Heels on wheels // Spooked Out in ScotlandThu 15 Oct 2020
“I want to get scared, really scared without the antics”, this is what I told the discerning tourist officer at the Edinburgh Tourist Information Centre.
In a flash, she pulled out the Mercat Ghost Tours flyer with a self-proclaimed ‘5-star scare factor’ and with softened vowels, muttered, “Um telling ye, thae arr the baist”.
While most places lure tourists with sights and sounds in real flesh and blood, Scotland takes a certain mystic pride in letting loose its dead in castles, back-alleys, highways, churches and everywhere else. Ghosts cover as many square inches as castles, lakes and valleys in glossy travel catalogues.
What makes them so abundant is not a reserved door policy in the other worlds, but a macabre history of wars, slaughter and executions that can chill you to the bone even on a balmy summer evening. Plague, body-snatching, witch-hunting and torture has left behind more than a grisly history – restless spirits and innumerable haunted inns, closes, vaults, graveyards, and the new breed of ‘Ghost Tour Operators’.
So, while in Edinburgh, looking around for a ghost only seemed a natural thing to do!
The ghosthunter’s group was to meet at the Mercat Square in the old city long after Edinburgh went to bed, at 8pm. The Square was a short walk from our hotel on Princess Street and we decided to walk it down.
The streets were deserted except for a remorseful few who seemed extremely distraught at being left out at that hour and were fumbling across the streets with a catastrophic urgency. I pulled the woollen cap over my ears in a desperate bid to mute the echoing sound of my boots on the cobbled street.
The tall, gray, sinister Victorian squires almost blended into the night. Mr. Hyde’s blood-curdling gaze seemed to follow me even as I turned left from the creaking Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde Pub signboard. Phew! This place must be a script-come-true for Mr. Hitchcock!
The motley group of ten, gathered around the square could be mostly categorised into the ‘I-came-just-for-fun’ types and the curious ‘Can-I-really-spot-one’ types. Our pale-complexioned and green-eyed guide for the evening, Hayley, looked like she had been in the company of ghosts for far too long.
Edinburgh has a dark history, darker than the narrow ‘closes’ (alleyway) that Hayley led us through.
The working class of the medieval city was crammed into these closes, infested with deadly diseases, petty crimes and gruesome murders. The Old Bank Close was made famous by Johnny one arm, the laughing and screaming ghost of John Chiesly, who was executed for murdering a barrister by the name of Sir George Lockhart on being ordered to pay alimony to his divorced wife. On Easter Sunday 1689, John shot Sir George as he was about to enter Old Bank Close and was sentenced to be hung. His right hand, used to fire the pistol, was cut off and his dead body was left to rot.
“This is exactly where his severed hand had fallen”, Hayley pointed at the feet of anunassuming guy who leapt back with a startle. Rolling her eyeballs with theatric ease, Hayley’s well-practised horror expressions could startle the living daylights even out of the dead. The group huddled closer, keeping a vigil against any cloudy, misty or outlined figures lurking.
The last leg of the tour took us to the city’s Underground Vaults, described by BBC as ‘probably the most haunted place in Britain’. This was where Burke and Hare, the serial killers who sold corpses to medical schools, practiced their vicious skills.
The Vaults are a series of chambers formed in the arches of a bridge. For around 30 years, they housed taverns, cobblers and other tradesmen, and served as a storage space for illicit goods including the dead bodies of people stolen by the body snatchers. Eventually the businesses left because of the lack of proper ventilation and damp air quality and the city’s poor and impoverished moved in.
More crime, more diseases, more deaths, more ghosts.
The stairs begged for mercy as we stomped down excitedly. It was dark down there, the emptiness lit only by flickering candles. The air, cold and damp. Careless whispers weren’t taken too lightly by the grey weathered walls that hid many a mysteries in its wrinkled façade.
Hayley gathered the group for the statutory warning, “If anyone feels attacked, we need to rush to the Safe Room, the refuge of the friendly spirits.” My guts, unable to distinguish between a ghost tour and a roller-coaster ride, did the customary jig! Here comes the real thrill!
As outlined in the tour itinerary, we visited three of the most famous chambers of the vaults with frequent paranormal sightings. The industrious cobbler, not with us anymore, chose to stay back in a forlorn corner of the first chamber. He still manages to dilate a few pupils on the rare occasions of his appearance. We weren’t lucky!
Between intermittent camera clicks and pervasive whispers, a lady in the group nervously called out to report a tug on her skirt. “Oh, that must be the Little Boy, he likes you!” quipped Hayley. The lady in question was last heard asking for some water!
The second chamber, much smaller in size, felt unpleasant. Noses wrinkled as the smell of alcohol slowly wafted in like the unannounced doom in gas chambers. As the story goes, this chamber is zealously guarded by the spirit of a hefty old drunkard, ‘who spent most of his time terrorising people, both before and after death’ said Hayley.
Rightly so, a youngwoman seemed taken in by the rogue. She swayed like a pendulum and in a matter of seconds, eyes-rolling, collapsed to the ground. As we gasped and panicked, Hayley immediately shouldered her with the help of a few others and ordered everyone to rush to the Safe Room. I don’t know what gave me the strength to move, maybe it was the collective pushing that ensued.
We never saw the young woman again.
The tour was cut short and Hayley joined us to calm our nerves in the Megget’s Cellar, a cozy nook just above the vaults. We sipped our wine and stole silent glances.
Finally, Hayley broke the eerie silence and said that the woman was doing fine and recovering.
“From what?” we wanted to know. “Well, she says she felt someone blow breath on her face and before she knew, she hear a stern voice telling her to leave the room.” A quick gulp of the red suppressed the goosebumps, but not the lump inthe throat. Hayley admitted to the incident as being the first ever in her 10-year career span. Curiosity was popping faster than popcorns, but a certain honesty in her tone made us hold back the barrage.
Out-of-the-blue, a Miss Inquisitive in the group chirped out, “But what happened to the haunted house that you talked about? Is it still there to see and visit?”
“That house was brought down to build a hotel. Note sure which one…could be any of the ones you guys are staying in,” Hayley replied nonchalantly.
A silent prayer escaped our lips!
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