denmark. When they tried to return to Scotland, they were surprised by terrible storms, which forced them to find shelter in Norway.

Having little to no knowledge about meteorology, the only logical reason people found to explain the causes of such a terrible weather was sorcery. The admiral of the Danish fleet blamed the storm on the burgomaster’s wife, and hysteria ensued. Anna Koldings, the first woman in Denmark accused of causing the storm, divulged the names of several witches under severe torture.

But apparently, these witches were not only Danish: there were several Scottish ones involved in this act of treason against their own king, which made James VI set up his own tribunal and preside over the witchcraft trial.


Ducking the witch. A seventeenth century engraving.

The two most prominent victims of this hysteria were Agnes Sampson (and old woman who was a healer and a midwife) and Dr. John Fian (a schoolmaster and scholar from Prestonpans). Of course, they only confessed after torture, before beign burnt.

One of the ways to establish if a woman was a witch or not, was ducking. The suspect was thrown into a lake or pond -if she drowned, she was innocent and her soul would go to Heaven. But if she floated, she was guilty, and therefore, she had to be purified by fire.

Witchery in Edinburgh

Being the capital of Scotland, Edinburgh could not escape the witch hysteria. Ducking had to be perfomed at the now disappeared Nor’Loch, a lake that was located next to the castle, where nowadays we can admire the Princes Street Gardens. The problem was that the lake was so full of filth and garbage that it was very difficult to drown -methane inflated the skirts of the unfortunate ones who were undergoing the ordeal, making them return to the surface.

nor loch

Edinburgh’s Nor’ Loch, located in the area now occupied by Princes Street Gardens. John Slezer, 1690.

Nowadays, in Castlehill, next to the esplanade of the castle, we can see the art nouveau plaque and the fountain that commemorate all the women who were condemned for witchery in Edinburgh (over 300), at the very same spot were they were burnt at the stake.

The plaque represents white and black magic, embodied by two feminine faces. There is a serpent, a symbol of Evil, but also of healing, wisdom and transformation. A foxglove plant, toxic and medicinal at the same time, can be seen at the upper part of the plaque.

The text reads:

“This Fountain, designed by John Duncan, R.S.A. is near the site on which many witches were burned at the stake. The wicked head and serene head signify that some used their exceptional knowledge for evil purposes while others were misunderstood and wished their kind nothing but good. The serpent has the dual significance of evil and wisdom. The Foxglove spray further emphasises the dual purpose of many common objects”.

Now that our fear of witches is over, we can celebrate Halloween, but also honour the memory of those women who were unjustly conmemned in these fascinating and dark times.

witches sign


Scotland’s History:


The Scotsman: http://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/heritage/scotland-s-most-infamous-witch-trials-1-2594330

Flower of Scotland


, , , , , , , ,

We know that, even if it seems impossible, the unicorn is the national animal of Scotland. As you may know, there is also a national flower, although this time it is a real one, and we can find it either in the wild fields or in works of art: the thistle.


We can see purple thistles carpeting the fields in the Highlands, next to the famous lochs, another Scottish symbol. But we can find them not very far from Edinburgh -in fact, there are some in Holyrood Park, at the feet of Arthur’s Seat.

This magnificent flower, prickly-leaved but colourful, beautiful in its simplicity, has also inspired artists and craftsmen. I even managed to buy a sterling silver ring, made from a spoon, with a thistle on it. Now I wear it as a badge of pride, and I’m pretty sure that it will eventually turn into a souvenir that will make me remember with nostalgia my stay in Scotland.

thistle ring

It is very obvious that a flower that can be found in large quantities is the ideal one to represent a country. But what does the thistle symbolise? The legend says that an invading Norse army stepped into a thorny field when trying to surprise the sleeping clansmen. They were barefoot, and their cries could be heard from a distance, thus raising the alarm and allowing the brave Scottish men to defend their territory.

The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle has this flower as an emblem (along with the motto Nemo me impune lacessit). It seems that James III founded the order in the fifteenth century, but it was Alexander III the one who adopted it as national symbol in the thirteenth century.

Between legend and History, and emboding everything Scottish, the thistle stands, generation after generation, colouring the meadows and brightening up a country that has known many tough days. Nowadays, fortunately, they are only chronicles of the past that amaze the tourists, along with the purple tapestry that perhaps symbolises beauty and strength in hardness.


