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Edinburgh is a city rife with duality, it is a city where surgeons shake hands with murders, superstition vies with enlightenment and the cruel compete with the sentimental. And in a city like Edinburgh, the dead, like the poor, will never be far away. Greyfriars Kirkyard crouched behind the Grassmarket, protected by high walls and overlooked by the tall tenements of Candlemaker Row, is famous as the resting place of the great and the good: from Buchan to Greyfriars Bobby. But those walls also encompass darker tales: of plague pits, resurrectionists and the brutal suppression of religious dissent.

Mary Queen of Scots and a surfeit of bodies

King Death.

From the 1400’s to the 1500’s the Kirkyard was a Franciscan convent garden situated on the outskirts of the town; however by the mid sixteenth century pressure on the existing burial ground at St Giles led Mary Queen of Scots to make a gift of the land for use as a cemetery [1]. This was in 1562 and was not a moment too soon, as plague ravaged the city in 1568 and many of its victims ended up in plague pits in the Kirkyard. To further add to its grisly history, the severed heads of criminals executed on the Grassmarket were displayed at entrance of Greyfriars Kirkyard closest to it. As the body-count rose, so too did the ground level[2]. It is worth remembering that as with most old cemeteries, there are a lot more bodies than there are visible monuments…so tread carefully, because every step is likely to be over someone’s grave.

Tenements and Grave Monuments back to back.

The pale gold Dutch-barn-style church that visitors see today looks timeless but it is not the original Greyfriars Kirk. A late Gothic-style church was begun on the site in 1602 and took nearly twenty years to complete. The old kirk didn’t have much luck; it was damaged during the Civil War and partially destroyed in 1718 when the town’s gunpowder supply, which some bright spark had decided to store in the church tower, blew up. Eventually a new kirk was added to the surviving old kirk, but ill-fortune dogged that too, and a fire in 1845 destroyed the remaining old kirk and damaged parts of new. All seems peaceful now, although if you look closely you can still see some remaining scorch-marks on the brickwork, a reminder of its eventful past[3].

Greyfriars Kirk

The National Covenant of Scotland

One of the most tragic elements of the history of Greyfriars, and one with potentially long lasting psychic consequences, is its link to the doomed Covenanter movement of the seventeenth century.  An old legend about the conversion of Scotland to Christianity claims that there was a covenant between God and the community of Scotland before the first king, Fergus, began his reign (c310AD). To many Scots this cemented the idea that Scotland, not England, or even Rome itself, was the first true Godly Kingdom; it reinforced the belief that no king could stand between the Scots and their covenant with God. In England, the King was the head of the Church but traditionally in Scotland the Kirk had no such figurehead. This would prove a sticking point between the Scottish Covenanters and King Charles I [4].

King Charles I. Image source unknown.

Charles I, despite his Scottish birth, critically misread the mood of the Scots when he and Arch-Bishop Laud introduced the Authorised Prayer Book in1637, it was an attempt to bring the reformed Catholic Church, epitomised by English Episcopalianism, to Scotland, and it was required that the book be read out in Scottish Kirks. This was not a wise move by the king. Described as ‘This Popish-English-Scottish-Mass-Service-book’ by John Row, a minister at St Giles [5] its attempt at introducing a national church, with the king as its head, served only to inflame calls for Scottish religious independence.

On 23 July 1637 the reading of the Authorised Prayer Book in Scottish Kirks led to the Prayer Book Riots, in which stools were hurled at the Dean and Bishop of Edinburgh in St Giles, and the Bishop designate of Argyll was shouted down at Greyfriars Kirk for trying to introduce popery by the backdoor.

The Prayer Book Riots in Scotland, 1637. Image source Wikipedia.

Charles I and Arch-bishop Laud were attempting to introduce an Arminian inspired version of the church across Britain. The Arminian view considered that the Church of Rome was a true church even if misguided. In short, Charles and Laud wanted to introduce a reformed Catholic Church across England and Scotland. This was a red-rag to a bull for Scottish Presbyterians, as Simon Schama wrote: ‘The mere notion that the Church of Rome was not actually the abominable institution of the Antichrist, sent them into a paroxysm of wrath.’ [6] Something had to be done to protect the godly church in Scotland from the corrupt and popish church that Laud and his bishops were trying to impose on Scotland.

Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. Image source Wikipedia.

The King, far removed from his Scottish roots, would not renounce Arch-bishop Laud, Bishops in general, or his idea of what the church should be, and tensions were running high. In fact, Charles thought much of the resentment was being fanned by France, rather than local sentiment, and made it clear he would treat such views as traitorous. The ground was ripe for religious rebellion.

On 28 February 1638 before the pulpit in Greyfriars Kirk, the National Covenant was signed. Prayers were offered, Psalms sung and sermons delivered. The New Jerusalem was to be in Scotland. Over the next days and weeks the covenant was displayed and signed by multitudes, rich and poor, young and old, men and women alike. Simon Schama notes that such was its importance to the national psyche it became almost a measure of patriotism– to be a true Christian and a true Scot you must sign the covenant [7].

The Signing of the Covenant in Greyfriars Kirkyard, by William Allan 1838. City of Edinburgh Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation.

On the surface the document maintained the Kings Peace, but under the condition that the king could be lawfully challenged if he broke the covenant. Schama also points out that Covenanters did not see their demands as threatening to the King as such, with the proviso that if the King should threaten them in their religious freedom, then they would take up arms [8]. This was unlikely to go down well with the autocratic Charles I.

National Covenant of 1638.  source National Library of Scotland.

Later in 1638 the Glasgow Assembly went even further and broke the links between the Scottish Church and English government. The die was cast and the King would have to take decisive action.

So began half a century of unrest, punctuated by Civil War, regicide, the protectorate and finally the restoration of a king in exile. In fact Charles II was assisted on his return by the Scottish Covenanters, on the proviso that he agree to leave Presbyterianism well alone in Scotland. However, Kings have short memories once their crowns are secure, and he soon went back on his word and began persecuting the Covenanters. The scene was set for the final tragedy that was to play out in Greyfriars Kirkyard.

The Covenanters Prison

Fast forward to1679, following the final defeat of the Presbyterian Covenanters at the battle of Bothwell Brig on the 22nd June, around twelve-hundred Covenanter prisoners were marched in disgrace to Edinburgh. Declared rebels and traitors they faced execution or at best, transportation to the colonies to work as indentured slave labour. However, many had much worse suffering to endure in the months ahead.

The Covenanters Prison.

Today, the visitor can view the prison through locked gates – a wide grassy avenue is flanked by unremarkable family vaults of pale stone; however things were very different in the seventeenth century. Inner Greyfriars yard covered about 3 acres, with high walls and only one gate (not the current gates that visitors see) [9]. Facilities to house and accommodate the prisoners were non-existent – they were effectively penned up in the open air for upwards of four months and given a miserly ration of 4oz of food per day. Vulnerable to exposure, malnutrition, disease and despair many died during their internment, especially as the year turned towards winter. The conditions in the Covenanters Prison were so harsh that it has been called the first concentration camp [10].

Location of the Prison in Inner Greyfriars Yard. Source Early Modern Commons website.

Such a huge influx of people created a logistical nightmare in Edinburgh; this is why Inner Greyfriars Yard, as it was known then, was used as an overflow prison. Estimates vary as to how many prisoners were held here, certainly the number reduced over time. Dr Mark Jardine’s view that there were initially1184 prisoners housed in Greyfriars Yard and Herriot School (next to it) seems compelling, it is based on the evidence of how many penny loaves were issued as rations to the prisoners (1184 on 1 July, one for each prisoner).  The numbers rapidly reduced during the summer as many were released after being, often forcefully, encouraged to swear the Kings Peace, an oath of loyalty to the King that some hardcore Covenanters called ‘the black bond’. Added to this, others of course would have died from the terrible conditions, or been executed or transported thereby further reducing numbers as time went on [11] [12]. It must have felt like a bitter irony for the Covenanters to have been imprisoned next to the place from which their movement first took wing.

