Ghost, Ghost in the Graveyard

Edinburgh, Scotland – September 2016

Whatever it is, it emanates from here. At least that’s what they say. Greyfriar’s Kirkyard is the location of the most well-documented poltergeist in the world – the Mackenzie Poltergeist. Legend has it that, one dark and story night in 1998, a homeless guy broke into this mausoleum seeking shelter. It is the final resting place of George Mackenzie, a man responsible for the deaths of 18,000 of his compatriots. While the vagrant was ransacking the coffins he found on the lower level, he fell through the floor, landing on a pile of rotting corpses that had been dumped during the plague. He clawed his way out and ran screaming into the streets, never to be seen again. Ever since, hundreds of attacks on visitors to the graveyard have been reported. Scratches, bruises, and burns appearing on the skin. Sensations of being kicked or having hair pulled. One woman was found unconscious with bruises around her neck.

All is quiet around this little mausoleum. The hair on the back of my neck is at rest. We have just entered the cemetery, however. My mother, stepfather, and me. Tonight we are going on a Haunted Graveyard tour of this very place, but we wanted to see it in the daylight. We weave in and out of the gravestones, moving deeper within. These are the most sinister tombstone adornments I’ve ever seen: gaping skulls, leering demons, wicked cherubs. We attempt to decipher the faded epitaphs. Strolling through cemeteries usually gives me a sense of serenity. I’ve even adopted the Eastern European tradition of wandering at night through candlelit graveyards on All Saint’s Day. I pause to gaze into the weathered faces of twin girls. Demure hands clasped in prayer, a seductive glimpse of leg. Tainted virtue. Every image in this necropolis seems to mock the beholder. I’m not sure I could be paid to venture here alone in the daylight.

A black Labrador bounds back and forth along the back wall. It jumps on one of the tall tombstones and wags its tail. A male voice barks an unintelligible command. It takes a while for the ear to become accustomed to the Scottish accent. The dog stands up, catches a ball in its mouth, and carries it to the man. And the cycle continues. My parents and I exchange bewildered glances. As we approach, I notice an upturned hat. Ah, so that’s the purpose of this unexpected show. My stepfather adds his contribution to the hat, and we move on.

The wall curves around, leading back towards the entrance. The conversation turns to family stuff. Catching up. I’ve crashed my parents’ Scotland trip. Or rather, their voyage to this part of the world was an excuse for a much-needed reunion. A flicker on my left. A shadowy figure appears. Immobile, yet infused with sentience. Watchful. An abrupt halt. I gasp. “Woah.” We peer into the murkiness. Stillness like an indrawn breath before a forceful, taunting BOO.

A young man strides towards us, all arms and legs. Blonde hair protrudes from his skull. He pauses, twists his long neck towards the dark effigy, shakes his head, and proclaims, “Tha thing’s skelly as fook!” He lopes away with a chuckle.

I look at my parents with a snicker. “Did you understand that?”

My stepfather smiles and nods. My mother shakes her head. “What?” When my stepfather translates for her, she laughs.

I roll my eyes and laugh. “Scotland.”

Night falls. Intermittent rain and humid gusts of wind. I wonder what it takes to be classified as dark and stormy in Scotland. The tour guide is a tall young woman with long black hair. Black leather trench coat and combat boots. She is perfect for the part. She pauses inside the entrance of Greyfriar’s Kirkyard. The group clusters around her. We are on a hill, but it’s not a natural hill. It’s made up of tens of thousands of bodies that were discarded here. Most of them died in horrible conditions or are the very worst of criminals. There are so many bones that, if there’s been a particularly heavy rain, they will rise out of the ground. You see the buildings next to the graveyard? Since the Mackenzie Poltergeist was awakened, there have been unexplained fires and other misfortunes for those who live there. Be warned: it’s not unusual to feel nausea or headaches or faint.

