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.
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.
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“.
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