Eventually judicial fate met those who remained and many were executed on the Grassmarket. By Mid November only around 250 prisoners remained in Greyfriars. They were condemned to transportation, and having survived the privations of the Covenanters Prison, they must surely have felt some relief. However, fate, proved to be merciless when the ship carrying them, The Croune, sank off the Orkneys, and of the 250 or so chained prisoners only 60 or so made it back to dry land alive [13] [14].

The Covenanters Memorial in Greyfriars Kirkyard.

The Killing Time and Bloody MacKenzie

Sir George MacKenzie. Image source Wikipedia.

Presbyterian historians refer to the period of persecution during the reign of Charles II until the Glorious Revolution in 1688, as The Killing Time. During this time, countless Covenanter ministers were forced out of their livings, ordinary people were fined if they didn’t attend the King’s church and torture and extortion were routinely used to break the spirit of the Covenanters. Unable to practice their religion in public, Covenanters resorted to meeting in fields in ‘conventicles’ but that soon became perilous, with a death penalty for any preacher caught in the act.

The Sanquhar Declaration of 1680 brought matters to a head, Covenanters renounced allegiance to Charles II, in response to this treasonous behaviour, the Scottish Privy Council went all out against the Covenanters allowing field executions of those in arms or refusing to swear loyalty to the King. The Oath of Abjuration, as it was called, was, in itself, designed to offend, thereby revealing hardened Covenanters for summary execution.

Margaret Wilson, one of the Wigtown Martyrs. Executed by high tide in 1685. Source Wikimedia.

Sir George MacKenzie (1636/8-1691) is a name that has become synonymous with the persecution by the crown of the Covenanters, earning him the epithet Bluidy Mackenzie. He persecuted them from the bench, while John Graham of Claverhouse earned the name Bluidy Clavers for his summary field executions.
But Sir George Mackenzie wasn’t entirely evil. As an essayist he was enlightened in his views against the persecution of witches, and one of his lasting legacies was the Advocates Library, later the National Library of Scotland, in Edinburgh. In fact, during the 1660’s when Mackenzie was a budding lawyer, he actually defended a number of Covenanters. Things changed from 1677 though, when he was made Lord Advocate – the king’s representative in Scotland.

It has be argued by Bruce Lenman and J Mackie in their book A History of Scotland, that as Lord Advocate, Mackenzie was responsible for executing King Charles II’s policy regarding suppression of the Presbyterian Covenanters, therefore Mackenzie effectively had no choice but to execute government policy. He and Bluidy Clavers may have acted entirely within law in their dealings with Covenanters – although I doubt the Covenanters felt that justice was being served to them [15].

It is easy to romanticise the persecuted Covenanters, fighting to preserve their religious independence and perhaps Scotland’s independence as well; however they did not speak for all Scots – many highlanders, after all, were Catholic. And to modern eyes, they can be viewed as hard-line religious extremists, ready to bring down the government in order to impose their austere religious ideology. The truth is no doubt somewhere in between, with most ordinary people simply wanting the freedom to choose how they worshipped their God. What is not in doubt is the terrible suffering endured by the people immured in Greyfriars by order of their King, and such suffering may well have left a permanent imprint…

Flowers left at the Covenanters Prison gate.

The Mackenzie Poltergeist

The Black Mausoleum, Bluidy MacKenzie’s final resting place.

Mackenzie died in 1691 and somewhat tactlessly, was interred in his elegant mausoleum in Greyfriars Kirkyard, within spitting distance of the Covenanters Prison. Robert Louis Stevenson, writing in 1897, reported the evil reputation that Mackenzie and that part of Greyfriars Kirkyard had acquired:

‘When a man’s soul is certainly in hell, his body will scarce lie quite in a tomb however costly, sometime or other the door must open, and the reprobate come forth in the abhorred garments of the grave’ . He went on to report a local children’s game: ‘Fool hardy urchins [thought it] a high piece of prowess to knock at the Lord Advocate’s Mausoleum and challenge him to appear. “Bluidy Mackenzie, come oot if ye dar”’ [16]

The doors to the Mausoleum.