And she leads us deeper into the shadows. To the very back, where the black dog and its master were so joyfully playing just hours earlier. This is where the rogues are buried. Bad people. She launches into a tale of murder and mayhem. Torture. They used to lay a bottomless metal box on the abdomen of a prisoner, put a live rat in the box, and then heat the box until it was blazing hot. There was only one way for the rat to escape…

A sharp exhalation of disgust escapes me. I’ve been making an effort, lately, to dislike humanity a little less. This is not helping my attitude.

But the description of the torture is not finished! Do you know how long it takes for a rat to eat its way out of a human body? Sometimes they got lost and chewed their way up instead of out. Like into the arm. And how long can a human survive this situation? Hours!

My head spins. I step back and take a deep breath. The migraine I had earlier in the day has come back.

My mother moves beside me. “I’m starting to feel sick, but it’s probably just jet lag,” she whispers.

I nod my head at the rest of the group, their blank expressions. “I think there’s something wrong with you if you don’t feel sick after hearing that.”

I close my eyes. She’s surely embellishing the story. A memory arises. There was a game the kids in our neighborhood loved to play in the autumn. When the air was rich with the smell of decaying apples and burning leaves. For a night or two, rivals made a truce. Because: the more the better for Ghost, Ghost in the Graveyard.

We gathered at my family’s house, because we had the biggest yard in the neighborhood. My brother and sister, me, the neighbor twins, the bully who lived down the street, and his brother and sister. Two people were picked to be the ghost and the tour guide. We turned our backs while the ghost hid. The bully was usually the tour guide, because he was the most entertaining. His name was Derek Farrio*. He was the oldest. Scrawny, but vicious. He had a skinny, oblong head covered with black hair. Chimpanzee smile. He was the terror of the Catholic school. The altar boy from Hell. He made faces at the priest’s back during mass. He brayed the hymns with exaggerated fervor, even after the organ’s last notes had died away. Even the teachers had a hard time keeping a straight face. Undeterred by the punishment that was bestowed upon him, he operated by stealth. His impassive expression was the most fearsome. Lips at rest, watchful orbs under heavy eyelids as he prowled the school bus aisle looking for a target.

On Derek’s tours, the front porch became the site of a bloody battle. A smoldering pile of leaves became a plane crash. An unremarkable bush became “The place where JFK, um, shitted on.” We’d giggle behind our hands. He was the only one brave enough to swear. It was all a way to distract us. This was the goal of the game. When we reached the ghost’s hiding place, Derek would screech, “And this is…Ghost, Ghost in the Graveyard!” We’d squeal and scatter. The person who was unfortunate enough to be caught by the ghost would be the next ghost. And so it continued.

I smile to myself in the dark. As we are shepherded towards the finale of the tour, I share the memory with my mother. She remembers Derek, of course. The bumps and bruises and hurt feelings she had to soothe because of him.

“His sister told me, not so long ago, that he was actually bullied by the kids in his class. That’s why he took it out on us littler ones.”

My mother snorts. “That’s no excuse.”

“No, not an excuse, but an explanation. He was the one with the problem, not us.” Bullies are so often the result of bullies. It comes from a need to feel powerful. Those who are truly strong feel no urge to perpetuate the cycle. Scars are so much easier to bear than guilt. “She also told me that his kids are worse than he was. What goes around always comes around.”

Our lovely and talented guide pauses at the gates of the Covenanter’s Prison. She pulls a large key from her pocket. The tour company had to take out extra insurance for the right to enter. This is where the majority of attacks have taken place. “I’ve seen people become very distressed very quickly in here. You are not obligated to go inside.” She pauses. There are no objections, so she rattles the gate open and closes it behind us. We follow her down the long row of mausoleums. Twelve hundred religious prisoners were crammed in here and left to fend for themselves. George Mackenzie, “Bluidy Mackenzie”, was the overlord. Hence the connection with the present hauntings. He was awakened to wander in perpetual torment. What goes around comes around. Always.

