The picturesque Scottish capital of Edinburgh is famous for its history – and for its ghosts. Arguably the most notorious of this city’s spooks is the Mackenzie poltergeist, the restless spirit of George Mackenzie which haunts his mausoleum in the Covenanter’s Prison, located in Greyfriars Kirkyard (also famous for the much more touching story of Greyfriars Bobby).
Mackenzie lived from 1636 – 1691 and served as a Lord’s advocate and lawyer during the rule of Charles II. He was famous for his brutality and his relentless persecution of the Covenanters, who professed loyalty to God and not to any King and had protested against Charles I as well as his son. Nicknamed “Bluidy Mackenzie” because of the awful torments he forced 1200 of the unfortunate Covenanters to endure – which included starvation and being left outside in freezing winter conditions, imprisoned in the kirkyard, in an area now known as Covenanters’ Prison. It seems ironic that George should have been entombed in the very same graveyard as his victims, just yards from the Covenanter’s Prison. While the majority of the prisoners are long dead and sleep silently beneath the earth, it seems that George is still up to his wicked tricks.
Stories of attacks and strange activity have circulated around his tomb for many long years, but it wasn’t until the events of December 1998 that his poltergeist really grabbed people’s attention. One wild, stormy night a homeless man broke into the Mackenzie tomb seeking shelter and a place to bed down for the night. Unfortunately for the poor man he got rather more than he bargained for; accounts of what happen next differ slightly but according to one, he was exploring the vault’s second level and was smashing open some old caskets he found there when suddenly the floor gave way with a crash and he fell down into another level where plague victims had been interred.
Covered with the remains of the dead, tangled in their decomposing bones and clothes, the homeless man was suitably terrified. Stumbling out of the mausoleum, shrieking wildly, he careered headlong in to the cemetery security guard who had been strolling through the graveyard with his guard dog. Each man was terrified by the other and both ran away in separate directions, filling the night with their screams. The homeless man was never seen again, but from that night onwards tales of the Mackenzie Poltergeist began to grow in number. The violence of the ghostly attacks suddenly increased, for some reason in the Covenanters’ Prison, primarily in the disused Black Mausoleum inside the prison. It seems that the spirit was well and truly roused, so much so that Edinburgh City Council decided the best course of action was to lock the gates of Covenanters’ Prison and refuse entry for the foreseeable future.
This state of affairs would have continued indefinitely – and perhaps the poltergeist might have returned to its eternal slumber – if it wasn’t for author and ghost tour organizer Jan-Andrews Henderson. He got permission from the council to run ghost tours to Covenanters’ Prison– and tourists have been visiting the Mackenzie Poltergeist’s lair in the Black Mausoleum ever since (including yours truly). The City of the Dead tours are highly popular with Edinburgh visitors but there have been negative repercussions – hundreds of attacks have been documented since the tours began, ranging from pushing to scratching to fainting; some people have even had their fingers broken. Perhaps one of the worst attacks was on Henderson himself – his home was burned down, and all of his documents, photographs and other records on the poltergeist were turned to ashes.
When I went on the tour at the age of 15, I remember the guide halting outside the gate to the Covenanter’s Prison and asking anyone who was pregnant or who had a sensitive disposition to remain outside, probably as they were the ones most likely to be attacked. The rest of us piled into the vault where the poltergeist dwells; thankfully it didn’t make an appearance on that occasion but I clearly remember the cloying darkness and feeling of oppression inside that stone room. I was greatly relieved to find that, unlike with other unfortunate tourists, I didn’t’ experience any strange sounds, I wasn’t burned or bruised and I wasn’t followed home by the poltergeist.
I did not read Henderson’s book “The Ghost That Haunted Itself” either, which seems to be a good thing as one ex-policeman who opened the book shortly after returning from a City of the Dead tour was inexplicably scratched across his throat by an invisible force. He gave the book to his mother, understandably not wanting to read it anymore, and when he called her a while later to ask her what she thought of it she told him how she had found five strange scratches on her throat…
Unsurprisingly two exorcisms have been carried out in the Black Mausoleum but neither of them appeased the restless spirit, nor rid the kirkyard of its presence. The poltergeist continues to attack the tourists who flock to its resting place and perhaps will keep doing so for the foreseeable future. One thing is for certain – despite the force and malice behind its actions, as long as the poltergeist continues to make its presence known, tourists will keep flocking to visit it, hoping for a supernatural encounter of their own which they can go home to share with their relatives.
After all, what could be more thrilling than to say, “I came to face to face with the spirit of Bloody Mackenzie – and lived to tell the tale!”
For information on how to book on the City of the Dead Tour, please visit their website
Photos of the Tour from May 2005 when M J Steel Collins paid a visit
Outside the Black Mausoleum – the gate is otherwise locked to keep people out – or something inside?
The view outside the Covenanters’ Prison.
Inside the Black Mausoleum.
The tenements next to Covenanters’ Prison – where the poltergeist has also paid a visit.