Greyfriars Kirkyard (cemetery) in Edinburgh is a world famous graveyard. Behind the gates you can find poltergeists, tales of body snatchers and the real life inspiration for some of the characters in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books. It has been in use since the 1560s.
No visit to Edinburgh is complete without a Greyfriar’s tour.
Greyfriars is one of the most haunted cemeteries in the world, according to paranormal experts.
The most famous ghost is the Mackenzie poltergeist. His mausoleum is locked to keep the curious out. Or perhaps to keep his spirit in?
Mackenzie, aka “Bluidy” (Bloody) Mackenzie was famous for sending many innocent prisoners to their death. He is ironically buried beside the former field that formed the prison yard where many of those prisoners were held. Many prisoners, including young boys, died before their trial. Not surprisingly, there there are also rumors of many ghosts in the prison yard area as well. But Mackenzie’s mausoleum is at the epicenter of multiple stories of paranormal incidents and believed to be haunted by his unfriendly ghost.
Today the prison yard is gated and opened only for special tours. The cells inside this area are the ruins of mausoleums that were built later, and were not a part of the field when it was used to hold the rebellious prisoners.
Many of the graves at Greyfriars cemetery were relocated from an earlier city cemetery beside the Cathedral of St Giles. That cemetery had grown too crowded by the 1500s. It was deemed healthier to dig it up and create mass graves and future plots in another part of town.
Nobody is sure how many thousands are buried at Greyfriars Kirkyard. Many of the dead are unmarked, uncounted.
The gravestones at Greyfriars list whole families and multiple generations. Every inch of space is claimed. The gravestones butt up right against the homes that surround the grounds.
Can you imagine your back window looking out onto the back side of a mausoleum or headstone?
There’s a lot of colorful stories about Greyfriars. These include:
Tales of being buried alive at Greyfriars:
This is a cemetery where people were buried with a small bell attached to a thread that snaked into the coffin. With reason. Exhumed bodies have shown numerous people were buried alive here.
An unusually loyal Scottish Highland terrier is legend to this cemetery. He reportedly sat by his masters grave daily for over 12 years. Graveyard dogs were often given scraps, and it is possible that this dog was really two or three similar looking strays that were being fed scraps there. But the story so captured the heart of the city that “Bobby” was given human rights, including the right to vote (before women could vote!).
Bobby’s statue outside the cemetery draws crowds, who like to rub his nose for luck. A modern headstone placed more recently marks his burial site at the entrance to the kirkyard. His master is buried to the north.
Body snatchers of Greyfriar:
Body snatchers were famously at work in this cemetery once upon a time, stealing the corpses of the newly buried and selling them as cadavers to the local medical school. This was a frowned upon trade but no questions were asked, so great was the need for fresh cadavers to study. It became customary for families to install metal grates, if they could not afford an enclosed mausoleum, to keep the grave robbers away. This macabre history is part of what inspired Shelley’s “Frankenstein”.
Tom Riddle, Moody and McGonagal:
If you are a Potter fan, you will recognize these familiar names. They are amongst the names on the headstones here that inspired JK Rowling when she wrote the first Harry Potter novel. Greyfriars Kirkyard is just a block away from the Elephant House cafe where JK penned the first novel. Greyfriars is also said to be the inspiration for Godric’s Hollow, where Harry’s parents are buried.
You’ll see plenty of Memento Mori skulls, modern attempts at herb and flower gardening and a steady stream of tour groups and tourists if you visit.
Nighttime haunted tours are the most thrilling and theatrical… if you dare! Combine your tour with tour of the haunted underground vaults if you are brave.
We toured during daylight hours with Auld Reekie Tours (not sponsored) and found our tour guide to be knowledgeable and entertaining. Next time, at night!