The hunt of the unicorn


, , , , , , , , , , ,

The other day I went into a hunting frenzy -but worry not, no animal was hurt in the process. I was just trying to capture a very elusive beast on camera, and I happened to achieve a great success, for there are lots of them inhabiting Edinburgh: the unicorn.

If we think about it for a moment, we can consider that a city is a domesticated forest of stone, bricks and glass, with its own ecosystem and strange creatures hiding in every corner. After walking through Roslin Glen and discovering its mystical beauty, this time I decided to go to the capital in search of the national animal of Scotland. You won’t see this mythical beast wandering through the woods, but you will certainly find it in all sorts of heraldic paraphernalia in the city.

For centuries, this mythological beast has captivated the imagination of people. Although similar to a horse, the unicorn was coveted by kings, since its horn was said to counteract poisons. According to the legend, there were two ways of hunting a unicorn. In the first one, the hunter stepped in front of the beast, with a tree behind him -when the animal tried to charge against him, he would move, and thus the unicorn would find itself trapped with its horn deep into the wood. The other way was to lure the unicorn with a maiden, since innocence was desarming for this beast -the animal would place the head on her lap and fall aslep.


How did an imaginary beast become the national animal of Scotland? The unicorn represented virility, beauty, power, purity and, above all, freedom. It has appeared in heraldic representations since the 12th century, when it was used on an early form of the Scottish Coat of Arms by William I.

The unicorn bears a crown on its head and is always in chains. Some say that these chains are meant to restrain it, since it was a dangerous wild beast, while others claim that they are a symbol of the House of Stuart’s power -they reigned over Scotland, and therefore, they had tamed the unicorn. Their motto, Nemo me impune lacessit (“No one can harm me with impunity”) appears frequently with the image of the unicorn.

Today, the Scottish Royal Coat of Arms has a unicorn on the left side, and a lion on the right side, whereas the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom has them the other way round.

royal coat

The enmity between the lion and the unicorn (representing England and Scotland, respectively), is recorded in a nursery rhyme:

«The lion and the unicorn
were fighting for the crown.
The lion beat the unicorn
all around the town.

Some gave them white bread,
and some gave them brown;
some gave them plum cake
and drummed them out of town».

john tenniel

J. Tenniel,  illustration for Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There”. 1871

Of course, we can find a golden unicorn next to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, depicted on the gate of The Queen’s Gallery.


If we walk up the Royal Mile towards the castle, we can find another one on top of the Mercat Cross. This time, the unicorn is holding the Flag of Scotland.

unicorn royal mile

And finally, although there are lots of them in the city, we can find this majestic creature protecting The Meadows, such a beautiful place full of tall trees for an animal like this. After all, nature always finds its ways into the city.

unicorn meadows


The Scotsman, Scottish fact of the week: Scotland’s official animal, the Unicorn: http://bit.ly/1aY2cLK

I. Opie and P. Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford University Press, 1951, 2nd edn., 1997), pp. 442-3.

Roslin Glen Country Park: a bridge to the unexpected


, , , , , , , ,

What is a bridge? It is an artificial structure that leads us from one shore to another, helping us overcome some kind of obstacle. There are physical and metaphorical bridges; today I am going to write about both of them.

River Esk flows through Midlothian, and offers a spectacular sight at Roslin Glen Country Park, in Roslin, not far from Rosslyn Chapel. There, we can be astonished not only by the works of man, but by its inspirer, nature itself. There are some physical bridges in Roslin Glen to cross over the river among the lush vegetation and the murmuring stream. But there are others as well, in the guise of symbols carved in stone, which make us take a leap of imagination and reach the land where mysteries lay, as treasures for the deserving hero.

Roslin Castle. Before daring to step a foot into the forest, the visitor can contemplate this old fortress, located on the north bank of Esk River. Its evocative ruins may remind us of Alan Lee’s romantic watercolours, but this is a very solid building with lots of History behind. There was a castle there in the 14th century, which belonged to the Sinclair family, although this one is a reconstruction from the 16th century, which has been partially habitable ever since. Nowadays, it is a holiday accommodation.




