Where are the Ghosts of Edinburgh's Royal Mile?
The Royal Mile's history and ghosts
Apart from the fascinating mile long road, the many side streets and closes that spring off from it, this area of Edinburgh is crammed with history, intrigue, dark deeds and of course ghosts!
Edinburgh's Royal Mile is one 'Scots mile' long and is situated in the Old Town. It runs from the castle on its 340 million year old volcanic rock, down to the beautiful Holyrood Palace and ruins of Holyrood Abbey. This is the beginnings of the city of Edinburgh. The first records of a stone castle are dated to King David I of Scotland in the 12th century. However, it is likely that some sort of fortress or dwelling was present for centuries before this date. Legends state that one castle that was built on the site was known as 'The Castle of the Maidens.' There has been much speculation that this is a reference to the 'Nine Maidens' one of whom was Morgan le Fay of Arthurian legend.
Many of the ghosts from this area of Edinburgh such as those from the castle and Mary King's Close are already very well known. However, the Royal Mile holds many more secrets if you take the time to look for them.
Queensberry House - the Royal Mile's most gruesome location?
Today Queensberry house is one of the buildings the Scottish Parliament uses for offices. However, back in time this beautiful mansion had a macabre and frightening reputation.
The house was built in 1681 by Lord Haltoun and sold on completion to William the 1st Duke of Queesnberry. It was the family of this first Duke who would keep a secret that led to murder. The 1st Duke's son was James, 2nd Duke of Queensberry. James was detested in Scotland when it was discovered that he had accepted bribes to push through the 1707 Act of Union with England - in effect giving Scotland's sovereignty and independence away. He would travel around Edinburgh in heavy disguise, frightened in case the mob would recognise him. It was after a night out in the town when James returned to Queensberry House to be met with a horrific scene.
James's eldest son was Lord Drumlanrig. Normally the first born boy would be shown off as the next heir, but this one wasn't. His existence was kept secret for many years due to the fact that he was thought to be criminally insane. This son had a suite of rooms on the ground floor of the mansion and they were always kept locked. One night while his father was out in Edinburgh he broke out and murdered a young kitchen lad who was hired to turn the spit handle for roasting the meat. When his father walked in the little boy had been murdered and his body had been put onto the spit. Some accounts state that the mad Lord Drumlanrig was also witnessed eating the young boy's flesh.
It is the tortured ghost of this young boy that is said to still haunt the house to this day. Now whether this story is propaganda written by the duke's enemies or it is in fact true, probably can't proven either way. However, there is no doubt that the form of a little boy has been seen on various floors of the house by a number of witnesses.
The Canongate is ghost central on the Royal Mile
The Canongate is the link from the Royal Mile into the grounds of Holyrood Palace - still one of the official residences of the present Queen. In times gone by there was hardly a day that would pass without some kind of rousing drama taking place in the Canongate - as we have already seen with Queensberry House. In the past, many of the nobles of the land would have their town houses situated in the Canongate and this often led to bitter rivalries and bloody feuds. Murder was one of those 'dramas' that affected the location frequently. Not surprising then that this area of the Royal Mile should be crowded with ghosts.
One of the most frightening apparitions to be seen in the Canongate is that of a tall hooded figure dressed in black. There have been numerous sightings of this sinister ghost but one of the most unusual was a husband who saw the apparition clearly, but his wife who was beside him didn't see anything. There is speculation that the ghost is that of John Kello who was a minister in the 17th century. This Church of Scotland preacher murdered his wife but tried, unsuccessfully, to make it look like a suicide.
One of the most disturbing ghosts seen is that of, what is described as, a 'burning woman'. The apparition is thought to be that of a young woman murdered by her family in the 1700's to conceal an illegitimate birth. The account was recorded by a Church of Scotland minister who was taken at gun point to say prayers for the dead - while the young woman was still alive. He later heard a gunshot and a short while later his servant told him that the house in which the young woman stayed had been destroyed by fire and she had perished. Although the MInister was troubled he had no proof that foul play had taken place.
New buildings were quickly put up on the site of the old house but shortly afterwards the new house also caught fire. The apparition of the young woman then began to appear and is alleged to have cried out 'Once burnt, twice burnt, the third time I'll scare you all!'. To the present time the ghost has not as yet had to keep her promise of scaring anyone.
Ghosts in the Royal Mile's haunted pubs
The White Hart Inn
The present building dates from 1740 although the cellars go back to the early 16th century. One of it's most macabre employments in the past was its use as the last drinking place for criminals who were condemned to death. Spectators to the execution also used the inn to watch the grisly proceedings. One of the main ghosts is a dark figure seen going down into the cellars. This apparition has also been described on occasion as more like a shadow person. People then report hearing objects being moved and on investigation have noticed beer barrels shifted out of position. One of the weirdest apparitions reported from the inn is that of a pair of legs with no upper body - who the legs belong to has never been resolved! There may well be a few ghosts around the White Hart Inn but whether they are the condemned looking for one last drink is open to debate.
The Banshee Public House
There's a female ghost who has been encountered on a number of occasions called Rosie. This unfortunate lady worked as a prostitute in the area of the vaults beneath the pub. It seems that Rosie does not like male visitors to the premises as many have been scratched and marked by her.
Another ghost is curiously called 'Six Finger Bill' and he seems to be a bit more playful. He likes nothing better than to surprise customers by sitting under their table and grabbing at their ankles.
The Mitre Pub
The unusual name for this pub is in honour of Archbishop Spottiswoode of St. Andrews who lived on this site when it was his home in the early 17th century. His downfall came after a long and dramatic career when he reluctantly agreed to a new liturgy introduced for Scotland by King Charles I. So violent was the out cry against this liturgy that Archbishop Spottiswoode went through the courts to force it on Scotland's population. There was uproar as the people demanded religious freedom to worship and not by royal decree. A subsequent riot that took place outside St. Gile's Cathedral on the Royal Mile marked the start of the Covenant movement - one that would see much hate and bloodshed on both sides.
