The History of Leith

November 16, 2004

Why you’ve more than a ghost of a chance of seeing a spook

EDINBURGH has a reputation for being the most haunted city on the planet. With its wealth of moody Gothic architecture and grisly past, it is easy to see why.

Arguably the most famous resident ghost is Major Thomas Weir, a 17th-century Presbyterian minister who fell from grace and was burned at the stake after admitting committing acts of bestiality and incest.

But while some people believe Weir was also Edinburgh’s most infamous witch and best-known Satanist, he was neither.

A new book, Edinburgh City of the Dead, attempts to explain the Capital’s dark side, debunking popular myths while providing a light-hearted guide to the most ghostly locations in the Capital.

City ghost tour guide and historian Jan-Andrew Henderson, 42, says: “I am very sceptical, which is why I was interested in writing the book. Too many people writing books about the supernatural are already convinced that ghosts exist.

“I have seen weird things, though, especially in Greyfriars Kirkyard, where Bloody Mackenzie’s [the King’s Advocate who put thousands of Covenanters to their deaths before dying in 1691] poltergeist is said to be. If that is not a genuine supernatural case then I don’t think there is any such thing.”

Here are, reputedly, Edinburgh’s most haunted sites from Henderson’s guide – based on a range of material from sources including Edinburgh University, city ghost tour companies and stories printed in the Edinburgh Evening News:

• Edinburgh Castle: Said to be haunted by several apparitions including the ghost of John Graham of Claverhouse, nicknamed Bloody Clavers for his ruthless persecution of Covenanters in the 17th century. Phantom drummers, bagpipers and invisible marching troops also inhabit the castle.

• The Scotsman Hotel, North Bridge: The former offices of the Edinburgh Evening News is said to be haunted by a host of ghosts, including a phantom printer and a phantom forger.

• South Bridge: Vaults inside the bridge are said to house a faceless man and a poltergeist.

• Radisson SAS Hotel, Niddry Street: The hotel is on the site of Strichen’s Close, where Bloody George Mackenzie once lived. The area has been plagued by fires, thought to be caused by Mackenzie’s notorious troublemaking poltergeist.

• Whistle Binkie’s Bar, Niddry Street: A long-haired gentleman in 17th-century costume known as The Watcher haunts the bar. No-one has ever seen his face. Since the 1990s another entity, The Imp, has also inhabited the bar and storerooms in South Bridge, making mischief by stopping clocks and slamming doors.

• St Mary’s Street: Said to be haunted by a young woman stabbed to death in 1916 by an assailant who leaped out of a doorway, killed her and ran off. She appears in blood-spattered clothes with a shocked look on her face.

• The Museum of Childhood, Royal Mile: Reported to ring with the crying of children late at night. It is near the site of a nursery sealed up during the plague years – with mothers and children inside.

• The Canongate, Royal Mile: Watch for the burning spectre of the daughter of a respectable 18th-century family, apparently killed after bringing disgrace to her parents by falling pregnant by a servant.

• Queensberry House, Canongate: This historic house in the centre of the new Scottish Parliament is famously haunted by a kitchen boy roasted and eaten by James Douglas, the mad Earl of Drumlanrig, in 1707.

• Palace of Holyroodhouse, Royal Mile: The naked ghost of one Bald Agnes, stripped and tortured in 1592 after being accused of witchcraft, is said to roam there.

• West Bow (Victoria Street): The site of the former Anderson’s Close, torn down in 1827, which was home to the notorious Major Thomas Weir, aka The Wizard of the West Bow. It is also said to be haunted by sailor Angus Roy, who was crippled on a voyage in 1820 and taunted by children in the close who mimicked his limp. He is seen dragging his injured leg behind him.

• George IV Bridge: The vaults under the bridge – used to imprison debtors in the 19th century – are allegedly inhabited by an unknown, handcuffed Highland chief.

• Greyfriars Kirkyard: The burial place of the aforementioned Bloody George MacKenzie. Also the site of the Covenanters Prison, to which MacKenzie sent numerous victims.

• George Street: Try to spot Jane Vernelt, who died in the early 20th century after losing her shop in the street due to bad financial advice and has been seen several times after death in broad daylight, heading for the now non-existent property.

• Charlotte Square: Numerous ghosts are believed to inhabit the area, including a phantom beggar, a monk and even a piano player.

• No. 15 Learmonth Gardens: Reportedly the only place in Edinburgh with a mummy’s curse. In the 1930s, its then owners stole a bone from a mummy’s tomb in Egypt and brought it home, after which their house was plagued by unexplained noises, flying objects and a spectre resembling an Egyptian priest.

• No. 5 Rothesay Place: A tiny, foot-high figure nicknamed Gnomey haunted the house in the late 1950s after the owners bought some second-hand furniture from a recently deceased sailor.

Other accounts name the ghost as Merry Jack Tar and claim he appeared in the flat after an old piece of wood was brought back there from a seaside cottage in northern Scotland.

• Jamaica Street: Haunted in the late 18th or early 19th century by a man in a bright red hat. His appearance even caused a court case when the landlord accused his tenant of inventing the spectre to keep his rent down.

• No. 12 Ann St: Said to be haunted by Mr Swan, a small, smiling man dressed in black who lived there in the 19th century before dying overseas.

• Regent Terrace: In 1979 it was plagued by poltergeists – there was crying and breathing noises in empty rooms, and a small invisible being leapt on residents when they were in bed.

• No. 5 Hazeldean Terrace: The Hazeldean Poltergeist became a national phenomenon in 1957 when it appeared at virtually the same time and same house number as the Rothesay Place poltergeist. The Hazeldean ghost threw a chopping board around and broke crockery.

• Edinburgh Playhouse, Greenside Place: Haunted by Albert, a grey-coated man who appears on level six bringing a sudden chill to the air.

He is said to have been either a stagehand who died in an accident or a night-watchman who killed himself.

• Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street: Occasional sightings of a blue lady believed to be Ellen Terry, the actress who performed at the Lyceum’s first show. A shadowy figure is also sometimes seen in the lighting rig high above the stage.

• Gillespie Crescent, Bruntsfield: The site of Wrychtishousis, a famous haunted house, now demolished, which was inhabited in the 18th century by a headless woman carrying a child.

The house once belonged to a James Clerk, whose brother killed his wife and child, cutting off the woman’s head to hide her body in a chest.

• Balcarres Street, Morningside: Said to be haunted by a green lady reputed to be one Elizabeth Pittendale, who was stabbed to death by her husband after he caught her in a passionate embrace with his son from a former marriage.

• Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Nicolson Street: The theatre stands on the site of the former Empire Palace. It is haunted by a tall, dark stranger rumoured to be the famous illusionist Sigmund Neuberger, aka The Great Lafayette, who burned to death in a fire at the Empire in 1911.

• Dalry Road: Once haunted by Johnny “One-arm” Chiesly, who had his arm cut off and was hanged after shooting a judge who gave Chiesly’s wife a hefty divorce settlement.

• The Corn Exchange, Baltic Street, Leith: Apparently haunted by a 19th-century Leith publican who hanged himself there after being shunned by neighbours who accused him of torturing children. His spectre was supposedly captured on camera on the US TV series Understanding the Paranormal.

• The Dovecot, Dovecot Road, Corstorphine: The ghost of Christian Nimmo, aka the White Lady of Corstorphine, haunts the garden around the dovecot. The feisty wife of a successful businessman, she took a lover whom she stabbed to death after he insulted her – a crime for which she was beheaded.

• Edinburgh City of the Dead, by Jan-Andrew Henderson, is published by Black & White Publishing, priced £9.99.

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