While I was going around the castle to admire its walls and battlements, I accidentally stumbled upon a scene that suggested some kind of neopagan ritual, perhaps related to Wiccan magic. Judging by the freshness of the roses displayed there, one could tell it had been recently performed. This is the perfect example of how the work of man and nature meet through symbolism. I could not think of a better place to find the remains of a ritual.


The Face in Lover’s Leap. Once we abandon the security of the castle, we find ourselves surrounded by ancient trees, deciding which way to take. There are several paths with interesting routes. If we choose the one that descends to the river, we can find a pulpit-like rock formation with lots of names carved on its surface: Lover’s Leap. Which is interesting, however, lays close to the ground. If we go around Lover’s Leap we can find a strange face carved there among the moss, another symbol that demands interpretation. Some say it is a green man, like the ones that embellish Rosslyn Chapel, while others suggest it might be the representation of an ape. Either way, I think it suits the luxuriant forest that encircles the rock.


Wallace’s Cave. Once we find the river, the path becomes narrower and a little bit dangerous, but if the visitor is feeling adventurous, they can discover the beauty of the landscape next to the stream. Perhaps the most interesting sight here is Wallace’s Cave (or Hawthornden Castle Cave), which takes its name from the national hero (“Braveheart”) who participated in the Battle of Roslin (1303), that took place near the cave.


Roslin Glen Country Park Bridge. If we turn back to the castle, we can take another path towards one of the bridges over the River Esk, and just enjoy the wonders of nature.



But be careful, or you might just stumble upon a troll! Or is it just our imagination playing tricks…? Anyways, we cannot deny that Roslin Glen is a magical place.


Rosslyn Chapel: a Bible in stone full of little green men


, , , , , , ,

                                                                           «He builded better than he knew:-
                                                                                         the conscious stone to beauty grew.»
                                                                                                        R.W. Emerson, The Problem


Midlothian has many hearts. One of them is the pattern that can be seen next to the High Kirk in Edinburgh, of which I talked last week along with the infamous story behind its lovely shape. There is another one, though, carved in stone, whose beauty still astonishes the visitors, and that has been made famous around the world thanks to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code: the Rosslyn Chapel.

At first, one may feel unimpressed when visiting Roslin, a village located only 7 miles to the South of Edinburgh. But this town is only the beginning of a journey toward a mysterious place that makes every heart race with emotions, from suspense to amazement, at the sight of this gothic gem, located in the midst of the forest.

rosslynMe at Rosslyn Chapel.

Rosslyn Chapel (or the Collegiate Chapel of St Matthew, strictly speaking) was founded in 1446 by William Sinclair, 1st Earl Of Caithness. The original purpose of this church was to celebrate the Divine Office throughout the day and night for the deceased people, specially those from the powerful Sinclair family.


The Sinclairs are a Highlands Scottish clan of Norman origins: they originally came from St Clare, in Normandy. In 1068 they got the Barony of Roslin. Nowadays, Peter St Clair-Erskine, 7th Earl of Roslin, owns the chapel.


The chapel was ruined and abandoned in 1592. By the nineteenth century, the stained glasses were completely shattered. Rain poured from the outside and caused a high level of humidity, thus cloaking the church with centuries-old green moss. This singular vision sparkled the interest of painters and poets of the Romantic era. Wordsworth had to find shelter from a storm there, and immortalized the chapel in the poem Composed at Roslin Chapel during a Storm.

We must thank Queen Victoria for her decision in restoring the chapel, as she considered it to be a national treasure, so now we can admire it with all its old splendour.


But, besides historical facts, what makes the Rosslyn Chapel so special? Its carved stones. In the Middle Ages, most people were illiterate, so it was necessary to find a way to educate them in Christian teachings. Thus, churches were designed as “Bibles in stone”, and therefore filled with images of saints, the Holy Family, the Seven Mortal Sins and moral lessons about lust and anger.

Rosslyn is a perfect example of this tradition, and one can see a lot of mythological animals covering the façade. But it is the interior of the chapel what takes our breaths away.

Magnificently carved in stone, we can find a Fallen Angel, a dragon, a king and even a Danse Macabre scene that reminds us that, even if we can create such beatiful buildings, we are all going to die one day.