As the guide continues her florid account, we are herded into a tiny mausoleum. She stands in the doorway, facing us. Voice lilting with rising drama. A masked face lurches into view. A scream blasts us. Deafening, elongated, heartfelt. A collective scream erupts in reply. The face disappears. The shock is replaced with laughter.

“My goodness, that was impressive. It’s rare to see someone with such passion for their job these days,” I say to the guide as we make our way back to the gates.

She nods. “Yes, he takes his job very seriously.”

Fat raindrops begin to fall. One more stop before we are free. I come to rest at the back of the group with my parents. A couple stands in front of us. They have stood to the side for most of the tour, casting disdainful looks at the rest of us. Her gold metallic platform sneakers glitter in the darkness. She pulls a fur-trimmed hood over her blonde hair. The guy wrestles an umbrella out of his coat pocket. It opens into a mangled mess. He lifts it above his head anyway. My mother nudges me. We attempt to stifle our giggles. The guy looks over his shoulder at us with a haughty smirk. The tremor intensifies. The worst thing to do with a laughing fit is try to control it.

My stepfather rolls his eyes and shakes his head. “Men are so stupid.”

Through the gates and into the streets we go. Dispersed into the night. My parents and I trod back to the hotel. My eyes in the bathroom mirror are glassy, exhausted. When I lower my gaze, I notice three scratches, like claw marks, on my chest.

Photo by T. Blackhurst

*Name changed, but the rhyme is the same.

My stepfather took the last photo, which is of the Covenanter’s Prison, on his iPhone. We sent it to the tour company. They added it to their collection of hundreds of such photos. The photo of my scratches is blurry and unimpressive, so I didn’t post it. I made an effort to check my skin before the tour, so I know that it was clear. Except for the migraine, I felt absolutely no pain during the tour. Apparently, most people don’t. The marks just appear.

66 thoughts on “Ghost, Ghost in the Graveyard

  1. Another fine conjuring in words and images, Julie. Nothing like a Scottish graveyard for a bit of grimness, but this one truly has a heart-quaking atmosphere. So thank you for relieving the grizzly shivers with that mangled umbrella story. The photo’s a hoot.

    • Thanks, Tish. The ambiance there is truly malevolent. I’m surprised that umbrella photo turned out so well. I was laughing so hard. He thought he was so cool.

    • It was a fabulous trip. I do seem to get around a lot, but it’s easy to travel to so many diverse places when you live in Europe. Everything is just a short, inexpensive plane/train ride away. Close enough for a quick getaway.

  2. Would LOVE to go there! Graveyards are one of my favorite places to stroll through. Such history and serenity…MOST of the time. hee hee. And ahhhhhh….Derek…I remember him well!!!

  3. I did the unforgivable and skipped a bit of this post, Julie 😦 I’m a bit squeamish and a cowardy custard. The only time I have ever been there was when I was strolling in the sunlight with Jude, on our way to the Natural History museum (and cake 🙂 ). No sign of the man and his dog. Impeccably written piece.

    • Thank you. I almost never take city tours, but this one was totally worth it. Not all companies have the right to enter the Covenanter’s Prison, so if you ever decide to take a tour, be sure to verify that. You can always plug your ears when they start talking about the rats or other horrific things.

  4. Super-spooky, Julie. I must do the tour next time we are Edinburgh – my eldest lives just of the Meadows but I don’t think he is moonlighting on ghost tours. He works for Scottish Government so he would be ideally qualified 🙂

  5. You always have the best adventures. Sorry I missed you. I was in Edinburgh the first part of September 2016, since returning from my journey to the Outer Hebrides before heading back to Canada. The world is a very small place among kindred spirits. Take care

    • Yes, it’s never a dull moment. I remember we just missed each other then. Maybe we’ll bump into each other eventually. Wishing you a lovely autumn.