Archbishop Spottiswoode fled to Newcastle in the north of England fearing for his life. While out of Scotland his opponents took the opportunity to strip him of his office and rights. A list of charges was brought against him and makes remarkable reading. The Assembly of the Church of Scotland published a document that proclaimed the Archbishop was guilty of:
"playing cards and dice, riding through the country all day, tippling/drinking in taverns until midnight, adultery, incest, sacrilege..." and the list goes on. The charges are thought to be pure fabrication but there was enough ill-feeling against the Archbishop for the ludicrous charges to be ignored. He spent the remainder of his life in London and is buried in Westminster Abbey.
There is a tradition that just prior to fleeing to England, the Archbishop hid and walled up his religious regalia inside his Edinburgh home and this includes the episcopal chair he had used. This is one of the reasons his ghost is said to haunt the inn in order to guard his personal goods. Many incidents of a poltergeist nature are reputed to be the work of the Archbishop. One engineer working in the pub was violently pushed by an unseen force. Items move on their own such as chairs spinning and shifting of their own accord, bottles and glasses lifting up and flying across the pub and doors opening and closing of their own accord. It's one of the cellars where staff report that there is an unpleasant, thick atmosphere and an overwhelming feeling of being watched and followed.
The ghost of the real 'Jekyll and Hyde'?
When Robert Louis Stevenson wrote his classic novel 'The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde', it was believed that the main character was based on a true person. That person is none other than Edinburgh's famous Deacon Brodie.
William Brodie was born in 1741 and his father was a cabinet maker. Brodie in turn became a very skilled craftsman and locksmith, becoming one of the most respected citizens of 18th century Edinburgh. He acquired the title of 'Deacon' after he was made leader of the Guild of Wrights and Masons. Brodie was also a serving member of Edinburgh City Council. He was always extravagant and even although he earned good money, it wasn't enough to cover his life style and gambling expenses. It was then that he decided to turn to crime.
Being a skilled craftsman he was invited into houses of the rich and famous. While visiting he would make notes about doorways where his skill as a locksmith was invaluable. He was successful for a time until one of his gang was caught breaking into an Excise House. The gang member called Ainslie, turned evidence to save himself form the hangman's noose. Brodie escaped to Amsterdam but was eventually caught and brought back to Edinburgh. He was hanged in 1788 at the Edinburgh Tolbooth - or so the main story is told. Other accounts allege that Deacon Brodie managed to bribe the hang man and escaped to Australia.
However, the main story relates that after he was hanged his body was thrown into an unmarked pauper's grave. Is this reason why he is haunting the Royal Mile? Deacon Brodie loved the fine things in life, perhaps he is angry at the way his body was treated after death? His ghost has certainly been seen numerous times over the centuries.The ghost is most often seen as a sinister, dark clad figure carrying an old fashioned lantern and a large set of keys. This apparition has been seen on the Royal Mile itself as well as in the numerous narrow passages that branch off from it, known as a 'wynd' or 'close'. There doesn't seem to be any interaction between Brodie or the witnesses despite the clarity of the apparition - it simply vanishes into thin air.
What would be your favourite location to look for a ghost on the Royal Mile?
The Royal Mile Ghosts
The ghosts of the Royal Mile are an interesting and curious part of the history of the Old Town of Edinburgh. It is also for me an area where I have had - or so I believe - personal experience of the ghosts who walk this mile long route.
On a night out with co-workers in 1997, two of us were witness to a shadow like figure - although it did have more substance than a shadow - standing in one of the tiny close's that branch off the Royal Mile. The passage was well lit and the shadow seemed to be that of a small woman with a shawl draped around her head and shoulders, and an ankle length dress. There could have been traces of a green/brown colour on the dress and shawl, but I can't be 100% about that. Her face was not that clear, but we both estimated she was about middle age. As my friend and I took a step forward the woman also seemed to come towards us but then vanished. The disappearance wasn't sudden.It was if her top half dispersed, leaving only her long dress in view before it too disappeared. We looked around for any logical conclusion such as reflections, other people, natural shadows, but the passage way was made of stone with no windows and there was no other people near us at that time. The rest of our company was behind us. Interestingly, when we arrived on the spot only seconds later, where she had been standing, it was much colder than the surroundings - but then Edinburgh at any time of the year can be very cold and you get frequent winds up on the Royal Mile - but there was also a distinct and beautiful scent of roses. Since it was December no flowers were in bloom. Who this lady was I have no idea but I can recall the incident clearly. It was not frightening at all and both my friend and I had the same impression, that this lady, who ever she was, wanted to say something, but just couldn't manage it.
As to the other Royal Mile ghosts mentioned? Perhaps some are natural explanations misunderstood but there are a few that, due to the amount of witnesses, would seem to be genuine paranormal activity even although the identity of the ghosts may well be different to the accepted stories. However, given the age of this part of the city and that most of the buildings and/or the foundations go back hundreds of years, it could be that a lot of residual energy is caught up within the old stones. This would give credence to one of the most popular paranormal theories - 'the stone tape theory'.This is where due to the properties of stone and perhaps the environment, they somehow trap life events and are then played back when the conditions are right. This wouldn't however explain poltergeist activity or actual spirits who interact with the living.
Edinburgh is often reputed to be one of the most haunted cities in the UK and a walk down the Royal Mile would certainly seem to suggest this accolade might be correct. I can vouch for the fact that walking down the Royal Mile with a large group of people around you, is no protection or guarantee that you will not meet with something or someone not of this world.
© 2012 Helen Murphy Howell