One of the most captivating sights is the Apprentice Pillar. The legend says it was carved by a young mason, after being inspired by a dream. His master, who had to travel in order to learn how to create it, became enraged when he saw what is apprentice had accomplished by himself. In a fit of jealousy, he killed the young mason with his mallet.

At the bottom of this pillar we can see several Ouroboros, serpents who eat its own tail and that represent the idea of eternal return.

Green ManGreen Man, Johanne McInnis.

But, among all this Christian symbols and teachings, we find an enigmatic figure. Who is this character, represented by a face surrounded by leaves, that has been carved no less that 120 times in Rosslyn Chapel? It is known as the Green Man, a pagan symbol of fertility and rebirth.

These faces are not the only green men we can find in Roslin. There are also testimonies of UFO sightings at Roslin Glen, a wooded glen located near the chapel.


Copyright: The Rosslyn Templars. http://www.rosslyntemplars.co.uk

Another amazing story is related to the maize corn that is supposedly carved inside Rosslyn Chapel. Given the fact that Columbus reached the New World (where maize is originally from) many years after this church was constructed, many scholars have proposed a curious theory about it. Since the chiefs of the Sinclair family were also Earls of Orkney, their members could have had the key to travel to America as the Vikings did, many centuries ago. Interestigly enough, the Earls of Orkney were subjects to the Kings of Norway.

And last but not least, we cannot forget Dan Brown´s The Da Vinci Code. Rosslyn Chapel was the place where the Holy Grail was hidden. Needless to say, the book became a bestseller and increased the number of tourists who came to the church in search of this mythical object.

Perhaps in the old days, although illiterate, people knew how to read all the stones and were able to unveil the mystery that surrounds Rosslyn Chapel. As for myself, a humble visitor, I can only gaze at this monument with wonder, in the hope that one day we can finally understand the secret of the carved figures.

Meanwhile, we have to let William, the guardian cat who lives there, deal with these little green men.


The Heart of Midlothian


, , , , , , , , , , , ,

DSC_0016When I arrived in Edinburgh, one of the first things that inevitably caught my eye was the strange heart-shaped pattern that can be found next to the High Kirk, at the Royal Mile. Given the fact that it has such a lovely shape, I thought it could be a symbol of love and hospitality. Besides, I was told that, if a foreigner spits inside the heart, they will come back to this beautiful city in a future, and that those who are careless enough to step on it when walking are doomed to never find true love.

How sweet, I said to myself, in utter, blissful ignorance. And I am pretty sure that all the tourists have the same thing in mind when they find this pattern, while strolling through the Royal Mile.

After living here for almost three months, I have learned that Edinburgh is, above all, an enchanted city. There are ghost legends almost everywhere, and lost souls bewitch cemeteries, pubs, castles and old houses. Scottish people seem to be very keen on these stories.

But, why so many tales about ghosts? Well, it probably has something to do with the bloody past of Edinburgh, the other side of the coin, the one we cannot see nowadays, but which shaped the city and gave it part of its character.

Which brings us again to the Heart of Midlothian, the pattern located next to the High Kirk.


Old Tolbooth Prison. Lithograph by W. and A.K. Johnston, 1852.

Where now we see a touristic spot, Old Tolbooth Prison used to stand in ancient times, casting a shadow over High Street with its menacing silhouette for over 400 years. Built in the 14th century and demolished in 1817, Old Tolbooth Prison was infamously known for the gruesome conditions in which its inmates used to be held. Judicial torture was routinately carried out there, and the body parts of the executed prisoners were displayed on pikes atop the building, as a warning sign aimed at criminals.

Sir Walter Scott would publish an account of this terrible situation in his book The Heart of Midlothian, just one year after the demolition. In it, he tells the story of Jeanie Deans, who goes to London in search of a royal pardon for her sister, Effie, accused of infanticide and held within Old Tolbooth Prison until her execution.

Old Tolbooth prison had its own gallows, in the same place where now we can find this charming heart. It is said that people who came to see the public executions that took place there used to spit under the gallows as a sign of contempt either for the judicial system or for the condemned person.

I am sure you can see the conection now and understand why I chose this Heart of Midlothian to write my first entry of this blog. Still, no ghost has claimed this particular spot as far as we know. But I think that such a place of suffering must have left some kind of mark where the heart lies now -and one with a very different shape.