by Gwynne Forster
Have you noticed the ever increasing numbers of paranormals on the shelves these days? Like it or not vampires, werewolves, mages, druids, witches and the like are going to be with us for a while. Some of their tales are fascinating; many are down-right scary. Did you know a large number of these stories are based on truths?
Affaire de Coeur went to the source of many of these tales...Old Edinburg, Scotland. What better place to highlight for Halloween that Edinburg and her multitude of ghosts. It was a dark, but not stormy night in Edinburg, and though it was June, it was cold, 10 degrees Celsius. Not far from the Holyrood Palace where Mary, Queen of Scotland, spent many years incarcerated by her half-sister Elizabeth I is a series of narrow streets and alleys that run up and down the steep hills of Old Edinburg. The buildings are old, carved out of volcanic rock and their color is almost completely black, a perfect backdrop for the macabre. In the midst of this conflaglaration of dark, dank buildings is a museum that pays hommage to famed Scottish writers--Sir Walter Scott, (Actually, Scott also had his own humongous monument), Robert Burns, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who began his Sherlock Holmes series while he was a medical student at Edinburg University) Robert Louis Stevenson, and James Hogg. Match the fertile minds of writers like these with their macabre surroundings, and it is no wonder we ended up with classics like Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde and Hounds of the Baskervilles, and Walter Scott's best short story, "My Aunt Margaret's Mirror." Add to this mix the many unhappy dead people who are lingering as ghosts while waiting for some semblance of justice, and you have the perfect setting for...mayhem.
With no small amount of daring-do and not quite enough Motrin for the legs, I took the walking "Witchery Murder and Mystery Tour" along the Royal Mile past Mary King's Close (an alley where there are occupants not of this world) and through Old Edinburg. Adam Lyal, our tour guide, was dead...or at least he claimed to be. He had been executed for the crime of highway robbery back in 1811. His appearance this night was the courtesy of the original "Man in Black," who first brought Adam back on Halloween in 1985. Now Adam appears regularly outside the Witchery restaurant on Castlehill.
In this reincarnation, Adam was a 'kid' (to me anyone who is under 30 is a kid) who was attending the University. He had an assistant, a zombie of a sorts, whose re-enactments of some of the crimes and punishments were over the top. Nonetheless, nothing could take away from the truly weird occurrences that had taken place there in Old Edinburg that left disgruntled ghosts and wraiths all over the area. Many of them appear at whim and make their dissatisfactions known.
Punishment was the main source of their malcontent, as it had taken strange avenues that had led to their demise. In Scotland's early days, if you committed a crime and were banished from the city, you were lucky. Corporal punishment was the rule of the day and ranged from public whippings (there are nine whipping places within the city) to piercing the tongue (don't young people do that now?) to burning the ear or cheek. You may have to say good-bye to a hand or foot if you commit a serious offense. Women often received the more 'delicate' execution of drowning. But the favorite methods of execution were hanging and beheading, and the crime for either did not necessarily have to be serious. William Harris, for example, was executed in 1770 for forgery. Thomas Urquhart who was a postmaster and George Warden were both hanged for opening other people's mail. Hmmmm. I wonder how many employees our USPS would have if this were brought back.
Sometimes the hanging went wrong (or right, depending on which side of the rope you were on.) Poor Robert Johnson's hangman made the rope too long. When Robert was jerked into the air, his feet still touched the ground while the rope choked him instead of breaking his neck. On the second try, however, they were successful. Half-Hangit Maggie faired better. Convicted of trying to hide the body of her premature infant who hadn't survived birth, she was hanged in 1724. She was to be buried in her home town of Mussleburgh, but on the way to her final resting place, she woke up. The magistrates ultimately decided not to re-hang her, and she lived another 30 years.
Beheading, the other chosen punishment, had its problems, too. The "Maiden," a beheading machine, was the Scottish version of the French guillotine. Before she was retired, she had removed the heads of many--from peasant to Queen, and for crimes that ranged from incest to horse stealing. Is it no wonder there are so many ghosts along the streets of Old Edinburg?
We stood on the spot where William Burke was met his maker. I don't recall the name of the movie, but I saw his crime portrayed on the big screen. In the early 1800's Edinburg Medical Schools didn't have enough bodies for their anatomy classes, and William helped the school out by digging up freshly buried bodies. But then, not enough people were dying. So, William had to help them along. He preyed on strays of Old Town orphans, prostitutes, drunks and new arrivals to the city. Our guide said William killed hundreds and was finally tripped up by an immigrant newly arrived from Ireland--Mrs. Docherty whom he had recently befriended and who showed up at Medical School the very next day--dead. It was said over 25,000 attended his hanging.
Victims of the numerous plagues and fires have joined the ghostly ranks of Edinburg as have the hords of witches who were tried, convicted and punished. Some ghosts are frequent visitors and well known--The Laughing Lady, The Headless Drummer, The Flescher's Wife, The Woman in Black Silk, the Ghost in the Mortuary and Angus Roy. Then there are the artifacts that appear and disappear on their own, like the Onxy ring with the face on it. The Witchery chair, a chair in the Witchery Restaurant moves about half a foot away from the table on its own as if someone were getting up out of it
So, if you really want to meet some of these supernatural beings or just the feel the atmosphere charged with energy from beyond, Old Edinburg might just be the place for you. Just be careful and look back over your shoulder every once in a while....
By the way, in the midst of all this, just at the foot of the castle and on the Royal Mile is the Scottish Whiskey Museum. They offer a tour as well, thankfully a sitting tour, and every blend of Scotch made is available for the tasting. Take it from me, it's the perfect place to go after a grueling walking tour with the beings of Old Edinburg.