One such foolhardy urchin, in the form of a homeless man looking for shelter one stormy night in 1999, took the dare and got more than he bargained for. Breaking into the Mausoleum he found an underground chamber containing the coffin of Bluidy Mackenzie. Perhaps thinking it contained valuables, he tried to break into it, but in the darkness he stumbled and fell into an open pit filled with the bones of plague victims. The terrified man burst screaming from the Mausoleum, just as a grounds man, walking his dog, approached it. The combined terror is thought by some, to have amplified the dark energies held within the tomb, and given rise to what has become known as the Mackenzie Poltergeist (see Jan-Andrew Henderson’s The Ghost That Haunted Itself, for more on the Pheromone Theory.)

Interior of the Mausoleum, showing the entrance to the crypt.

Since then the phenomena around the mausoleum and the Covenanters Prison has escalated, visitors have reported being pushed and scratched and feeling nauseous to the point of passing out. The death of popular local Spiritualist Colin Grant, following an exorcism at the Mausoleum and prison, in January 2000 added a tragic dimension to the growing legend of the poltergeist.

Grant believed there were many spirits  trapped there in pain, plus ‘something else as well, something much stronger.’ [17]The local tour company City of the Dead, who hold keys to the Covenanters Prison, have reported many such instances that would support this view – after all, the poltergeist is undoubtedly good for business! Having been on one such tour, I can certainly attest to the eerie feeling walking into the Covenanters Prison on a dark night. During that tour I took some photographs which are below, and there were some interesting anomalies. Lots of orbs, especially in the Prison, and what may be either Pareidolia (the human desire to see faces where there are none) or just possibly, a misty face above a grave stone. I leave you to be the judge.

The Black Mausoleum

Nightime shots at Greyfriars Kirkyard

I have to admit that not being an expert on paranormal investigation, or external physical causes of light anomalies in photographs, I am yet to be convinced that ‘orbs’ are evidence of spirits.  However, I do find them fascinating and have captured some previous images at Chillingham Castle in Northumberland, and now at Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh.

Conditions at the time:

  • Early March
  • Dry and cold
  • No visible insects
  • Early blossom on the trees – loose petals could have caused some anomalies
  • Although the graveyard was very dark, lights from surrounding buildings could have created anomalies
  • Building work on the Kirk during the day could have created dust in the atmosphere

Pareidolia or paranormal? On the right, hovering above the gravestone, a misty face?

Detail of above, area where a face may, or may not, be discerned.


Is that an orb, inside the doorway of this vault?

Inside Covenanters Prison: two, maybe three, orbs in the vault of the roof? (the tomb itself is of later date).

Inside the Covenanters Prison – orbs hovering above the vaults?

Not much happening here – house lights in the distance, perhaps another factor in the light anomalies?

No orbs, but evidence of early blossom in the trees which could have contributed to the anomalies.

Bloody MacKenzie’s mausoleum by night. Unfortunately, no orbs here – does that mean the poltergeist is not at home………?

Visit Greyfriars Kirkyard

Greyfriars Kirkyard is open to the public.  You can also do nigh-time tours of the Kirkyard and enter the Covenanters Prison with City of the Dead Tours.

Sources and notes

All images by Lenora unless otherwise credited.

Forde, Matt, http://www.unexplained-mysteries.com/column.php?id=220743

http://www.greyfriarskirk.com/   [1] [2]

Hayden, Gary, http://www.scotlandmag.com/magazine/issue37/12008443.html [10] [16]

Henderson, Jan-Andrew, ‘The Ghost That Haunted Itself’, 2001, Mainstream Publishing [2] [13] [17]

Jardine, Mark, https://drmarkjardine.wordpress.com/2016/12/05/the-covenanters-prison-edinburgh-1679-history-scotland/ [9] [11] [14]

Schama, Simon, ‘A Hisory of Britain:The British Wars 1603-1776’, BBC [4] [5] [6] [7]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Mackenzie_of_Rosehaugh [15]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Covenanter [12]