  6. “I’ve been making an effort, lately, to dislike humanity a little less. This is not helping my attitude.” Exactly. I am, however, longing to return to Scotland to explore more of it. I love how you turned your ghost story into something more frightening: the warping of power in human hands. Marvelously eerie, but not in the way most would assume.

    • Ghouls are among us. They hide themselves behind the mask of righteousness.

      There is something so enigmatic about Scotland. With each visit it grows more fascinating. Hope you can make it back there.

  7. I had to go back and read this twice, Julie. Goosebumps ! The scratches, the beams of light…wow. I remember your account of graveyard touring for All Saint’s Day, this is quite something else. You are brave, I doubt if I could have gone here. Well told adventure, as always.

    And those bullies…we all knew them, all too well. They were troubled folks who inflicted pain on those around them, especially the younger kids.

    • Hi Van – It turned out to be more than I expected, for sure. I’m always a bit skeptical. Tour companies need to exaggerate to keep business going. But I can’t deny the malevolent atmosphere in the cemetery, along with the scratches and unexplained lights in the photo.

      The bully problem is not going away, in fact it seems to be getting worse. Since educators don’t seem to be concerned about it – and in my experience, they encouraged it – children need to learn how to defend themselves on all levels.

  8. Wohhhh. What a post. The fires should be normal. There used to be “feux follets” (Don’t know the english word. Wiki… “Will-o-the-wisp” for Heaven’s sake!) in graveyards. Methane or other gasses produced by body decomposition in the ground.
    “You try to dislike humanity less”? Have you had any progress in that area? Feel free to share, I’m getting more and more “disliking” lately… 🙂
    Hope you are still enjoying “la douceur Angevine”. though by now, the humidity must be on the rise.
    Be safe Julie.
    A bientôt.

    • Hi Brian – Pheromones are also emitted by decomposing bodies. A possible reason for feelings of distress. My dislike of humanity has shifted into indifference. That’s good enough. Bises.

  9. Noooo, I can’t unread that torture story, and it’s going to haunt me. Probably what you had in mind for an October post, but you were too successful. I would have gone for the daylight stroll, but I’m definitely a ghostly spirits chickenshit and would have never done the nighttime one.

    On a lighter note (marginally) I have great memories of drinking beer in the cemetery where Night of the Living Dead was filmed near where I grew up. To this day, I associate the smell of leaf rot with dead people. I didn’t relish that whole experience either, but the cute boys loved that as a fall hangout, so …

    Scottish accents: so unintelligible. We were trying to track down my dad’s ancestral home one time, and we asked a guy three times for directions somewhere, and after we said “Sorry, what?” that many times, we were too embarrassed to ask again.

    • I’m fascinated with the paranormal, and have had some experiences, but I’m not comfortable with it. I was a little uneasy about going on the tour after I read about the poltergeist. I tend to be a poltergeist magnet. There were about a dozen of us in the group, so I didn’t feel scared at all. But I would never wander around there at night with just a couple of other people. No way. The thing that prowls around there goes beyond the realm of the ghostly into the demonic. I could feel the pure malevolence when we came upon that tomb with the shadowy effigy. We were being watched.

  10. A perfect pre-Halloween tale Julie, so creepy and so well told to take to heart as well. European graveyards are always a bit inviting for me. Very old, historical and as you say, the ambiance of such places give a sense of serenity. I’d have to say, Greyfriar’s Kirkyard and Covenanter’s Prison do not sound like this type of place 🙂 I think anywhere the rogues are buried could be interesting but stories, while intriguing, may best be avoided.

    Great shot of the mangled umbrella, beautiful ~ the description and photo fit perfectly with the story. Always the need for a little comedic relief now and then. Although, I do say the creepy ending and your step-father’s photos as well as your scratches makes for a perfect ending to this tale.

