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Had a pint in Maggie Dickson’s in the Grassmarket and thought nothing of it? Stepped over the last gallows on the Royal Mile without noticing them? Think Greyfriars Kirk is just known for the loyal dog, Bobby? Our guide to haunting legends and Edinburgh’s spookiest locations is guaranteed to teach you thing or two about the city’s dark side. Keep reading, if you dare!
Spooky Legends of Edinburgh
There are so many ghosts, ghouls, murderers, and witches associated with Edinburgh, but the most famous is what most of the legends of the city are based on.
1. Burke and Hare
Burke and Hare are the notorious body snatchers of Edinburgh.
This pair of miscreants took advantage of the money offered by medical schools in Edinburgh who needed fresh bodies to dissect in anatomy classes.
Scotland’s capital was the leading European city for anatomical study at that time in the late 1820’s.
Regardless of this, surgeons were only allowed one body per year which made medical progression and education quite difficult as in reality they needed over 500 per month.
To help solve this problem, a policy was introduced which saw the bodies of those executed donated to science.
Since Scotland was a religious country which focused on the afterlife, those in power hoped this would deter some from committing crime.
Here is a picture of where gallows stood on the Royal Mile.
Another decision was made – those who died in poor houses would be donated to science as well as anyone who died homeless but this just pushed locals underneath the city to the dark underground which you can visit during this tour!
Not content with these offerings, surgeons began to advertise for fresh, dead bodies in exchange for cash and thus grave digging in Edinburgh began.
Rewards ranged from £2 to £10.
It was not an easy job! Grave diggers had to work out where the freshest of bodies were buried and dig 6 feet with a wooden shovel in the dark of the night to avoid getting caught.
Then they had to move the body and get it to the medical school in one piece.
Family members who wanted to their loved one to make it to the afterlife would stand guard over graves or use mortsafes (image below) to protect them.
Irish labourers, William Burke and William Hare fell into selling bodies to the medical school when their Union Canal digging work dried up.
Hare rented rooms at his lodger house and one of his tenants died in arrears. He asked his friend Burke what he should do.
The pair decided to claim the money back by selling the dead lodger’s body to Edinburgh University. The body was sold to Dr. Robert Knox on Surgeon’s Square (image below). They received £7 10s and were told to return.
A second lodger fell sick in Hare’s house, this is when Burke and Hare progressed from body snatchers to murderers.
They ended the sick lodgers life early and sold the corpse once again to Dr. Knox for money.
In the space of ten months it is said that Burke and Hare killed 16 people, although historians say it could be as many as 30.
The murderers would pile their victims with alcohol and then smother and suffocate them.
Often the body was delivered in a tea chest and Dr. Knox would comment on the warmth of the corpse but didn’t question how the victim died.
Imagine walking through the dark, misty streets of Edinburgh and bumping into this pair.
You might just do so on this tour!
Burke and Hare were said to source their victims down in Edinburgh’s infamous Vaults which you will discover on the tour so keep your friends close…
The pair were finally caught when lodgers discovered one of their victims, Margaret Docherty, and reported them.
Hare was provided immunity after making a grave for his good friend, Burke.
Burke was charged with murder and executed. His body was given to science.
You can see Burke’s death mask in the Surgeons’ Hall Museum.
This infamous pair make an appearance in every ghost tour in Edinburgh which is one of the top things to do in Edinburgh.
One of their victims caused a stir for Dr. Knox when his students had grown suspicious after the disappearance of a much loved homeless man known as ‘Daft Jamie’.
However, Dr. Knox was never committed for his involvement in any of the murders.
→ You may also like | Halloween in Edinburgh: 14 Spooky Things to Do
2. Maggie Dickson
Maggie Dickson was the victim of a misogynistic society.
Her crime? Her husband abandoned her and she was forced to move from Edinburgh to the Scottish Borders.
Here she fell pregnant by the innkeeper’s son where she worked. She gave the baby away, yet it was discovered and she was brought back to Edinburgh to face a trial under the concealment of a pregnancy act.
Yes, this was a thing!
