In Edinburgh, one wag claimed, there are about twenty ghosts per square metre. The Mackenzie Poltergeist is one of the city’s most renowned, and is described as the best documented modern haunting. It’s story is closely linked with the Covenanting Wars, which resulted from Charles I attempting to make himself head of the Scottish Kirk in 1637, with the introduction of the Common Prayer Book. This down like a lead balloon, as only Jesus was acceptable as head of the Kirk. It sparked a massive revolt, leading to the signing of the National Covenant in Greyfriar’s Kirkyard on 28 February 1638, which argued for the preservation of the status quo. The signatories, adherents of the Presbyterian Church, became known as Covenanters, fought for their cause for the next 50 years, known as The Killing Times.
It is the later years that most concern the Mackenzie Poltergeist. On 22 June 1679, the Covenanters were beaten at the Battle of Bothwell Brig. Around 1200 were taken prisoner and marched off to be held in a corner of Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, in what is now Covenanter’s Prison. The prisoners were kept out in the open, barely fed and under constant threat of being shot by the guards. Several died from illness, or starved, and were buried in the Prison. Some were transported as slaves; the only way to obtain freedom was to renounce Presbyterianism. The following year saw the introduction of The Abjuration Oath, where people were required to reject the Covenant and swear allegiance to the King, or be immediately executed. Behind much of this, and ably assisted by John Graham of Claverhouse, also known as ‘Bluidy Clavers’, was Lord Advocate George Mackenzie who earned the nickname of ‘Bluidy Mackenzie’. Clavers himself later became a hero during the Jacobite uprisings as Bonnie Dundee.
As a young lawyer, George Mackenzie made a living defending Covenanters, but this seemed to have been forgotten later when he pursued them with bloodthirsty ruthlessness. The Killing Times came to an end in 1688, when William of Orange took over the Crown. Mackenzie died in 1691, and was buried in an ostentatious mausoleum in Greyfriar’s mere yards away from Covenanters Prison and the unmarked graves of those he persecuted. Rumours abounded for years about the mausoleum being haunted. Schoolboys running though the graveyard would dare each other to shout through the small aperture in the door of the mausoleum, “Bluidy Mackenzie, come oot if ye daur, lift the sneck and draw the bar”, before fleeing.
Events of December 1998 are believed to have set in motion the Mackenzie Poltergeist. Late one stormy night, a homeless man was desperately seeking shelter from the inclement weather. He found himself in Greyfriar’s Kirkyard and Mackenzie’s mausoleum looked like a place where he’d get some sleep. Finding a way in through the back of the mausoleum, he made his way down the staircase to where the coffins rested. Here, it not only occurred to him that he might find a cosy shroud to wrap himself in, but also perhaps a fancy trinket he could sell, as he was obviously looking at the coffins of rich people. He started hacking away at one of the coffins.
Meanwhile, outside, a dog walker and his pooch were taking a constitutional amongst the gravestones. As the weather was already at horror movie proportions, and it was well known that Greyfriar’s was reputedly haunted, the dog walker was already uneasy. It didn’t help when he heard the loud banging coming from Mackenzie’s mausoleum. Putting some faith in the dog for protection, the walker went to investigate. Meanwhile, inside the mausoleum, the homeless man got a fright of his own. He took a step back from the coffin he was hammering, and fell through a hole in the floor. He found himself in a pit of skeletons and corpses.
By now, the dog walker was inside the top section of Mackenzie’s mausoleum, looking around with his torch. His nerves failed when the shrieking, dishevelled figure of the homeless man emerged from within and ran off into the night. The equally terrified dog scarpered, quickly followed by it’s owner. The police were called, and were treated to the sight of mouldering corpses and desecration. Strange things began happening not long after, as the Mackenzie Poltergeist warmed up. The poltergeist is so called, not because it’s believed to be the ghost of Mackenzie himself, but because the activity began at his mausoleum.
Early in 1999, a woman looking through the aperture in the door of the mausoleum was blown backwards off her feet by a gust of air. The strangeness then moved to Covenanter’s Prison, where the Black Mausoleum began to feel eerily cold. In the weeks that followed, people were attacked by the Mackenzie Poltergeist and the corpses of several small animals kept being discovered. In the end, Edinburgh City Council locked Covenanter’s Prison off to the public.
At the same time, Jan-Andrew Henderson was looking to set up his own ghost tour and was investigating potential sites. A friend pointed him in the direction of Covenanter’s Prison telling him about the strange occurrences. With the right insurance, Henderson secured access to the Prison to wind up his tour, which had the selling point of ending at a place with a current haunting. Needless to say it was a success. City of the Dead tours became, and still are, incredibly popular. In 2001, Henderson even found a flat in one of the old tenements overlooking Covenanter’s Prison, making it very easy for him to manage City of the Dead.
Things didn’t happen on every tour, but it became a regular event in the Black Mausoleum for people to faint, be scratched or just flee, occurrences which were blamed on the Mackenzie Poltergeist. City of the Dead Tour soon built up quite a dossier of bizarre happenings, racking up 500 by 2008. As for Henderson himself, who could climb down a ladder from his window directly into Covenanter’ Prison, he began encountering strange things in his flat. The toilet flushed by itself, a red, blood like substance covered his ceilings, and there was a seagull who met a grisly end in the flat’s window extractor fan. Henderson, though not particularly a believer in the paranormal, did begin to wonder if the Mackenzie Poltergeist was exacting revenge on him for bringing groups of tourists into it’s lair a couple of times a day. Other flats surrounding Greyfriar’s also experienced poltergeist activity.
In the autumn of 1999 an exorcist, Colin Grant, was invited by local press to try and quell the activity in Covenanter’s Prison. He detected what he described as several demonic entities. Grant was asked back a second time in November 1999, but felt uneasy about the proceedings, and that it wouldn’t go well for him. He also felt that it would take more than one exorcism to deal with the situation. In February 2000, Grant died, a death that has been famously attributed to the Mackenzie Poltergeist. The poltergeist was also blamed for a series of fires in the flats surrounding the cemetery. Jan-Andrew Henderson’s flat was gutted by fire in 2003, destroying most of his material on the Mackenzie Poltergeist.
In July 2003, the City of the Dead tour was making it’s usual way through Greyfriar’s cemetery when the group encountered a pair of youths furtively slinking away with something wrapped in a blanket. When challenged, they fled. The police again visited Mackenzie’s mausoleum, to find the doors ripped open and a head missing from one of the coffins that rested below. It wasn’t identified whose head. The head was later found and restored, and two youths arrested for desecration. They had apparently done it to impress a girl. Jan-Andrew Henderson thought this may have the effect of making the Mackenzie Poltergeist even more violent, though it hasn’t been recorded if this was the case. An evangelical group campaigned to have City of the Dead tours shut down in 2008, but were unsuccessful. Both the tour group and Mackenzie Poltergeist continue to entertain, and terrify, tourists.
Further information can be found in Jan-Andrew Henderson’s book The Ghost That Haunted Itself.