    • Thanks, Dalo. Humor is the best weapon against the forces of darkness. If you are in Bohemia on November 1st/2nd, you might want to seek out the cemeteries in your area. This is when families visit the departed and leave lighted candles on the graves. It’s such a magical, peaceful, joyous atmosphere, especially after the sun goes down. It became my favorite holiday of all when I lived in that part of Europe. Czechs are less religious than other Eastern Europeans, but they observe this holiday as well.

      • This is a good idea ~ my work permit has been approved, so I will be able to spend more time in Bohemia without having to count my days. Nov. 1/2 is on my calendar for cemetery creeping 🙂

  11. Hola escribo desde España me gustó su entrada yo no creo en fantasmas aunque desde el fallecimiento de mi hijo intento buscar, entender,que pueda existir vida después de la yo viera el espíritu de mi hijo le abrazaría ta fuerte que no lo dejaría marchar Estos temas no me dan miedo si no esperanza. Ojala viera alguno de ellos entonces creería que hay algo más después de esta vida.Un saludo.

  12. I am glad I am reading this in daylight. Haunted graveyards and ghosts are things I don’t cope with very well. But your post is beautifully written and spine-tingling. I find it sad that so many of us carry inside us stories of bullies. I suppose that’s life.

  13. Ah, been waiting for this for a while, Julie! I always find your posts so cinematic, I could vision you guys in your family home’s backyard doing the ghost game (“this is where JFK had taken a dump” was a gem, whoever came up with that deserves an applause), and by the end of the post I figured that the closing soundtrack of the X-files would’ve fitted well!

    Anyhow, Scotland. I adore it. I’ve worked on a project in Glasgow for almost two years, and I absolutely adored the accents, even the Lean-CI lady’s one (she’s from the Outer Hebrides) who I had to ask whether she came with subtitles as well… Hardly surprising they had such “great” ideas about torture, us Catholics seem to be the one with the oddest, most perverse ones.

    By the way, was the guy really called “bluidy”?

    • Thank you, Fabrizio. Yes, Mackenzie was really called “Bluidy”. I’d say he earned that nickname. Scotland is probably my favorite part of Europe, tied with Slovakia. It’s a place I could go back to again and again. The landscape, the people, the accent…all so enchanting.

      • Ha, Bluidy. So, so, so Scottish. I understand your feelings about Scotland perfectly; especially if I compare the place with SE England, there’s just no match.

  14. Your experience felt archetypal here. And places like this one defy explanation don’t they? The marks on your body. The odd photos, inconclusive when skeptically torn to bits. All the photos in this piece look a little preoccupied with what they’re not telling us! Ha! I don’t believe in evil so much as what you described with the bully–a chain of pain, passed along, smothering, leading to desperate acts. The ramification of suffering. Being trapped in some miserable state can produce some miserable behavior… I wonder if any psychics have gone and tried to work with whatever is happening there, or if we’re still taking advantage of those souls in a strange way, even now… I loved the double entendre of the staff person with the mask jumping out and screaming–how it suggests the whole idea is fabricated, and yet the real suffering is silent almost, underneath, invisible to most of us. A left over horror that has never been truly forgiven…

    Lovely, engaging writing Julie.

    • Hi Michael – I read that a spiritualist minister tried to perform an exorcism there, to free the tormented souls. He was so overwhelmed that he gave up. He died less than a month later from a heart attack. And he wasn’t old. I think any psychic who wanders in there realizes real quick that it’s beyond an individual’s capability.

      As for the photo- my parents and I and others have tried to think of an explanation for the light beams. It was almost pitch black in there. The only light was from my stepfather’s flash. The beams emanated from above, as if something had just risen from the ground. We were totally shocked to see the photo, that’s for sure.

      • Wow. That’s really interesting, Julie. And makes sense in a way–how so much pain locked up for so long could be overwhelming to those able to really meet it. Reminds me of that portion of the Lord of the Rings trilogy when Aragorn goes to summon the Armies of the Dead… The world is full of wonders, for sure.

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