Found guilty, she was hanged in the Grassmarket. Her body was then sent on its way to Musselburgh, where she was to be buried. Along the way, those taking her to Musselburgh heard knocking and banging coming from her coffin.
They opened the lid and found Maggie alive! She was then pardoned as they decided in the eyes of God, she was acquitted.
Just goes to show, nothing can keep a strong woman down! Maggie went by the name Half Hangit Maggie for the rest of her life.
You can visit Maggie Dickson’s pub at Edinburgh’s Grassmarket. For more on Old Town pubs read this guide.
Watch your back when you head down to the Grassmarket as the Wizard of West Bow and his glowing walking stick are said to haunt his old home at Victoria Street
Major Thomas Weir is one of the capital’s Jekyll and Hyde stories.
Once a respectable commander of the Town Guard, in his seventies he admitted to lifelong incestuous relations with his sister and a pact he made with the devil.
This revelation resulted in imprisonment near Calton Hill, a former leper colony, and then execution by garroting (strangulation) at Gallow Lea near Leith.
His body was then burned while his walking stick danced in the flames, as legend goes…
His former home, which is now part of the Quakers Building on Victoria Terrace, was said to be haunted with many refusing to enter long after his death.
3. Deacon Brodie
Deacon Brodie is yet another one of Edinburgh’s Jekyll and Hyde legends!
He was a respected member of Edinburgh’s society in the 1700s, is another villain hiding in plain sight.
As head of the town council, he was looked up to by the gentlefolk of the time.
Unbeknownst to these upstanding people, Brodie was not only a gambler and philanderer who had several mistresses and children, but he was also the head of a gang of burglars!
He had to pay for his wife, two mistresses and five children somehow.
His daytime job as someone who repairs locks and locking mechanisms was the perfect cover for him.
He made duplicates of the keys which allowed him and his gang to enter into these trusting people’s houses to pillage at their leisure.
His downfall came when he planned an armed raid on His Majesty’s Excise Office in Chessel’s Court, on the Canongate.
Things didn’t go as planned. Part of his gang was caught. Brodie himself fled to the Netherlands.
Those caught gave evidence against him and, when he was arrested in Amsterdam, he was sent back to face a trial.
He was to be hanged but came up with a cunning plan to escape once again.
He bribed the hangman to ignore the steel collar that he had fashioned to save his neck.
However, he was caught out by one of his own inventions.
The gallows used to hang Brodie were a gibbet, an invention that he boasted was the most efficient of its kind.
They certainly did the job as when his body was removed to be revived, he was dead. His steel collar had not worked!
Does his ghostly apparition still haunt the streets of Edinburgh?
Are you brave enough to find out?
There is a popular pub named after him on The Royal Mile. Check out both sides of the sign hanging from the pub corner!
The Scottish novelist, Robert Louis Stevenson is said to be inspired by this story and wrote a play on it which later influenced his famous book Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
You can see a memorial to Robert Louis Stevenson in Princes Street Gardens.
4. Creepy Edinburgh Cemeteries
There are many cemeteries that Edinburgh ghost tours take you too. What is the attraction to these? Greyfriars Kirkyard is one such cemetery with a notorious reputation.
This graveyard is where Greyfriars Bobby’s master is buried.
However, it has a particularly nasty entity: the ghost of George MacKenzie.
He was a brutal judge who presided over the trials of the Presbyterian Covenanters in the 1670s and is said to haunt here.
He imprisoned 1,200 covenanters in a field next to the graveyard where they awaited their trials.
They had little food or water and 100s died from lack of nutrition and disease, in addition to those who were executed.
MacKenzie was buried in the black mausoleum and his violent spirit lives on, attacking people with scratches and burns.
Lean more about the MacKenzie during this tour of Edinburgh’s most haunted cemetery. If you dare!
Greyfriar’s Kirk is where you will find the names that inspired some of the Harry Potter characters including Potter himself and his nemesis, Voldemort.
For grave locations, follow our guide to Harry Potter locations.
Did you know Princes Street Gardens used to be cesspit for sewage?
It was previously filled with water and called The Nor’ Loch. You can see a painting of it here.
Nor Loch was the setting for witch drowning. If you survived, you were deemed a witch and killed, if you drowned, you were dead.
Over 200 skeletons were discovered when they drained the world’s biggest open sewer in Auld Reekie.
St John’s Church graveyard, at the end of Princes Street Garden near Lothian Road, is said to be haunted by a young girl who cries and tugs your clothing!
It is also home to the graves of poets, surgeons, lords and has the city’s only known grave of a born enslaved person.
Malvina Wells was born in Carriacou and served the McLean family. She is buried next to them in St John’s Cemetery.
For more, check out the Black History Walking Tour in Edinburgh.
Abandoned Places in Edinburgh
For the more adventurous among you, the idea of exploring and creating your own Halloween adventure appeals.
There are several abandoned buildings and tunnels in Edinburgh where you can wander and give yourself your own Edinburgh spooky tour.
5. Colinton Tunnel
The Colinton Tunnel is an abandoned railway tunnel which has now been transformed with graffiti and street art.
Running along the water of Leith, this 140m tunnel tells the story from the poem, From a Railway Carriage.
Will you be the one to bring back evidence of the paranormal or just a photo of the street art?!
6. The Wild West
The Wild West. Yes, you read that right. Edinburgh has its own wild west street with abandoned buildings.
Hidden away in West Morningside and built in the 1990s (allegedly by a former Disney employee), this unusual street will have you wondering if you’ve stepped straight into a spaghetti western!
A great way to spend Halloween, exploring this spooky area and seeing if you can find any ghosts!
Spooky Pubs and Restaurants
Now that you have spent your day exploring and frightening yourself and your friends, you need to visit one of Edinburgh’s many spooky eateries and pubs.
7. Frankenstein’s Pub
This establishment is situated in a 19th-century church in the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town.
The pub embodies – yes, pun intended – Mary Shelly’s book Frankenstein.
With horror-themed decorations and monster-themed shows, you’ll have a great time relaxing after your busy Halloween.
Address: 26 George IV Bridge, EH1 1EN
8. The Banshee Labyrinth
If you haven’t tired of the spooks and ghouls you’ve encountered so far, then take a wander to Scotland’s most haunted pub: The Banshee Labyrinth.
With claims of drinks being thrown by unknown forces and the sounds of a banshee wailing, dare you make a stop here?
Address: 29-35 Niddry St, EH1 1LG
9. The White Hart Inn
The White Hart Inn on the Grassmarket. This pub has a reputation for ghostly sightings and poltergeist activity.
With paranormal hunters setting up investigations here and tales of specters pulling hair and pushing people along with photographic evidence of apparitions, you need to be a brave soul to have a meal here!
Address: 32 Grassmarket, EH1 2JU
10. The Cauldron
For the adult Harry Potter fans among you, The Cauldron on Frederick Street is the place to go.
Check out these Harry Potter locations in Edinburgh
As you descend the steps into this dark cavern, you are immediately transported to what you can only imagine The Leaky Cauldron to look like.
You are met at the door by a potions wizard who takes you through a wand-choosing process. Led to your seat, you will be mesmerized by the magical interior.
Herbology greenhouses, squashy sofas delight your eyes and then you are given your cloak and wand.
The drinks menu is filled with potions and, when they are brought to your table, the theatre is spellbinding!
You can book potions classes here – it’s on my to-do list. I can thoroughly recommend the Dragon’s Breath shot.
Be warned, they are definitely one, two, three, floor!
Edinburgh is full of legends and stories that are enough to chill your blood. Throw Halloween in the mix and you have got a great day out.
I have experienced some of the paranormal activity in the vaults under the streets of the city.
From ghostly footsteps to scratches, burns, and even the breath being squeezed out of my brother as we explored these underground areas.
I can assure you that even the most skeptical will find Edinburgh spooky.
Go on, I dare you!
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About the author: Hi, I am Ruth. A Highlander living in Fife longing for the mountains of home but I can’t give up the delights of the big city!